This debut nonfiction work traces the history, development, and legacy of the Californian country-music subgenre known as the “Bakersfield sound.”
Price, the executive editor of the Bakersfield Californian newspaper, weaves a savvy blend of personal anecdotes and broader historical narrative in this work. The result firmly defines the Bakersfield sound as a gritty, visceral style of music about personal struggle, as opposed to the more formulaic and melodically elegant material produced by the mainstream Nashville-based music industry. The sound’s story begins with the Oklahoman migration to California in the wake of the Dust Bowl, but Price argues that the style, heard in the music of country icons such as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, is more deeply rooted in the communities that sprung up on the West Coast during World War II. It was born, he says, in blue-collar bars and dimly lit honky-tonks where men brawled and drank whiskey whenever they were off-shift. Price captures that atmosphere well thanks to his extensive interviews (and, readers may imagine, long-standing relationships) with small-business owners and other assorted characters who still live in the Bakersfield area. Indeed, the book’s greatest asset is this local flavor; the author excels when describing barkeeps, backing musicians, and the relationships between them. He also draws attention to the fact that many of the groups on popular records shared players with one another, which accounted for the consistent, unique style that emerged. Price infuses two minibiographies of Owens and Haggard with the passion of a lifelong fan, and they’re among the most engaging chapters in the book. On the other hand, the book addresses some subjects, such as the factors that influenced the popularity of the Bakersfield sound and its competition and partial appropriation by the mainstream, in a way that makes them feel more like asides than subjects in their own rights. That said, this book thrives on the personalities of its people.
An informative read that’s well-suited to readers interested in country music and its history.