Robert Price

Friday, Feb 10 2006 01:41 PM

To know this sound you must first know this town

By Robert Price

There’s something about physical proximity to history. Whether it’s the poignant calm of the battlefield at Gettysburg or the bustle of the Manhattan sidewalk outside John Lennon’s Dakota building, there’s something curiously magnetic about places where fame (or infamy) once passed.

Many people are willing to spend time and money to walk where celebrities, variously defined, have walked. Even, in some cases, if the celebrity only walked there in his bathrobe to pick up the morning newspaper.

Got your camera? You can tour movie stars’ homes in and around Hollywood, Malibu, Beverly Hills, Newport Beach and Palm Springs. You can take Chicago’s Untouchables Tour and visit scenes of assorted mob hits. You can even touch the hallowed Harlem asphalt where hip-hop music was born. Just wash your hands afterward.

Very soon you’ll also be able to visit the spots where the Bakersfield Sound, that trebly, concrete-floored strain of distinctly American music, was born half a century ago.

Don Jaeger, president of the Bakersfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, is making plans to market a self-guided tour of Bakersfield-area spots of note: the converted boxcar in Oildale where Merle Haggard grew up, tough and wild; the broom closet-sized building near Baker Street where a third-tier country star named Buck Owens recorded rockabilly records under a pseudonym; even the long-defunct dance club where performers like Lefty Frizzell inspired a generation of young, poor Oklahoma transplants — including some who played guitar.

It’s all part of The Bakersfield Sound Tour, a self-guided, distinctly unglamorous excursion through central Kern County.

Jaeger wants to put together a CD of Bakersfield music from those days that coordinates with the driving tour. After five years on the job, fielding phone calls from country-music fans, he believes there’d be considerable demand.

“If you look at how many times our phone rings and people are asking ‘What nights does Buck perform?’ — that’s something,” Jaeger says.

“When you look at how Buck got his start in these local clubs and the fact that Merle Haggard grew up here, and that fact that so many others lived and performed all through this city, I think there is a tourism component there. Most major markets have embraced their history and culture in some way and we ought to, too.

“Is everybody going to want to come and see the little studio where Buck Owens recorded? No. But it’s a large enough group that it deserves some attention.”

The idea is to give fans of the music a reason to visit this city. While they’re here, they’ll presumably want to stay in our hotels, dine in our restaurants and bring home the T-shirts to prove it.

You don’t need the visitors bureau or its CD to take the tour, of course. A copy of Gerald Haslam’s outstanding “Workin’ Man Blues” or The Californian’s 1997 series on the Bakersfield Sound (still accessible online), along with a 1959 Bakersfield telephone book, works just as well.

Another option, since 1959 telephone books are generally hard to come by: Buddy up to Mitch Styles. He doesn’t give speeches or presentations, but Styles, who works in the music business, is an amateur Bakersfield Sound historian with few peers. How serious is he about local music landmarks? He bought Buck Owens’ house on Panorama Drive in 1996 and lived in it for four years.

And he’s been giving tours of Bakersfield Sound locales — occasionally chauffeuring country-music stars on return-to-Mecca pilgrimages — for nine years.

He is working with Jaeger and music-biz acquaintances to procure rights to songs with actual relationships to stops on the tour. For example, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis’ iconic “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music),” which tourists would hear when they pull up alongside the famed Bakersfield honky-tonk that inspired it, the Blackboard.

That is, if the building that once housed the Blackboard hadn’t been torn down four years ago by its owners — the management of the Kern County Museum, of all people.

More on that later.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the tour highlights, along with Styles’ suggestions for matching musical accompaniment.

• The Bakersfield sign, 2800 Buck Owens Blvd. The original sign, actually a footbridge, spanned Union Avenue just south of California Avenue from the late ’40s. It was torn down several years ago, but Buck Owens preserved the blue porcelain letters and had them attached to his own re-creation outside his Crystal Palace dinner club.

While you’re here, go inside the Crystal Palace for a plate of Okie fries. The place is a full-scale museum of Buck Owens memorabilia, complete with a stunning collection of larger-than-life bronze statues of country museums giants, including Owens, Haggard and Johnny Cash. Owens still performs here live most Friday and Saturday nights.

In its original location, the Bakersfield sign was the unofficial entrance to the city. Ask any of the Dust Bowl folk what that sign meant to them and you’ll get the picture.

Song: “Streets of Bakersfield” — but Owens’ original, 1972 version, not the overplayed (and more successful) remake with Dwight Yoakam.

• Tommy Collins’ house, a white-with-green-trim two-story at the northwest corner of 21st and Pine streets. Don’t bother the occupants — just park across the street and imagine Collins, the great tragic figure of the Bakersfield Sound era, strumming on the veranda. Collins, whose real name was Leonard Sipe, had a solid run as a recording artist and a great career as a songwriter.

Merle Haggard recorded more than 30 of Collins’ songs and Owens another dozen. His most noteworthy songwriting credit, “If You Ain’t Lovin’, You Ain’t Livin’,” recorded by George Strait and dozens of others, made him a small fortune. But Collins was tortured by the fact that he never hit it as big as his proteges, Owens and Haggard — his lovely Westchester neighborhood mini-estate notwithstanding. Song: “You Better Not Do That” by Tommy Collins.

• Bakersfield Civic Auditorium, 1001 Truxtun Ave. It’s now called Rabobank Theater, but this is the same place where in September 1963 Capitol Records recorded the “Country Music Hootenanny” live album featuring Collins, Owens, Haggard, Cousin Herb Henson, Glen Campbell and many other popular Bakersfield Sound artists. It was here, at that show, that Capitol A&R man Ken Nelson “discovered” Haggard.

On the recording, Tommy Collins has a couple of great lines: “It’s great being here with you tonight. ... Of course, I only live over yonder a couple of blocks. I’m from Maine. The main part of Oklahoma.” Song: “I Got Mine” by Tommy Collins (live version from the “Country Music Hootenanny” album).

• Tally Records, 601 E. 18th St., at the corner of Truxtun Avenue and Kern Street. When Lewis Talley and Charles “Fuzzy” Owen launched their own record label, Tally Records, in 1954, this was their first recording studio. They only stayed here about three months, but that was long enough to get Buck Owens on vinyl singing a couple of rockabilly songs. Nashville was touchy about rock ’n’ roll’s potential to steal its fans, and it frowned on country singers adopting rock styles. Owens, fearing he’d be blackballed, used a pseudonym: Corky Jones. The old studio, vacant for at least eight years, was most recently an upholstery shop. A very small upholstery shop. Song: Buck Owens/Corky Jones: “Rhythm and Booze.”

• Tally Records, versions two and three. Talley and Owen moved their recording studio to Baker Street, next door to Saba’s Men Store, in 1955. It was there in early 1956 that Owen and Talley recorded a Bakersfield rock ’n’ roller named Wally Lewis. His song “Kathleen,” leased for production and distribution to another company, reached No. 15 on the charts in 1957.

A few months later Talley built a new recording studio in the backyard of his house at 419 Hazel St., alongside the garage. That would have been convenient for both Talley and Owen, since they lived together there for a period of time. Whether the other neighbors found it convenient is another matter. (Again, don’t bother the present occupants. In fact, you’d better not even get out of the car.) Merle Haggard, Tally Records’ first and biggest signing, recorded “Skid Row” for them in 1962. It was his first recording. Song: “Skid Row” by Merle Haggard.

• Rainbow Gardens, 2301 S. Union Ave. It’s now the Basque Club, but back in the early 1950s, the Rainbow Gardens was an all-ages dance hall. It’s where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard first saw their idols, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell, the two spiritual grandfathers of the Bakersfield Sound. That legendary hillbilly outfit from Alabama (by way of Modesto), the Maddox Brothers and Rose, played here too, as did Ferlin Husky, who in many ways got the whole scene started. Haggard, still just a teen, had an impromptu audition with Frizzell here prior to a show. Frizzell was so impressed he allowed Haggard to go on stage first as his opening act. Songs: “San Antonio Rose” by Bob Wills and “If You’ve Got The Money” by Lefty Frizzell.

• The Sunset Labor Camp, 8301 Sunset Blvd., just east of Lamont’s Sunset and Vineland schools. Just three of the original buildings remain from the defining Okie migrant camp of the late 1930s. Parts of the labor camp were used in filming for the 1940 movie “The Grapes of Wrath.” It’s not much to look at today but it still brings out powerful emotions in many of the people who grew up here. Homely or not, it is the scene of an annual Dust Bowl Festival every fall (see inset). “I have taken several film industry people out there and they practically have a religious experience when they see those buildings,” Styles says. Song: “They’re Tearin’ the Labor Camps Down” by Merle Haggard.

• Hillcrest Cemetery, 9101 Kern Canyon Road. Don Rich, who sang high harmony on so many of Buck Owens’ hits, died in a 1974 motorcycle accident, marking the end of the Buckaroos’ most productive years. Rich is buried here in a modest grave. “Buck will tell you this: Don was as seminal a part of Buck’s sound as Buck,” Styles says. “Don was extraordinary.” Bill Woods, a musician, DJ and entrepreneur who gave Owens one of his first jobs at the Blackboard playing guitar, is buried nearby. Song: “Soft Rain” by Don Rich (from a live recording on KUZZ).

• Merle Haggard’s mansion, 18200 Highway 178. Hag’s old mansion near the mouth of the Kern Canyon is now the Anne Sippi Clinic, a private medical facility. Tours are decidedly discouraged, but you can get a feel for the surroundings where Haggard lived throughout most of the 1970s. This is the place he called home during his heyday. Song: “Kern River” by Merle Haggard.

• China Grade Loop. The top of the China Grade Loop coming east from Oildale was a point of inspiration for Tommy Collins, who sat in a car parked alongside the road here and wrote “High On A Hilltop,” which became a hit for his friend Haggard. Song: “High On A Hilltop” by Merle Haggard.

• The Lucky Spot, 2303 Edison Highway. Now they call it the Empty Spot. Well, they ought to. The old honky-honk where Bonnie Owens (former wife of both Buck Owens and Merle Haggard) sang lustily has been torn down. It’s the only building on the block that’s gone, replaced by an asphalt lot and, 50 feet back from the road, the Lucky Spot Auto Body shop. The Lucky Spot, Styles says, is “one of the two spots, along with the Blackboard, where the Bakersfield Sound was forged. When the Blackboard and the Lucky Spot were torn down within a few years of each other, I gave up agitating that Bakersfield Sound sites be preserved. It was clear that no one gave a (hoot).” Song: “A Bar in Bakersfield” by Merle Haggard .

• Buck’s house, 309 Panorama Drive. Buck Owens lived in this large, ranch-style house overlooking the Panorama Bluffs during his “Hee-Haw” years, 1968-1974. It was also where Owens was living when he had his final No. 1 hit, “Made in Japan,” prior to his comeback hit with Dwight Yoakam in 1989 on “Streets of Bakersfield.” Don’t bother the occupants. Song: “Made in Japan” by Buck Owens.

• Beer Can Hill, 5001 N. Chester Ave. Actually, that’s the address of Bakersfield Speedway, the dirt racing track north in Oildale. Beer Can Hill, a cultural touchstone for many Bakersfield Sound-era participants (translation: a good place to loll about and drink beer), is just north. The hangout was the inspiration for the only recording to ever feature Haggard and Owens together. Song: “Beer Can Hill” by Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam.

• Buck’s North Chester studio, 1213 North Chester Ave. This was Buck’s headquarters back in the heyday, a place where Buck and Hag laid down many of their recordings in the late 1970s. It’s now Fat Tracks, a recording studio with an odd link to Bakersfield music: It’s run by Rick Davis, father of Korn lead singer Jonathan Davis. Song: “If We Make It Through December” by Merle Haggard, who recorded the song in that studio.

• Hag’s boxcar, 1303 Yosemite Drive. This small, exceedingly modest house in Oildale is the Holy Grail of any Bakersfield Sound tour. It’s the place all songwriters want to visit. Hag mentions it as the influence for many of his classic songs. His long-suffering mother Flossie lived here for years after he left home for trouble and fame. Song: “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard.

• Trout’s, 805 N. Chester. This is perhaps the last authentic Bakersfield Sound-era bar. It was originally a bar/cafe, but Vern Hoover, who bought Trout’s in 1956, says that fiddler player/guitarist/TV host Jelly Sanders, one of the great sidemen of the Bakersfield Sound era, started playing here regularly around 1970. Keyboardist-songwriter Red Simpson still plays here every Monday night. Ask and he’ll probably play some of the greatest Bakersfield Sound songs of the period — Simpson-penned tunes like “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go,” recorded by Haggard, and “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” recorded by Owens. Simpson had a dozen hits of his own too, many in the truck-driving sub-genre popular in the early- to mid-’60s. Song: “(Hello) I’m A Truck” by Red Simpson.

• The Blackboard, 3801 Chester Ave.. At least that would be the address if the most famous honky-tonk in Bakersfield history were still standing. The building (in its later years a shooting range, pizza parlor and sports bar, among other things) was knocked down the week of Sept. 7, 2001, to make way for eventual expansion by the Kern County Museum and its parent agency, the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office. Let’s run that by one more time: The Blackboard building, a museum piece in and of itself, was knocked down by its landlord — the Kern County Museum — which also happens to run a country-music museum with considerably less street visibility. Whatever. The empty lot where the Blackboard stood, about 200 yards south of 3801 Chester Ave., is still an empty lot. As long as you’re here, though, park and check out the museum, which has a number of intriguing rarities, including one of Merle Haggard’s more tastefully sequined stage jackets and Joe Maphis’ double-necked, built-in-Bakersfield Mosrite guitar. Styles’ song selection for this tour stop was written and recorded by Maphis, who was inspired by a gig at the low-ceilinged, poorly ventilated Blackboard. Song: “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” by Joe and Rose Lee Maphis.

Styles doesn’t include these on his tour, but if you’ve got an extra couple of hours, cruise by these spots.

• The Clover Club, 2611 Edison Highway, just down the street from the Lucky Spot. Bonnie Owens was among the local stars who worked here. For the cast of Cousin Herb’s “Trading Post” TV show, this was home base.

• Louie Talley Cafe, 2111 Edison Highway. The music entrepreneur was also in the coffee-shop business, and he made a go of it at several locations, including this spot just down the street from those two Edison highway honky-tonks. A few years later he ran a cafe in the Padre Hotel.

• Tex’s Barrel House, 1524 Golden State Highway. It’s now the Deju Vu strip club but in the 1950s and ‘60s it was a lively country juke joint.

• Buck’s old houses. Back when Owens was sufficiently unknown to safely list his home address in the phone book, he listed 206 Harding Ave. and 204 Jones St. at various times.

• KUZZ Studios, 910 Chester Ave. In 1960, Valley Radio Corp. bought KIKK radio, switched its format to country music and hired Cousin Herb as president and general manager. The station’s call letters were changed to KUZZ to play on Henson’s celebrity, and Cousin Herb, whose TV show continued to make him a fixture in living rooms throughout the Central Valley, became “Kuzzin Herb.”

• Fred & Gene’s Cafe, 3331 State Road. This is the cafe that rowdy teen Merle Haggard tried to burglarize late one night, stone drunk, in December 1957 — despite the fact it was still open for business. His arrest, along with his previous record of incorrigibility, probably led to his incarceration at San Quentin Prison. Today the cafe is All Corp, an insurance office.

There. Feel the giddy chill of proximity to greatness? Try rolling up the windows. If that doesn’t work, buy yourself another Bakersfield Sound T-shirt.

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