BY ROBERT PRICE Californian columnist email@example.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Buck Owens is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Merle Haggard is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Now, more than a half-century after the Bakersfield Sound's modest debut on the American music scene, everyone else who ever picked a guitar or twirled a dance partner in a local honky-tonk is, in a sense, in the Hall of Fame, too: the raucous, Western Swing-inspired California country born of cotton pickers and oil field roustabouts has conquered Nashville.
The Hall of Fame and Museum, in the heart of Tennessee's vibrant music capital, opened its doors Friday to a new 21-month-long show, "The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California Country," an interactive exhibit that admirably and entertainingly captures the essence of West Coast honky-tonk.
With singer-songwriter Red Simpson serving as chief ambassador, the Hall of Fame opened virtually its entire second floor to the story of the Bakersfield phenomenon: the confluence of Dust Bowl and postwar migration, the stew of divergent musical influences brought together by war, poverty and opportunity, and the introduction of an instrument that would take the evolving style in a new direction: the Fender Telecaster guitar.
The exhibit, more than 18 months in the making, has everything a country music afficianado might expect, up to and including a faithful recreation of the iconic, blue-on-gold Bakersfield arch: the garish stage costumes of the type popularized by tailor-to-the-stars Nudie Cohn and others, the guitars and fiddles, and the memorable album covers and rare vinyl discs.
But this exhibit goes well beyond all that. The lyrics of songs-in-progress, written in longhand by Bonnie Owens while then-husband Merle Haggard worked out the particulars on his guitar, are framed around the perimeter of a circular room.
Elsewhere: The marriage certificate of Buck and Bonnie Owens; the marriage certificate of Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens; and Haggard's pardon for past crimes, issued by Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Then there's the high-tech stuff: Touch-screen displays that play every top 10 hit ever recorded by Haggard and Owens (and that's a lot), along with listings of the personnel and other recording session information.
There's a third touch-a screen that plays other Bakersfield performers' music, including songs by Simpson and Bobby Durham. The kids, and the adults too, will love the floor projection of a Bakersfield image that, when a visitor steps into it, seems to burst into pieces, scatter and re-form into a different image.
The real strength of the exhibit, however, is the organizers' appreciation for the fact the Bakersfield Sound was bigger than its two primary stars. Others--Billy Mize, Bill Woods, Cousin Herb Henson, Lewis Talley, Fuzzy Owen, Cliff Crofford and many other lesser lights--are treated with all due respect.
"It's a beautiful thing from start to finish, and that's because it's not just Buck and Merle," said music writer Randy Poe, author of "Stalking the Red Headed Stranger."
"It's Wynn Stewart and Tommy Collins and Red Simpson -- all these guys that people coming through the museum doors might not have heard of, but without them there's no Bakersfield Sound."
Documentary filmmaker William J. Saunders, who happens to be Mize's grandson, was happy with the way his mother's father --- a star of Southern California radio and television in the 1950s and '60s, was portrayed.
"I loved my grandfather's representation," he said. "He popped up all over, even in the displays that weren't necessarily about him. He was so important to that movement --- and that's what it really was, a movement --- so it's nice to see them recognize that."
Mize's story is told, in part, with a guitar, a bright red suit and 10 pair of Nudie-designed boots. Mize had a huge collection of Nudie footwear, owing to the happy coincidence that he and Cohn had the same size feet.
Opening day featured a panel discussion with three writers who contributed to the exhibit's companion book; the event was standing room only. Among the discussion's livelier topics: Was there ever really any sort of animosity between Bakersfield and Nashville, or was the cities' supposed rivalry just music-industry mythology?
Scott B. Bomar, the Nashville-bred, L.A.-based music writer and historian whose recent work includes a five-disc set and companion book, "Hello, I'm Red Simpson," said the feud is largely fiction.
"There has always been a sense that there's a rivalry between Bakersfield and Nashville, but what is the Nashville establishment?" Bomar said.
"Certainly the people who were running the Nashville music business back then aren't running it now, and the Bakersfield people aren't the same either. It's nice to see a full and complete embrace of Bakersfield by an organization with as much class as the Country Music Hall of Fame, but you can't cast it as 'they finally broke down and recognized Bakersfield after all these years.' "
Poe, whose next big project is a Buck Owens biography, sees it differently.
"I would disagree with Scott 100 percent," he said. "I think there was a real rivalry and it showed in Nashville's treatment of Buck Owens. Buck was having No. 1 record after No. 1 record and he never got an (individual) award, nothing. He was persona non grata. ... This is music, it's really not something that should be personal, but let's face it, Nashville has always been political."
As with Bakersfield, the wider community in Nashville didn't always appreciate what it had.
"Nashville was sort of the Athens of the South; Vanderbilt University was the South's answer to Harvard," Bomar said. "From the earliest years, Nashville saw itself as this place of culture, and then here come these hillbillies with their banjos. When the (Grand Old) Opry was new, it was an absolute embarrassment to the Nashville business community.
"And it really stayed that way until the Garth Brooks phenomenon. Suddenly there was a huge amount of money to be made. The 1990s were like the boom of Nashville. That's when the business community really extended its hand instead of its finger. So some parallels can definitely be drawn between Bakersfield and Nashville, considering the way the Okies were rejected by respectable society in California.
"Maybe that's why Nashville didn't fully appreciate Bakersfield's sense of being ignored -- because Nashville's country music community was saying, 'Hey, we've been through this before ourselves.' Maybe, like Bakersfield, Nashville grew up with a chip on its shoulder, too."
Music historians have long discussed the things that set Bakersfield apart from Nashville --- the culture, the attitudes, the instrumentation. This exhibit makes a good case for the possibility that the two music capitals are more alike than most of us suspected.
The exhibit-opening festivities continue today with a panel discussion featuring Dallas Frazier, Buddy Mize, Jean Shepard, Red Simpson, Rose Lee Maphis and the last surviving member of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Don Maddox. Those luminaries will follow the panel discussion with a concert -- backed by Eugene Moles Jr., Gene Breeden and others.
"I hope they let me play more than two songs, like they did (Wednesday night)," Simpson said. "Long way to come for two songs."
Price, Editorial Page Editor of The Californian and an authority on the Bakersfield Sound, participated in Friday's panel discussion in Nashville.