BY ROBERT PRICE Californian editorial page editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Recorded music has a way of transporting us back to the time and place of our first listening. Most of us have experienced the phenomenon: The popular songs of our individual pasts tap that place in the brain that brings color, depth and touch to what are otherwise two-dimensional memories. We're young again -- or, in any case, younger.
But what happens when that music is augmented by real physical color, depth and touch? What happens when the memory, however fleeting, stands up and extends its hand? That is a rare experience indeed.
And Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has pulled it off with its newest exhibit, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country.
It's 5,000 square-feet of musical deja vu -- or for those of us too young to have experienced its heyday firsthand, a tactile encounter with one of American music's great mythologies.
High-tech presentations are a big part of the show: Touch-screen displays 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 for each song. And a third touch-screen plays other Bakersfield performers' music, including songs by Red 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.
But the real strength of the exhibit 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.
The exhibit opened in late March; it runs through December 2013. The experience is highly recommended, and not just for afficionados of that distinctive music that came out of the southern San Joaquin Valley in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. No, this museum show, years in the planning, is only one reason to visit the charming and surprisingly cultured Tennessee city.
The main reason to visit Nashville: It's a howl-at-the-moon great time.
You don't even have to like country music. But it helps.
Welcome to Nashville
My wife and I flew out on an early-morning Bakersfield-to-Houston fight and, following an hour layover, made it into Nashville by 2:30 p.m. local time.
We knew we were in the right place when our taxi driver, Ahmed, passed a billboard on I-40 announcing that the Bakersfield exhibit had arrived at the museum. The sight struck us both as something akin to vindication. After years of enduring other Californians' smirks and eye-rolls at the mere mention of our home city, we found the welcome agreeable.
The southwest section of downtown Nashville is a bit of a mess these days as the expansion of the cruise-ship-size Nashville Convention Center, with accompanying road improvements, continues -- and it's all happening right next door to the stately yet modern Country Music Hall of Fame.
Construction dust notwithstanding, this is the part of Nashville where you want to be. The Nashville Predators professional hockey team plays 500 yards from the museum in one direction and the NFL's Tennessee Titans play at LP Field, just across the Music City Bikeway bridge a mile the other way.
But that's all secondary to downtown Nashville's main attraction -- Broadway. Specifically, the four-block stretch of restaurants, saloons, boutiques, record shops, music stores and assorted other businesses that give the district a distinctive vibe not unlike that of a college town. Ground zero is the northwest corner of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, where you'll find Robert's Western World and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, clubs that feature every shade of roots music on the American palette.
Work your way through Robert's and out through the alley-side entrance and you'll find yourself at the back door of historic Ryman Auditorium -- the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. Just don't try to sneak in. Or, if you do, remind your wife not to let the door slam.
A little slice of Bakersfield
Broadway whet our appetite for the main event: a big slice of Bakersfield twang smack dab in the middle of Music City. The Hall of Fame building is itself a museum piece, with a sprawling facade that replicates a piano keyboard and a grandiose lobby bookended by Gulliverian windows and a huge, sweeping concrete staircase.
The Bakersfield Sound exhibit, which occupies almost half of the museum's second floor, is sequestered behind a 12-foot wall. But not just a wall -- it's a sweeping mural that beautifully tells the story of the Dust Bowl migration that made it all possible, a road map of Route 66 through Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.
The exhibit itself greets visitors with a sight that will be familiar to anyone who has passed through Bakersfield on northbound Highway 99 over the past decade -- or came by way of Union Avenue in the four decades prior: The distinctive blue-on-gold Bakersfield arch. It's a scaled-down version but impressive nonetheless.
The curators called upon more than a dozen friends and family members of prominent Bakersfield-connected stars to loan hundreds of artifacts to the museum for the 21-month run of the exhibit -- garishly sequined stage costumes, instruments, photos and career-changing documents. The recorded narrator might sound familiar: It's Dwight Yoakam.
Among the jewels:
Speedy West's 1948 Bigsby pedal steel guitar. West was an early key player in the postwar musical migration to California. He played with Spade Cooley, Jean Shepard, Tennessee Ernie Ford and a very young Loretta Lynn, among many others, and was known to drop in at the Blackboard and other Bakersfield clubs.
West's pedal steel was created by Paul Bigsby, who built a similar instrument for Joaquin Murphey of the Spade Cooley band. Guitar innovator Merle Travis, who played on the L.A.-based television show "Hometown Jamboree" with West for a time, suggested that West commission Bigsby to make him a Birdseye maple panel that he could snap onto the front legs of West's Bigsby-built pedal steel -- with West's name on the front. That's the instrument, somewhat worse for wear, that appears in the exhibit.
This musical curiosity was like the Holy Grail of country music: Music historians knew what it looked like because it was so well-documented in publicity photos. But no one knew where it was or even if it still existed. Then, several years ago, someone tipped off Buck Owens that the instrument -- essentially two guitar necks bolted to a 2-foot-tall wheeled serving table -- was in a Bakersfield junk yard. Owens purchased it and brought it to his office, where it sat in a corner, mostly ignored -- until the museum called. Now it sits behind glass in a place of honor just outside the entrance to the Bakersfield exhibit.
Michael Owens, one of Buck's three sons, provided curators with Bonnie and Buck Owens' marriage license, as well as the material for a fascinating tribute to Michael's onetime stepfather, Merle Haggard: Several handwritten and typed song manuscripts. They're framed and arranged alongside photos of Haggard and Bonnie Owens, in a circular space within the exhibit. Several of the lyric sheets have hand-penned changes written in the margins. Clearly these are songs in progress, a glimpse of the songwriters in their natural habitat: Haggard fleshing out the song on the guitar or piano, Bonnie writing it down as quickly as it came out of his mouth.
The collection of stagewear is impressive. Among the gloriously gaudy getups: three of Buck's suits made by Nathan Turk, including the yellow suit he wore for the Carnegie Hall concert in 1966; Red Simpson's red satin jacket bearing the back-side announcement, "Hello, I'm a Truck"; a Western-cut Nathan Turk suit with piping and diamond patterns that Buckaroos guitarist and high-harmony vocalist Don Rich wore in the early 1960s; Billy Mize's double-breasted jacket, pants and cowboy boots made by Nudie's Rodeo Tailors; and Wynn Stewart's western-cut Nudie suit and hand-painted silk tie with leather fringe.
Among the musical instruments on display, nothing approaches Speedy West's innovative, aforementioned contraption, but a few gems come close. Flaco JimÃ©nez's Hohner Corona II accordion, used on the Owens/Yoakam recording of "Streets of Bakersfield," is an important additionâ not because Jimenez himself played any sort of role in the Bakersfield Sound's early development or 1960s chart domination, but because it helps compensate for the exhibit's one significant shortcoming: Tex-Mex and Latino influences are largely ignored. Jimenez's contribution on what has perhaps become the Bakersfield Sound's signature song -- the 1988 remake, that is -- is entirely appropriate, as is his place in the exhibit.
The collection also includes the Stradivarius violin (a copy of one, anyway) played by prominent sideman and sometime TV host Jelly Sanders; Fuzzy Owen's Fender 1000 double-neck pedal steel guitar; the 2003 Buckocaster-model electric guitar built by Crook Custom Guitars for Brad Paisley, who played it until it was damaged in the Nashville flood of 2010; and Bonnie Owens' Oscar Schmidt autoharp, loaned by her son, Buddy Alan Owens.
But the random, offbeat stuff is the best. Bill Woods, who single-handedly brought dozens of musicians to Bakersfield in the years immediately following World War II, is appropriately given more space in the exhibit than perhaps any other Bakersfield performer who fell short of the national acclaim that Owens and Haggard achieved. Museum curators are especially happy to have obtained a gold ring of his with "BW" traced in diamonds.
Woods was a fixture on the Blackboard stage during the early 1950s; his Orange Blossom Playboys gave Buck Owens his first regular job in a club.
It's fitting, then, that right next to Woods' place in this exhibit is this rarity: A cocktail waitress's black vest with "Blackboard" stitched on the chest in red embroidered lettering.
The exhibit also has the thick metal briefcase that "Suitcase" Simpson used to lug around, supposedly carrying song manuscripts he was trying to pitch. Simpson casts doubt on the accuracy of that story, but why let the facts get in the way of a good nickname?
Buck Owens' handwritten notes for the eulogy he delivered at Don Rich's 1974 funeral are on display, as is the battered old manual typewriter that Buck co-conspirator Harlan Howard used to hammer out the lyrics to songs like "I Fall to Pieces" and "Tiger by the Tail."
The single document that tells so much about the fall and rise of Merle Haggard is here too: The pardon, dated March 14, 1972, that then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan presented to Haggard, absolving him of his past crimes.
Yet all of that barely skims the surface of the exhibit's inventory.
This is a summer vacation stop that's seriously worth considering. Country music fans owe it to themselves to make the pilgrimage, certainly, but music lovers of all varieties will find something to like, be it the Nashville Symphony, the many blues-rock clubs or the starving street acts playing for spare change and the validation of a tourist's attention.
Civil War historians can stay busy visiting the 14 battlefields within an hour's drive of the city center. Foodies will go nuts on the Southern cuisine, from the blue-collar fare (I loved Jack's Bar-B-Que on Broadway) to white tablecloth establishments.
And, should a visitor run out of the things to do in Nashville (highly unlikely), Beale Street in Memphis is just a 31â2-hour drive west.