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By ROBERT PRICE
Bakersfield has been comparing itself to Nashville for years -- and vice versa to a lesser extent. The connection, of course, is music -- the country music industry, certainly, but more so the role of each city as the incubator of a distinctive expression of American culture.
In the early 1930s, Nashville became the accidental mecca of hillbilly music, owing in part to its roughly equidistant proximity to Appalachia, the Mississippi River and the Deep South. And in the late 1940s, Bakersfield became a center of West Coast music, created by the economic refugees of the Dust Bowl and the postwar migrations of shipyard and aircraft-factory workers. Ever so fleetingly, along about 1965, it actually seemed possible that Bakersfield (or, more specifically, Hollywood's Capitol Records) might one day displace Nashville as the epicenter. Bakersfield never came close, but it was fun to talk about Nashville West and the left coast's conquest of the syrupy sameness coming out of Tennessee in those days.
A fresh wave of syrupy sameness is oozing out of Nashville again, which makes the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's current recognition of Bakersfield's contributions especially gratifying. The Bakersfield Sound, an amalgam of Western Swing, stripped-down rockabilly, hillbilly and Norteno, is a shadow of its former self, but it has staying power -- and actually seems to be regaining momentum. And the Hall of Fame's 21-month-long exhibit, which opened last week, can only help build a little more.
So the time is right for Nashville West and Bakersfield East to broaden their long-time-coming detente and further normalize diplomatic relations. Why is Wakayama, Japan, one of Bakersfield's five sister cities and Nashville is not? (Well, other than the fact that the program requires they be foreign cities.)
My wife and I led Bakersfield's diplomatic mission to Nashville last month for the opening of "The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country," and we concluded that Nashville (pop. 601,000) and Bakersfield (pop. 348,000) could learn a lot from each other. Among the morsels of wisdom:
* Bakersfield folks need to accept the long-held Nashville belief that macaroni is a vegetable.
* Nashville restaurants, even the classy ones, need to be introduced to that 20th-century nicety known as the toilet seat cover.
* Bakersfield would be well advised to widen some sidewalks and even ban cars in parts of the downtown area. Pedestrians stop and buy things; drivers don't.
* Nashville ought to consider the possibility that gravy may not go well with everything.
* Bakersfield needs to appreciate that ugly old brick buildings can become interesting old brick buildings with a little love and commitment to preservation.
* Nashville needs to understand that people eat on Sundays, too.
* Bakersfield must come to the realization that country music is not just what you hear on that one radio station. It's got as many permutations as any other genre. And most of them are more interesting than the mainstream stuff.
* Nashville needs to accept the fact that Coca-Cola is not the only soft drink made in America.
* Bakersfield must commit itself to its musical heritage at a whole new level. Comparing Nashville's County Music Hall of Fame and Museum to the Kern County Museum's Bakersfield Sound exhibit is not fair, but Kern County can do much, much better. A more visible and accessible building would be a good place to start. Who cares, you say? Tourists do, and they bring money. Ask Nashville about that.
We loved Nashville and we'll be back. When was the last time you heard someone say that about Bakersfield? Nashville folks can learn a few things from us, but we can learn a lot more from them.
Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at firstname.lastname@example.org.