The Bakersfield sound is a genre of country music developed in the mid- to late 1950s in and around Bakersfield, California. Bakersfield country was a reaction against the slickly produced, string orchestra-laden Nashville sound, which was becoming popular in the late 1950s. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and Merle Haggard and the Strangers are the most successful artists of the original Bakersfield sound era. Other major Bakersfield country artists include Wynn Stewart, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, Susan Raye, Joe Maphis, Dennis Payne and Freddie Hart.
The Bakersfield sound was developed at honky-tonk bars such as The Blackboard, and on local television stations in Bakersfield and throughout California in the 1950s and 1960s. The town, known mainly for agriculture and oil production, was the destination for many Dust Bowl migrants and others from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and parts of the Midwest. The mass migration of "Okies" to California also meant their music would follow and thrive, finding an audience in California's Central Valley. One of the first groups to make it big on the west coast was the Maddox Brothers and Rose, who were the first to wear outlandish costumes and make a "show" out of their performances.
Bakersfield country was a reaction to the slickly-produced, string orchestra-laden Nashville Sound, which was becoming popular in the late 1950s. Artists like Wynn Stewart used electric instruments and added a backbeat, as well as other stylistic elements borrowed from rock and roll. Important influences were Depression-era country music superstar Jimmie Rodgers and 1940s Western swing musician Bob Wills. In 1954 MGM recording artist Bud Hobbs recorded "Louisiana Swing" with Buck Owens on lead guitar, Bill Woods on piano, and the dual fiddles of Oscar Whittington and Jelly Sanders. "Louisiana Swing" was the first song recorded in the style known today as the legendary "Bakersfield Sound". In the early 1960s, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and The Buckaroos, among others, brought the Bakersfield sound to mainstream audiences, and it soon became one of the most popular kinds of country music, also influencing later country stars such as Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, The Mavericks, and The Derailers.
Women were also prominent figures in Bakersfield country. Jean Shepard, (one of country music's first significant female artists) began her recording career on the west coast in the 1950s. Via Capitol Records, Shepard's "A Dear John Letter", was the first major country hit single to use entirely Bakersfield musicians. Many of her early recording sessions featured prominent members of the Bakersfield movement, including Lewis Talley and Speedy West.Susan Raye was also a major figure in the Bakersfield sound, particularly in the 1970s with hits such as "L.A. International Airport". She was also a member of Buck Owens' road show and recorded several hit duets with him. Other women to emerge from the west coast country movement include Bonnie Owens, Kay Adams and Rosie Flores.
Two important British Invasion-era rock bands also displayed some Bakersfield influences. The Beatles recorded a popular version of Owens' "Act Naturally". Years later, The Rolling Stones made their connection explicit in the lyrics of the very Bakersfield-sounding "Far Away Eyes," which begins: "I was driving home early Sunday morning, through Bakersfield ...".
The Bakersfield Sound has such a large influence on the West Coast music scene that many small guitar companies set up shop in Bakersfield in the 1960s. The biggest of significance was the Mosrite guitar company that still influences rock, country, and jazz music to this day. The famed Mosrite company was stationed in Bakersfield until the death of the company's founder, Oildale resident Semie Moseley, in 1992.
Buck Owens and The Buckaroos developed it further, incorporating different styles of music to fit his music tastes. The music style features a raw set of twin Fender Telecasters with a picking style (as opposed to strumming), a big drum beat, and fiddle, with an occasional "in your face" pedal steel guitar. The Fender Telecaster was originally developed for country musicians to fit in with the Texas/Western Swing style of music that was popular in the Western US following World War II. The music, like Owens, was rebellious for its time and is dependent on a musician's individual talents, as opposed to the elaborate orchestral production common with Nashville style country music. Bakersfield Sound musicians perform in the studio as they do on stage, with the same instruments and style they use every day, and do not depend on elaborate studio production techniques when recording their music.
Buck Owens not only aided in the development of the Bakersfield Sound, he also helped preserve its history. In 1996, Owens opened Buck Owens Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, which served as both a nightclub for country music performers and as a museum of the history and sound of country music, including the Bakersfield Sound. Owens regularly performed at the Crystal Palace until his death in 2006.
Buck Owens and The Buckaroos, as well as Merle Haggard and the Strangers, are the most successful artists of the original Bakersfield Sound era. The Bakersfield Sound was carried on by artists such as the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers in the 1960s-70s, Highway 101, Hillman and The Desert Rose Band, and Marty Stuart in the 1980s and '90s, and Big House, Dwight Yoakam, Red Simpson, Ferlin Husky. Dave Alvin, The Derailers, The Mavericks, Dale Watson, and many more in recent decades. Musicians from Bakersfield's musical golden era who are still playing locally include Red Simpson (passed 2016) and Tommy Hays. Newer local artists who are grounded in the old style but add rock and roll, and blues include Monty Byrom, and Chuck Seaton. Bakersfield residents (the late) Slim the Drifter, Rick "Reno" Stevens, Jennifer Keel, Ernest "Ernie" Lewis, Ronnie Smith, Steve Davis and Stampede, The Moosehead Band, The Dooley Brothers, The Wichitas, The Nightlife Band, The Western Connection, The Fruit Tramps, and Johnny Owens (Buck Owens' youngest son) and the Buck Fever Band have also contributed to the new Bakersfield Sound.
In an interview, Dwight Yoakam defined the term "Bakersfield sound":
'Bakersfield' really is not exclusively limited to the town itself but encompasses the larger California country sound of the Forties, Fifties and on into the Sixties, and even the Seventies, with the music of Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, the Burrito Brothers and the Eagles -- they are all an extension of the 'Bakersfield Sound' and a byproduct of it. I've got a poster of Buck Owens performing at the Fillmore West in 1968 in Haight Asbury! What went on there led to there being a musical incarnation called country rock. I don't know if there would have been a John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival had there not been the California country music that's come to be known as the 'Bakersfield Sound'.
To one degree or another, most of today's successful country acts depend on the Nashville West or Bakersfield Sound revival style for their success. The magazines No Depression and Blue Suede News regularly feature Bakersfield sound enthusiasts, while podcasts such as Radio Free Bakersfield carry on the tradition online.