About the Bakersfield Sound

How a Small Town in California Changed the Sound of Country Music

The Essential Buck Owens (2012).

Not Now Records 

In the 1950s a new type of country music was emerging in Bakersfield, Calif. Dubbed the "Bakersfield sound," the genre rose to prominence by the late '50s and challenged the popularity of the Nashville sound with its gritty mixture of Western swing, honky tonk, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll.

It's best typified in the music of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Wynn Stewart.

Origins

During the Great Depression families moved west to look for work. Many of these migrant workers were Dust Bowl refugees who flocked to California and the farm belt of the San Joaquin Valley. Of those migrants, a good number settled in Bakersfield, known for its agricultural and oil wealth. These recent transplants from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas brought along their rustic music.

In the years following World War II, Bakersfield became home to several honky-tonks, including the infamous Blackboard Cafe. People drank, danced and even fought to the Western swing music made famous by Bob Wills. Though he was born in Texas, Wills is often credited as a primary influence on the emerging Bakersfield sound.

The Bakersfield sound was a direct response to Nashville's arrangements that were smooth, polished and harmonized. Bakersfield country was made of much harder stuff. Stewed in the cauldron of the local roadhouses, the music was powered by an explosive electric guitar, a honky tonk beat, and a tough, rockabilly attitude.

The Bakersfield sound hit the mainstream in the 1960s, thanks to hit songs by new artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, but the sound never proved as popular as many hoped. It was later dubbed "Nashville West," but it had fallen into oblivion by the 1970s with the arrival of newer, more profitable country styles.

Legacy

Although the Bakersfield sound doesn't dominate country music like it used to, it's remained incredibly influential over the past several decades. Much like contemporary rock groups owe their success to pioneers like Elvis Presley, contemporary country acts can attribute their success to the Bakersfield sound.

The musical style continues to be influential for acts ranging from rock bands to Los Angeles-based contemporary country artists such as Dwight Yoakam. Given that Bakersfield sound artists often recorded in L.A., it developed a reputation as "the California sound," and influenced the music of The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, the Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, to name a few. Chances are any kind of California country rock group was likely influenced by the Bakersfield sound.

In 2012, the Country Music Hall of Fame opened of an exhibit dedicated to the Bakersfield Sound.

Bakersfield Sound Singers:

  • Tommy Collins
  • Buck Owens
  • Merle Haggard
  • "Cousin Herb" Henson
  • Ferlin Husky
  • Billy Mize
  • Bonnie Owens
  • Red Simpson
  • Wynn Stewart
  • Lewis Talley
  • Male singer

    Country Music Genres

  • Hank Williams and his family

    These 25 Country Music Legends Have Had Enduring Influence

  • Merle Haggard

    Merle Haggard Biography

  • album art hello i'm dolly

    The Best Country Album Cover Artwork

  • Jimmie Rodgers

    Tracing Country Music History from Jimmie Rodgers to Garth Brooks

  • Photo of Merle Haggard

    Essential Country Music Tribute Albums

  • A typical Honky Tonk album

    What is Honky Tonk?

  • The Byrds' classic "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" LP, a major event in the foundation of "Country rock"

    What is Country Rock?

  • Everly Brothers

    Here's a Look at the Top 40 Most Essential Pop Artists of All Time

  • Neon signs on Lower Broadway (Nashville) at Night

    Overview of the Nashville Sound

  • 100 Best Pop Songs Of 2011

  • 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Show

    Before Whitney, Dolly Dominated 'I Will Always Love You'

  • A-Ha - Take On Me

    100 of the Best Pop Songs of All Time

  • Why You Should Listen to Blake Shelton's 'Based on a True Story'

  • Joanna Newsom

    Top 100 Alternative Albums of the 2000s

  • Flash Picking an Electric Guitar

    What's the Meaning Behind "The Year Clayton Delaney Died?"