There’s a familiar twang in the air from the north
The Bakersfield Californian | Saturday, Sep 05 2009 08:36 PM
Last Updated Saturday, Sep 05 2009 08:38 PM
The first song I ever learned on the guitar, back in my Petaluma parks and rec summer class, lo, those many years ago, was a response to Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.”
It was Jesse Colin Young’s “Hippie from Olema,” an amusing retort sung to the tune of Haggard’s redneck anthem of conserva tive pride. Where Haggard had written, “We don’t grow our hair out long and shaggy,” the leader of the Youngbloods had written, “We don’t spill our oil out in the ocean.” I was subsisting on a steady sugar diet of AM radio pop at the time, but even I picked up on the serious cultural disconnect in evidence.
So when Amanda Eichstaedt e-mailed me a couple of months ago to ask about Bakersfield music, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the small irony attached to her return address: Olema. Yes, a resident of the original Hippieville, 20 miles through the west Marin backcountry from the stomping grounds of my bewildered youth, was writing to inquire about Merle Haggard and friends.
Eichstaedt and collaborator Mike Varley co-host an every-other-Thursday-evening program on KWMR, a charming, appealingly eclectic radio station in Point Reyes, just over the hill from Olema. The show is called “Bakersfield and Beyond,” and it’s worth bookmarking on your computer. (Go to kwmr.org and click on the cow icon to get streaming live audio of the two-hour show.)
Fans of Buck and Merle will find something to like here, but that’s not what makes “Bakersfield and Beyond” a great show. Eichstaedt and Varley may have come late to the Bakersfield Sound party, but they’ve managed to locate and restore a story line that, with a very few notable exceptions, petered out sometime in the mid-1970s.
The story line is this: A unique new genre of distinctly American music, born of folk, blues, Western swing and rockabilly, spiced with sweat, sunburn and a double helping of class resentment, finds a place in the broader popular consciousness. The Bakersfield Sound starts out as the music of independence and rebellion but, like so many other cultural insurgencies, it gradually evolves into a copy of the mainstream product, so indistinguishable it ceases to exist except in memory. Buck Owens himself lamented its passing.
But “Bakersfield and Beyond” reminds us that the spirit of that music is still kicking around — in expected places, like Austin, Texas, and L.A., but also in unexpected places like Calgary, Alberta, where singer-songwriter Tim Hus presses on the best traditions of Billy Mize and Tommy Collins. And, thank God, in Bakersfield, too: Eichstaedt and Varley served up some Big House last Thursday (“Louisiana in the Rain”), as well as Fatt Katt and Von Zippers (“Rockin’ and Rollin’ Tonight”). Another local, Bruce Theissen, aka Dr. BLT, is a regular call-in guest; his astonishing, barely recognizable rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” a few weeks ago was lonely enough to have made Johnny Cash cry. No, seriously.
In November 2008, Eichstaedt, who already had an interview show on KWMR, was asked to cover the station’s Thursday night slot for four shows. She knew Varley through bicycling — Varley owns the local bike shop, and she is chairwoman of the board of the League of American Bicyclists, a national cycling advocacy group. She knew their musical tastes were similar and vast, so she asked him to sit in with her. They pulled out some Dave Alvin and some John Doe & the Sadies — familiar names to anyone who frequents Bakersfield’s Fishlips club — along with Vancouver-based Neko Case, who toured with Haggard two years ago. Research helped them realize those performers had a lot in common with the Bakersfield Sound.
They didn’t know much about Bakersfield music, however, and they readily admitted it to their listening audience on that first broadcast. Was there really even such a thing? “Immediately we got a call from a friend who could not believe that, a) we did not know what the Bakersfield Sound was, and, b) we would actually admit it on the air,” Eichstaedt wrote in a recent e-mail.
In the eight months since their debut, they’re uncovered quite a few of Bakersfield’s musical progeny. But they’ve also fallen in love with Rose Maddox, Little Jimmy Dickens, Wanda Jackson and Ferlin Husky, in addition to Buck and Merle.
Depending on how you define the Bakersfield Sound, they might now know more about the genre now than any living man or woman, including those who lived it. Not that they would ever make such a boast: They are properly humble and self-deprecating about their new-found expertise. And now that they’ve actually visited Mecca — last month they caught Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women at Fishlips and Buddy Owens and the Buckaroos at the Crystal Palace — they may qualify for Ph.D’s in honky tonk.
Meanwhile, in Bakersfield, the city’s lone country station plays Nashville hits, and half the dial is given over to hip-hop. Son Volt? Rosie Flores? Who are they? To a far greater extent than we might want to admit, Bakersfield has lost an important part of its musical identity. Fortunately, others have found pleasing remnants of it. Even a couple of bike-riding hippies from Olema.