Walking the Streets of Bakersfield

It's hard to find history in a patch of hot dirt, weeds, and cracked asphalt. Yet just such an abandoned vision of former honky-tonk glory is exactly what you get if you come to Bakersfield in search of the Blackboard, the infamous nightclub that, during the 1950s and early '60s, was the wild and mangy centerpoint of the Bakersfield Sound. The Blackboard was home to house band Bill Woods & His Orange Blossom Playboys, which during much of the 1950s featured a young Buck Owens on lead guitar. Many other local greats, including Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart, Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens, Red Simpson, and Bobby Austin, all at one time or another played, drank, and whooped it up at the dingy bar and former truckstop cafe during its heyday. Those rough and rowdy days, however, are long gone. Despite all the history that happened behind its simple walls, the club no longer stands -- all we've got to reminisce upon are some nondescript slabs of concrete and an empty asphalt parking lot, all of it locked away unceremoniously behind a chain-link fence. So much for local heritage. For a few short years, some speculated that Bakersfield -- a hot, dry utilitarian city at the bottom end of California's San Joaquin Valley -- just might snatch the country music mantle away from staid Nashville. Southern California had actually been a hotbed of hillbilly song since the 1930s, when Hollywood manufactured countless cowboy singers and large western swing bands pulled in crowds eager to dance and escape the despair of the Depression and, later, World War II. During the 1960s, after Bakersfield-based stars Owens and Haggard began churning out back-to-back #1 hits, national attention focused on this agriculture and oil town, which was marked as a breeding ground for honky-tonk innovation and excitement. That was in large part true: the club scene had been nurturing performers since the early 1950s, as had "Cousin" Herb Henson's popular weekly country music television show, the "Trading Post". Bakersfield stayed in the spotlight long enough to earn itself a place in country music history, but as for taking the place of Nashville, that pipe dream never materialized. Merle eventually moved away, choosing to settle up north near cool and soothing Lake Shasta; Buck went into temporary retirement after the death of his musical partner Don Rich; the city's economy went into the dumps as oil prices collapsed; and its cultural scene drifted back to sleep. The clubs that bred the music were mostly closed, and the honky-tonk scene had shifted south to Los Angeles. By the 1980s and '90s, it seemed all traces of the town's musical glory days had turned to dust under the blazing San Joaquin sun. From the outside -- the fast lane of Highway 99, which skims the east side of town -- Bakersfield doesn't seem like anything but a dreary mid-sized city spreading liberally across a stark, arid landscape seemingly more suited to West Texas than luscious California. This is a part of the Golden State most coastal residents ignore, know little about, and certainly never take the time to explore. But once you get off the highway, drive into town and start poking around, you turn up some interesting finds. The Padre Hotel for instance, the city's central landmark, a onetime showpiece currently earmarked for redevelopment; the Fox Theater, a 1930 art-deco beauty that's been lovingly restored and now hosts touring bands and local theater productions; nice old downtown diners like Happy Jack's; vintage buildings and old neon signs along nearly every street; and the Kern County Museum, sitting north of downtown and directly adjacent to where the Blackboard used to be. The KCM is in many ways a typical small-town museum, containing requisite history displays and local memorabilia. Of special interest, though, is the small exhibit on the Bakersfield Sound. Items change regularly, but when I visited, the display cases held such treasures as Joe Maphis' double-neck Mosrite guitar, Herb Henson and Bobby Austin stage costumes, Bonnie Owens' 1965 Top Female Vocalist award from the Academy of Country Music, a blue Tommy Collins suit, Fuzzy Owens' steel guitar, and other curiosities and memorabilia. The exhibit isn't huge, but it's definitely worth a detour off the freeway for any honky-tonk fan. Plans to create a full-blown Bakersfield Sound museum out of this collection (much of which sits in storage) have flown around for years; the big stumbling block is, of course, funding. Admittedly, Bakersfield's beauty is of the subtle sort -- it's not the kind of place that jumps out at you like, say, the mountains and trees of Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks, which are just a few hours north of here. Many would likely scoff that I'm over-glorifying the heat-ravaged place. Nonetheless, I find real, honest charm in the city's historic buildings, old neighborhoods, and excellent Mexican eateries like La Fonda, which serves tasty 60-cent tacos. Bakersfield has been a hub of agriculture and oil for over a century. In fact, Kern County, in which Bakersfield is situated, is today among the top agricultural producers in the nation. However, like its neighbors to the north, Kern is also one of the most polluted counties in the nation, thanks in good part to Los Angeles smog that blows steadily inland and gets trapped in the Central Valley against the looming Sierra Nevada and Tehachapi mountain ranges. Gold brought many settlers here in the 19th century, but it's oil that has driven much of the local economy since the late 1890s. Today, the Kern River oilfield remains one of the top-producing oil reserves in the nation, with pumps spotting the brown, dry hills from nearby Oildale, a blue-collar town immediately north of Bakersfield, all the way to gritty Taft on the western edge of the valley. The latter town sits near the now-dry Buena Vista Lake Bed, where the mighty Kern River -- if the powers of agribusiness hadn't sucked away every last drop of it by this point -- would have, more or less, come to rest. The Kern is indeed a "mighty" stretch of water, as Merle Haggard sang in his 1985 hit "Kern River". To catch a glimpse of its powerful side, though, you have to travel east of Bakersfield on Highway 178 toward Lake Isabella, a spectacular hour-long drive through narrow, winding Kern River Canyon. Whatever you do, though, don't try swimming in the river. A sign at the canyon's entrance warns that 215 people have been killed by the river since 1968; when Haggard sang of the Kern's danger -- "It's not deep nor wide/But it's a mean piece of water, my friend" -- he wasn't kidding. Much of Bakersfield's hard-edged honky-tonk heritage came thanks to the "Okie" migrant laborers, who came by the thousands to Kern and other Central Valley counties in the 1930s. Most arrived from the Midwest and Southeast, where the Dust Bowl and the Depression had rendered life unbearable. For those traveling west on US routes 40 and 66, Bakersfield made a natural stopping point. Weedpatch Camp, a surviving federal labor camp about seven miles south of Bakersfield via the Weedpatch Highway, is an interesting diversion. Now officially called the Arvin Farm Labor Center, it served as John Steinbeck's model for Weedpatch Camp in The Grapes Of Wrath. Today, the few wood structures huddled near the entrance make it the only settlement of its kind with original buildings intact. You'll find it on Sunset Boulevard, about a mile east of Weedpatch Highway. The annual Dust Bowl Days celebration is held here each October; see for details. The honky-tonk music that took off here in the 1950s was in many ways born from camps such as Weedpatch. The Maddox Brothers & Rose didn't live here (they were based up in Modesto), but they were indeed migrant laborers, picking fruit and cotton before becoming one of the state's top musical draws. Dallas Frazier, another Bakersfield honky-tonker, wrote a superb song about the Okie experience, "California Cottonfields". And the parents of both Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were Okie immigrants, coming west in search of the proverbial milk and honey. During the 1950s, when Buck was getting his start here, Bakersfield was awash in honky-tonk, the loud, Telecaster-soaked sound hurling out of rough and gritty joints such as the Lucky Spot, the Clover Club, Tex's Barrel House and the Blackboard. While those clubs are all gone, one vintage 1940s honky-tonk does remain: Trout's, in the blue-collar Bakersfield suburb of Oildale. You want a taste of the town's honky-tonk heyday? This crowded bar -- with a neon fish blazing above its door -- is as close as it gets. Every Monday night you can catch the legendary Red Simpson ("Roll, Truck, Roll", "Highway Patrol"), and on weekends, the joint gets packed with a cowboy crowd that drinks and dances to Bobby Durham & the Tex Pistols. Durham was a lesser-known Bakersfield artist from the 1960s, his best-known recording being "My Past Is Present"; nowadays he plays a mix of 1960s classics and contemporary covers. And of course, no trip to Bakersfield would be complete without a visit to the town's current top country music attraction, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace (see ND #15), a Disney-like concert venue just off Highway 99, where Buck himself plays every Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. sharp for just six bucks. For more info on California's country music heritage, check out Oildale native Gerald Haslam's book Workin' Man Blues: Country Music In California. Haslam also collected a series of his essays on Central Valley and culture in the equally worthwhile book The Other California. ND contributing editor Kurt Wolff is author of The Rough Guide To Country Music and Country: 100 Essential CDs. He also wrote the San Joaquin chapter (among others) in the third edition of Lonely Planet's California guide, due out in early 2003.
Author Kurt Wolff
Other tags Issue #41