EAR BLISS Reviews by Dan Ferguson
With documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ recent PBS television special called Country Music fresh on folks’ minds, and particularly with its frequent focus on the country sounds emanating from the West coast of the U.S., the time is certainly prime for the release of a collection zeroing in on the musical doings originating from the Left Coast and namely, the region in and around Bakersfield, California. The newly released various artists compilation The Bakersfield Sound 1940-1974 comes to us from renowned vault raiders Bear Family Records of Germany. Put simply, it is a thing of beauty. Founded in 1975 by collector Richard Weize, the label launched operations that year with a double LP called Going Back to Dixie by bluegrasser Bill Clifton and has never looked back. The label is renowned for its often extravagant (and expensive) box sets typically containing multiple LPs or CDs and usually accompanied by an in-depth book with oodles of supporting information. The company describes itself as “a collector’s record label” due to its primary business, which is reissuing rare recordings mostly in the country, rock & roll and R&B veins in CD format in small amounts. The Bakersfield Sound 1940-1974 is the latest addition to their lengthy catalogue, and it gets the Ear Bliss look-see this week. Let’s get to it.
The Bakersfield Sound 1940-1974
Bear Family Records
Where do you begin with a review of a box set documenting the Bakersfield Sound in country music? Here’s thinking the best place is the stats. From the great chroniclers of the music of yesteryear and particularly country music, that being Bear Family Records of Germany, the newly released collection The Bakersfield Sound 1940-1974 is a wonderfully exhaustive motherlode of sounds from that important locale in the history of country music. As for those stats, try this on for size: 300-plus tracks spread over 10 CDs plus a 224-page coffee table-ready hardcover book with an array of photos, many of which are rare, and track-by-track commentary and analysis by Grammy-nominated Bakersfield sound historian Scott B. Bomar.
The roots of country and western and hillbilly music in California in large part can be traced to the Okie migration westward beginning during the Great Depression. If you watched the recent, and may I say excellent, Ken Burns documentary “Country Music” on PBS, you saw several segments where the focus was the human exodus westward from the depressed South and the Midwest dustbowl states in the hopes of better opportunities and how these people brought their roots and culture with them, including music. One such family was the Maddox family who left their home in Boaz, Alabama riding the rails and hitchhiking their way West in hopes of a better life. The family eventually landed in the Modesto area of the Central Valley of California and in less than five years, the Maddox children had formed a hillbilly band billing themselves as The Maddox Brothers & Rose and performing on local radio. While not a Bakersfield entity per say, it was this high energy outfit that lit a musical fire of sorts in the Central Valley (which includes Bakersfield) and contributed in large part to helping ignite a scene that would lead to the area becoming such a hotbed of edgy C&W music. The collection The Bakersfield Sound takes a deep dive from those early post-Depression days beginning in the 1940s and continuing up through 1974 when the scene had begun to shift. On the surface, it was hard not to compare the country music originating from Bakersfield and other West Coast outposts with what was being made in Nashville. Beginning with the early works of various Central Valley string bands straight through to the driving sounds of Buck Owens & His Buckaroos and the hard-edged twang of Merle Haggard, it wasn’t hard to hear the difference. There was a jump to it, a vibrancy and rawness to the sound of the Bakersfield brand of twang in comparison to its more constrained Music City counterpart. It was also more electrified, especially with the arrival of the Telecaster from California-based guitar maker Fender in the early 1950s. The likes of a Haggard, Owens and Wynn Stewart are no-brainers when you’re talking about a collection such as this one. They were the kingpins for sure and as one might expect prime material from all three is included. Yet, it is the “deep cuts” from the less familiar regional and obscure artists, many of whom have still yet to get their just-due in the reissue market, that are the prime attraction here. From early architects like Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Bill Woods, Tommy Collins and The Farmer Boys to charting artists like Billy Mize, Red Simpson and Bobby Austin to relative obscurities like Barbara Cheatwood and instrumental group The Marksmen, consider this collection the ultimate big gulp of the Bakersfield Sound for which if you are fan, it is well worth your hard-earned dollar. Visit www.bear-family.com.
Looking to hear some for yourself? Music from The Bakersfield Sound box set will be featured on The Boudin Barndance radio program broadcast over 90.3 WRIU-FM on Thursday, November 7, from 6 – 9 pm. Not in the 90.3 WRIU-FM listening area? Check out the webcast at www.wriu.org/listen.
Chicago-based blues artist Torenzo Cannon blew the roof off of Chan’s Restaurant in Woonsocket (267 Main Street) on his last visit to the joint. He return on Friday night will no doubt do the same. The following night, the Monster Mike Welch Band is in the house of eggrolls and blues. Show time each evening is 8 pm.
Blues and blues rock is also on the menu at the Met Café in Pawtucket (1005 Main Street) on Friday night with a terrific twin bill featuring guitarist Anthony Gomes in the headlining position with the Heidi Nirk Band opening. Doors are at 8 pm.
1970s hitmaker America is still at it and brings its “Horse With No Name” and more blasts from the past to the Twin River Event Center in Lincoln (100 Twin River Rd) on Friday night for an 8 pm performance.
On Saturday evening, Boston-based group Mile Twelve will play traditional-and-then-some bluegrass music for your listening pleasure at The Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland (549 Broad Street) at 8 pm. That same evening, esteemed tunesmith Livingston Taylor returns to The Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston (3481 Kingstown Road), also starting at 8 pm.
Power pop legends The Smithereens join forces with another pop force of yesteryear in Marshall Crenshaw for a performance at the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich (59 Main Street) on Saturday night at 8 pm.
Talk about a blast from the past, long-time Ocean State rockabilly king Jack Smith of Jack Smith & the Rockabilly Planet fame comes out of retirement for a performance at Nick-a-Nee’s in Providence (75 South Street) on Saturday. It is a rockabilly extravaganza called “Let’s Flat Get It!” with a car show, too boot. Smith (backed by The Bop Thrills & Sean Mencher) is part of a cast that will include Jittery Jack & Amy Griffin, The BopThrills, The Televisionaries, The Gammarays, The Barley Hoppers, Beck Lynn Blanca, and Sean Mencher. The festivities get going at 3:30 pm with music kicking off at 4.
The East Bay-based Common Fence Music series presents its 3rd annual Fall Moon Festival on Saturday night with yet another impressive collection of stellar singer/songwriters scheduled to perform including Heather Maloney (who will also emcee), Amythyst Kiah, Catie Curtis, Girl Blue, Jocie Adams and more. The show will take place at the Casino Theatre in Newport (Freebody Street) starting at 8 pm. That same evening in Providence, Lady Lamb takes the stage at the Columbus Theatre (270 Broadway) for an 8 pm performance. Jenny Lewis is at the Columbus on Sunday. Check ahead for ticket availability.
Finally, Ani DiFranco with Gracie & Rachel opening is at The Strand in Providence (79 Washington Street) on Wednesday night with doors at 7 pm and music starting at 8.
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3.)