When I told people I was driving to Bakersfield, California, on purpose as a destination, and not because I had to or knew anyone there, the looks I got were all crazy eyes.
Well, here’s first the how and then we’ll get to the why.
Seattle on a Saturday morning is a good day to begin anything to do with our streets. They’re a mess, but less so on Saturdays. The previous day my wife and I picked up our rental car, a Dodge Caliber. After two weeks of driving it, I can tell you exactly why the American car companies are rolling around in the gutters. All cars have something wrong about them, a design flaw of some sort, and the Caliber had plenty of those, with stuttering low gear acceleration, poor visibility, and just plain bad gas consumption. It has many of the detractors of a small sized SUV, but as we were to find out in the Northern Californian Siskiyou Mountains, none of the good stuff. It did have satellite radio, though, and that will remain a semi-interesting topic for another time.
So, Phinney to N. 36th St. to Fremont Ave. N. to Westlake Ave. N. to 9th Ave N. to Mercer St. to I-5. The I-5 straight down through the guts of Washington and Oregon and into California. It was cloudy, then rainy, then sunny and cold, which finally gave way to cloudy and cold and by the time we reached Yreka (which means, I’ve found it, now what?), snowy and cold. Redding, California, was our goal and we did eventually make it. About 20 miles north of Redding, two big rigs jackknifed going up one of the last inclines of the Siskiyous and everything stopped. It was around 4:30pm. We sat. It snowed. We sat. It got dark. We sat. It snowed. Still, we sat. Steve, our new trucker friend, who had finished chaining up and was out tromping through the snow with his dog, said he’d spent a night before on I-5. I consoled myself, by saying the two truckers were having a worse time of it than I was, but Steve said they were assholes who should have chained up. At around the third hour, with snow still falling, dark completely descended and Leana looking at me like I had begun to resemble a large and succulent turkey leg I was inclined to agree. Finally, the wreckage was cleared and Steve came over to let us know we’d be back on our way shortly. He pointed to the Caliber and said “4-wheel drive right?” Um, no. “Chains then?” Um, no. And sure enough we reached the bottom of the grade and the cops letting everyone through said “4-wheel drive right?” and then “Chains?” and inevitably pointed to a dark and snowy off ramp and said, “Shell Station might have some left.” So, down we went. Now, being a country music blog where masculinity is important for credibility I might be inclined to leave out the fact that I had no idea how to put chains on my car when, $50.00 later, I had them in my hand. In my meek defense may I offer up my 4-wheel-drive-equipped Jeep Wrangler from my snowy Maryland years and non snowy years spent subsequently in Albuquerque and Seattle? Well, good fortune smiles on the ignorant and fools, and a much more capable sort came down to assist. Thanks for that. So, off again, galloping into the snow at 25 miles an hour and then without much fanfare 14 hours after we started we rolled up to the Best Western of Redding.
Ostensibly, this is about Bakersfield and country music. Right. So, we meandered our way over to the coast and down HWY 1 , which had many grand adventures which shall also await a future telling, and then to HWY 46 to HWY 99 and into Bakersfield.
And now, the why.
America is a restless country filled with people who move and move again. So we began and so we continue. In an earlier post, Chop Suey, I talked about the urban migration of rural people in the 1920s-1940s. There was plenty of migration happening to California during this time, and it’s far better documented by people like Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck and Walker Evans than I will do, but one thing I’m fascinated by is how groups of people with similar backgrounds congregate together and tell old stories and sing old songs to each other in these new wild places. But, just as Bluegrass is not Celtic music, neither is old time country music Honky Tonk. The old songs change in these new places and take on the imprint of their surroundings and people’s experiences. So, in a nutshell that’s what the Bakersfield Sound is, old music, sung by migrants cut from the same cloth, in a new way. But, a nutshell is not a nut.
We start with the Maddox Brothers and their sister, Rose. Now, all the Bakersfield purists just started hollerin’. I can hear you from here. All I can say is write your own damn blog. The Maddox’s came out of Alabama and headed west in 1932, where they eventually ended up in a town north of Bakersfield, Modesto, California. The Maddox boys, Cliff, Fred, Don, Cal and Henry–the working girl’s friend–didn’t pick fruit for long before they worked their way onto the local radio station, KTRB, and brought along their 11-year-old kid sister Rose to help out with the singing. Their music had a stringband quality to it that would be lost in the later California bands. They were loud, both musically and visually. They were salty and raw and loose, and you better believe they knew how to throw a party. They are the link between the early eastern hellraisers like Charlie Poole and Gid Tanner to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Music here is about dancing and entertaining, blowing off steam, and playing above the din. The Maddoxes put down some of the wildest sounding country music on record and I’ve been told it doesn’t even touch their live shows. Their sound is essentially stringband. Lots of moving parts, almost in harmony. Their uniqueness lies in Rose’s hard vocals, Fred’s doghouse bass and Henry’s stinging electric lead guitar. With Fred and Cal laying down the boogie and everyone else shouting, hooting, singing and all around making some sort of ruckus, they become the musical equivalent to an overloaded Okie Model A careening down a hill. Just pray to Jesus it all stays together. They’re the pots and pans, and they are wonderful.
Coming soon – Part Two: Wynn Stewart, Tommy Collins and The Farmer Boys.