Bakersfield, I found, is comfortable in February. Not too hot like you know it will be in a few months. It’s not particularly pretty, but it’s not ugly either. Sometimes you see the face of someone who, under different circumstances, could have been handsome. That’s Bakersfield. Too many highways intersecting, too many hard packed streets. To far away from anywhere to make it anything more than a rest stop. It reminds me of Albuquerque in that neither are Santa Fe. That could by many of us be seen as a compliment, and I assure you I mean it as such. For every fake in Santa Fe there is a real in Albuquerque. For every fake in Nashville or Austin or Branson, there is a real in Bakersfield. There’s no pride in the people that live there for its west coast country status, but there’s no shame either. There’s simple acknowledgment. A hat tip when the fingers touch the brim, but fail to remove it from the head. If cities built monuments for its sons and daughters that truly captures their souls then Bakersfield would build one for Wynn Stewart. Both are hard and lonesome and smiles mask vice. Entertainment trumps art, though the two aren’t always as far apart as we’d like to think. Both reach for more and fall more often than not and neither seems to get the respect they deserve. Buck and Merle are the poster children of the town, but Wynn is Bakersfield.
The story goes that on Skeets McDonald’s recomendation a young Wynn Stewart was able to talk to Capitol Record’s country A&R man, Ken Nelson, on the phone. Ken asked him to sing something. On the phone. Wynn hung up with a recording contract.
Wynn Stewart is a missing link of sorts. He was never to gain the popularity of Buck or Merle, but he, as much as anyone, is responsible for the Bakersfield sound. He’s also a personal favorite of mine. I love the way his voice rings out. Full throated honky tonk glory is what it is. He has the breaks of Lefty Frizzell, but more volume and the cracks of Webb Pierce, but with a suppleness Webb lacked. In the birth years of rock-n-roll Wynn was an unrepentant hard country singer. He was a gambler, a drinker, a no-shower. He was also country gold.
Born in Missouri in 1934 Wynn and his family made a habit of moving between there and California as jobs dictated. He was a quintessential mover. From the midwest to the west coast, from rural to urban and the places inbetween. His first shot at radio was in Missouri on KWTO. Radio station call letters are acronyms. WLS, the Chicago AM powerhouse, for example stands for World’s Largest Store based off of their original owner Sears & Roebuck. Colin Escott, in his fine essay on Wynn from his book Roadkill on the Three-chord Highway, tells us KWTO stands for Keep Watching the Ozarks. I have no idea what that means. Sounds ominous though, doesn’t it?
Wynn started singing young in local talent contests and won most all of the ones he was in and had the wristwatches to prove it. It was at one in Huntington Park that he met a young steel guitarist named Ralph Mooney. Ralph and Wynn started a lifetime lifetime friendship and even after spending years playing behind Waylon Jennings he still considered himself Wynn’s steel player.
Now it’s all about connections, and Skeets McDonald also introduced a young songwriter, Harlan Howard, to Wynn and he would record Harlan’s first song You Took Her Off My Hands. It’s a fully formed Howard song, great melody, and that circular wordplay that become a trademark of his. There’s a dose of music biz reality here though and if you were too look up the song, you’ll see that it’s credited to McDonald, Stewart, and Howard. It’s like seeing all those old Presley song copyrights and believing he had a hand in writing them. He didn’t, just as Skeets and Wynn didn’t, but by sharing the copyright Harlan got a writer’s contract and one of his songs recorded. 1/3 of the royalties I suppose is better than no royalties. It stands as a great song though, and Wynn’s version of it is hard and sad and like all great honk tonk weepers, it makes us smile too. It would later be sweetened by Ray Price who was slipping deeper into the new Nashville Sound and then finally killed by Ronnie Milsap, but Wynn sings it lonesome and high and stripped of any studio tinklings.
Wynn was the one who then introduced Harlan to another young singer and guitarist named Buck Owens. Harlan would find his first muse with Buck and the two look like a hick version of Rogers and Hammerstein for awhile. Wynn also sang Howard’s classic song Above and Beyond. Buck, who was then living up in the Seattle area, heard it on the radio and decided to cover it himself. It was Buck’s hit. This became something of a theme. Wynn first sang You Took Her Off My Hands, Heartaches By The Number, Lonely Street and Crazy Arms. All became big hits for Ray Price. Lonely Street, in a moment of irony, was composed by Stewart, but if you were to look up the copyright it would list Carl Belew as the composer and therefore the receiever or royalties. $50 spent right can get you quite a bit.
Wynn, as connecting link once again, hired Roy Nichols on guitar. Roy then got the recently released from prison Merle Haggard into the band. Merle is often compared to Lefty Frizzell, but it’s Wynn who he most closely resembles. Wynn wrote a number called Sing A Sad Song, which Merle loved and one day he asked Wynn if he could record it. It would become Merle’s first hit.
Finally there’s the one song he’ll be remembered for, not as a footnote to someone else’s career or a bit player in the west coast sound, but as the one with the voice, the true sound. The religion.
Wishful Thinking shines like a rhinestoned suit. It is Wynn’s heart that we’re hearing and by extension Bakersfield’s. It’s not hopeful, it’s wishful. Hope is a shallow, immature feeling. Wishfulness echoes regret and the reality of unfulfilled dreams. It’s all heartbreak, but it’s a dry heartbreak.
Wishing I could see you again, dear
That the fires of love could burn once more
But I know that’s wishful thinking
And too much to be wishing for