By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Wild Don Lewis
Long fabled for its vaunted country music tradition, Bakersfield is more and more like a ghost town with an ever-dwindling handful of regular stages for country acts. Two of these stages feature Buck Owens and Red Simpson, among the very best this hallowed hicksville has produced, but Owens has been missing a lot of Crystal Palace dates recently due to poor health, and Simpson doesn’t even bother to fire up his Telecaster anymore, doing a single set with an electronic keyboard every lonesome Monday night at the classic corrugated-tin tonk Trout’s in nearby Oildale. At Simpson’s once-a-month Grange Hall seniors dance, the crowd fuels up not on bourbon and bennies but coffee and cookies. You can’t even get a damn beer.
Miles later down the Alfred Harrell Highway, I arrive at Ethel’s Old Corral Caf√©, a decayed shack with a pair of decrepit buckboards bookending the front-porch roof and an eye-popping 25-foot-high shirtless fiberglass Indian brave standing sentinel in a parking lot full of Harley hogs and pickup trucks. Inside, it’s midnight dark. There are rough-hewn picnic tables and benches, drinkers two deep at the bar and, in the corner, a glittering red drum kit surrounded by a handful of scruffy jammers. As likely to do an Alan Jackson song as they are a Haggard tune, the revolving troupe of players, equally primitive and accomplished by turns, demonstrate the fetishistic tribal rite with boozy confidence.
After a few hours and a few trips out of the frosty-beer-and-AC womb of the Corral for a smoke in the desert furnace, a lulling hot-and-cold sauna effect takes over. Count your stinking blessings, son, because it turns out that there indeed ain’t no place like home: California’s best country music is still an almost exclusively Los Angeles–centered proposition.
The history of Los Angeles country is phenomenal, going back to 1929’s barefoot Beverly Hillbillies, the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy and Gene and the radical late-’40s guitar stylings of Jimmy Bryant and Roy Nichols. These were players whose deconstructions of hillbilly take-off guitar solos tended toward an almost hard-bop expressionism, which led to the austere modern approach of Missouri-born, Los Angeles–based Wynn Stewart. Stewart, a protean auteur whose prime, from 1957 to 1967, stretches through rockabilly, ballads, honky-tonk and some of the best death songs ever ("Long Black Limousine," "I’m Gonna Kill You"), was an unprecedented stylist whose deep influence directly codified the so-called Bakersfield Sound and significantly reached several future giants. The most notable were Waylon Jennings, a fiercely vocal fan who recorded several of Wynn’s tunes and taught himself to play guitar "so it sounded just like Moon’s steel" (as in Ralph Mooney, the longtime Stewart sideman who subsequently became a defining force in Jennings’ 1970s Waylors), and Merle Haggard, who played bass for Stewart after getting out of San Quentin and later invested the singer’s updated honky-tonk form with an explicit realism. Buck Owens and Johnny Paycheck also learned much from the Stewart model.
But the pursuit of a California country kick never ends, and today there’s plenty to be proud of. Solid hardcore talents like Rick Shea, Patty Booker, Kathy Robertson, the expanded-consciousness artistry of I See Hawks in L.A., the incomparable guitarist Pete Anderson, and an ever-swelling army of bluegrass pickers, country rockers, offbeat cowpunk shouters and retro-fixated revivalists all make for a bed of potentialities that’s far more heartening than it is funereal. But instead of celebrating the established voices, this story is a tour through Los Angeles’ country music underworld, stalking the worthy chosen few that deserve attention beyond their loyal fan base.
In California, it’s always been about the extreme to which one can take the music while remaining clearly linked to tradition, and what has always differentiated California country from the Southeastern model is its embrace of the aggressive, the offbeat — a Westerner’s attitude that drove decades of vibrant, progressive activity. It’s a connected manner of legitimate communicative expression rooted in the form, rather than an attempt to simulate that form. That’s a subtle distinction, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with having smelt a lot of mule shit (as Hank Sr. memorably put it) or "paying dues" or chopping cotton, but has everything to do with the differentiation between covetous aping and natural perceptive sensitivity. What it’s all about is combining the form with psychic gravity — something that cannot be simulated.
"I didn’t think I was any good until people started saying that I was," says 26-year-old singer-songwriter Molly Howson. Standing out front of Hallenbeck’s General Store, the North Hollywood coffeehouse where she’s just delivered a powerful set, Howson drags hungrily on a cigarette. Onstage, she’d torn into the lyrics with almost masculine gusto, and her material was both idiosyncratic and extraordinary. Snarling about unpacking her belongings after a romance went south, only to find she had brought along her ex’s "fuckin’ fishin’ hooks," or careening through "Jack Daniels Did," a hungover, scarcely remorseful tale of completely losing control at last night’s saloon (the title line is preceded, in admirably Loretta-esque fashion, by "My Mama didn’t raise me that way, but last night . . ."), Howson had considerable impact — even the low-rent NoHo intelligentsia, who had been groaning "Oh, no — a country singer?" turned out to be enthusiastic recipients of her slightly cracked, thoroughly genuine songs.