California Country

Courtesy the Gid Tanner Artist File,the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, The University ofNorth CaroCALIFORNIA'S COUNTRY-MUSIC PROFILE HAS ALWAYS trailed behind Nashville's for the same reason that country music has lagged as a genre: It's gotten bad press or no press. For many years, country stars in Nashville got into the newspaper only for being arrested or for dying; when Hank Williams checked out in 1953, the Nashville Banner's tiny story was headlined "Hillbilly Star, Songwriter, Dies in Auto." Reviews of country concerts themselves are a fairly recent development, and of course Nashville gets the lion's share of media coverage. And serious study of country is still in its relative infancy: Bill Malone's seminal Country Music U.S.A. was published in 1968 by a university press.

Imagine, then, if you're a young and hungry, struggling country singer in Bakersfield in the 1960s. Ignored by Los Angeles media and never even considered by the Nashville establishment, musicians such as Wynn Stewart, Merle Travis, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard labored in a stony vineyard indeed. Producer Ken Nelson, who was doing groundbreaking work at the Capitol Records tower in Los Angeles, was overlooked while Nashville cats like Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley were starting to get national attention. That's the world that Gerald Haslam and his co-authors, Richard Chon and Alexandra Haslam Russell, document in Workin' Man Blues.

Not surprisingly, given Haslam's roots in the area (he was raised in Oildale), Bakersfield itself provides a compelling story. Heavily populated by a Depression-era exodus of "Okies" from Texas and Oklahoma, the oil and farming area was the center of what Haslam calls "the other California," the blue-collar California of Downey and Richmond, Yreka and Arvin, places where working men drank their beer and loved their country music. Their music developed a harder honky-tonk edge than Nashville ever attained, or perhaps desired. Born of the Central Valley's gritty honky-tonks, the music was defined primarily by the steel guitar, which, while of Hawaiian origin, reached its apogee in California country, producing an otherworldly voice that could make the music laugh or cry.

Several California steel players -- especially Joaquin Murphey, Speedy West and Ralph Mooney -- came to represent the instrument. Murphey played in Spade Cooley's bands of the early 1940s, West with Cooley's and Hank Penny's groups, Mooney with Wynn Stewart and, later, with Waylon Jennings' Waylors. The West Texan Jennings spent his formative musical years in Arizona and first recorded in L.A. for A&M records. Through him, Mooney became the primary bridge in exporting the modern California honky-tonk sound to Nashville.

Many of Southern California's stalwarts were transplants, and not just by dint of birth: Bob Wills came from Texas and would return there. California, Haslam argues, is where people go to reinvent themselves. That self- transformation also explains the broad difference between California and Nashville. Nashville's music came from the top down -- dictated by the producers and publishers, who were the power brokers in that city. California's country tended to come from the bottom, bubbling up as a natural process.

Several transformations are central to California country's story: Buck Owens, Spade Cooley, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell and Ken Nelson. Arkansan Campbell became typically Californian, seguing effortlessly from the Champs and the Beach Boys to country superstar. A practitioner of smooth country, he used his nationwide TV show to further artists with a harder sound.

Haggard's and Owens' stories are well-known, and Haslam has nothing new to tell us about these two fiercely independent spirits who went their own ways and have left the two most formidable California country legacies. He does better with Cooley, whose life, Haslam believes, is the quintessential California country story. Born Donnell Clyde Cooley, he was a poor Okie who became a farm laborer, and then a part-time musician, in Modesto. He arrived in L.A. with 6 cents in his pocket and talked his way into becoming a movie stand-in for Roy Rogers (then still known as Len Slye). He slowly transformed himself into Spade Cooley, urbane nightclub bandleader, with regular gigs at the Venice Pier Ballroom. Soon he owned a yacht and had a show on KTLA, L.A.'s first commercially licensed station. As musical tastes began to change in the 1950s, Cooley began building an entertainment park in the Mojave Desert. Along the way, though, alcohol claimed him, and he beat his wife to death in front of his 14-year-old daughter. (Though Haslam doesn't say so, Cooley testified at his trial that "Rockets ran through my brain when Ella Mae told me of her desire to join a 'free-love cult.'") Just before being paroled, Cooley played a police benefit in Oakland, walked offstage from a standing ovation, had a massive coronary and died on the spot. Now, that's a story.

CALIFORNIA IS PERHAPS MOST NOTABLE FOR GIVING THE world Nudie suits and the Eagles. After L.A. singer Tex Williams began wearing Nudie's many-splendored rhinestone outfits in the 1940s, Nashvilleans ranging from Hank Williams to Porter Wagoner flocked to Nudie's shop on Lankershim Boulevard. Until then, Nashville's stars wore business suits onstage; Nudie transformed that black-and-gray world into Technicolor.

As for the Eagles, they were the logical extension of years of folkies and borderline country artists striving to fuse rock and country. They were years ahead of the sound that '90s country radio found most palatable: not music that would draw in listeners, but music that wouldn't drive them away.

Ultimately, California couldn't hold on to its country. It could neither support nor build upon its institutions. UCLA was, in 1965, home to the prestigious John Edwards Memorial Foundation, a center of country-music scholarship that could have rivaled the Country Music Foundation and Hall of Fame in Nashville. Neglected and unwanted, the JEMF packed up in 1983 and headed for Chapel Hill, where it was welcomed by the University of North Carolina. And there never came to be a geographical rallying point in California: no Grand Ole Opry or Music Row. The Palomino in North Hollywood came as close as any place, and it now lies dormant.

In Nashville, at least, California will long be remembered for giving it Jimmy Bowen. From New Mexico, Bowen was a teenage rock star who ended up in L.A., where he produced hits for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. Then he left in 1977 for Music City and took charge of the place -- reworking the country studio system, running nine different record companies at one time or another, and giving the world Garth Brooks. California's ultimate revenge.

WORKIN' MAN BLUES | By GERALD W. HASLAM, with RICHARD CHON and ALEXANDRA HASLAM RUSSELL | University of California Press | 380 pages | $30 hardcover

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >