Heartaches by the Numbers

Southern California is, has been and likely always will be the nation’s leading market for retail country-music sales, a fact that most locals are astonished to learn. Not that the hit makers are homegrown, but it does indeed lend weight to Lux Interior’s assertion that “Los Angeles is the biggest hick town in the world.” It’s been quite a spell since California talent clogged the charts or drew the crowds of yore — tens of thousands used to show up for the ongoing swing wars between Spade Cooley and Texas transplant Bob Wills — but Los Angeles country music pushes on, albeit tortuously, via the efforts of a half-mad handful whose work constitutes a legitimate evolution of the area’s established traditions.

In order to grasp where country is today, one must understand the California tradition, a blast of high-volume hot guitar, untamed vocals and a driving, just-for-the-hell-of-it bite that was often completely at odds with the Southeastern country orthodoxy. Country in L.A. has a far deeper and more colorful history than most people realize, and it’s always been characterized by an unusual melding of folk tradition and canny commercialism. It stretches back to the late 1920s, when the string band the Beverly Hillbillies “ambled barefoot out of the back country” (as their PR claimed) and into the studios at radio station KMPC; more than 30 years later, the outfit still had the wherewithal to seek and obtain a settlement from Paul Henning, creator of the same-named TV series. While Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers ruled the 1930s, the music enjoyed a propulsive postwar jump-start via the braying, snorting stomp of the Maddox Bros. & Rose, the boogies of Tennessee Ernie Ford, the near avant-garde guitar and steel breaks of Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, and Merle Travis’ sly uptown honky-tonk — a dazzling crew who established the area as home to an aggressively forward-looking collection of artists. Southern stars flocked here — at the height of their careers, Johnny Cash and Lefty Frizzell turned down the Grand Ole Opry and moved to Encino.

California country gave way to the expressive, elegant balladry of Tommy Collins and climaxed with the true architect of modern California country, Wynn Stewart. What most refer to as the Bakersfield Sound should, insiders agree, really be called the Baldwin Park Sound — it was codified by the Los Angeles–based Stewart, with key contributions from guitarist Roy Nichols and steel-player Ralph Mooney, and Stewart’s releases on the Challenge label served as blueprints for virtually everything Buck Owens and Merle Haggard rose to acclaim with. (Stewart hired a fresh-from–San Quentin Hag as his bass player and later gave him that crucial first hit, “Sing a Sad Song.”)

Few forebears remain active today; the latest major loss to Southern California country came with the April 30 passing of Bakersfield-scene boss Bill Woods, the first cat to strap on a Fender Strat and throw down a barrage of jumped-up hillbilly riffology, circa 1949. Yet, incredibly, we still have a genuine Depression-era Singing Cowboy, Riders of the Purple Sage founder Buck Page, who holds forth in country and rock clubs alike, picking his battered box and yodeling as wildly as ever.

Nationally, the Golden State isn’t faring well in 2000, and it seems that whenever one of our groups gets a chance on a major, ignominy follows: country-rock pounders Big House, signed up to MCA a while back, ended up in shambles and debt, scattered by the cold Nashville wind back to the dust of the San Joaquin and San Fernando valleys. California today boasts a mere two big guns: Dwight Yoakam and, of course, Hall of Famer Merle Haggard. Yoakam has successfully parlayed his plangent twang into multimillion-selling status, and his career has recently gone into an almost hyperactive overdrive — recording two full-length albums and scripting, shooting and directing his “major motion picture,” South of Heaven West of Hell, in such close proximity that all these are virtually concurrent efforts. Not that Yoakam is always in control — Bakersfield overlord Buck Owens recently had to bail out the film to the tune of a million dollars, lest production be forced to shut down.

Speaking of Owens, whose unretirement was almost entirely due to Yoakam, if you haven’t made the pilgrimage to his Hee-Haw–aesthetic monument to himself, the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, then you really have no idea how genuinely corny-country Southern California is. The Palace looks like craft-faire hell, but Owens still hits the stage with his exuberant hard-tonk drive intact.

Now, Merle Haggard’s the one to watch. He’s got a wild one coming up, his debut album for punk rock label Epitaph’s sister imprint Anti. As unlikely a team as one could imagine, the deal came about, I’m proud to say, as a direct result of my 1999 Weekly cover â story “Love and Hell: Merle Haggard’s Twin Oracles,” and judging from several advance tracks, it’s going to be the best full-length effort he’s assembled in a decade. As peerless a vocalist as ever, with the Strangers supplying a low-key throb behind him, Hag’s got a couple of shockingly outspoken numbers that are guaranteed to startle even the most inveterate Haggard fan.

After accounting for Hag, Buck and Dwight, the whole remaining schmeer has to be broken into various categories: For starters, there’s the five-nights-a-week, meat-and-potatoes Top 40 bands like Larry Dean & the Shooters, the Tony Ryan Band, Cosgrove-Rushing, all solid outfits with a dusty trunkful of originals and who are compelled to slave away performing cover tunes. They travel an endless circuit of ramshackle joints, from Pico Rivera to Chatsworth, and, baby, that kind of gig is work with a capital W. There’s a valiant clutch of honky-tonk heroes — people like Cody Bryant, Paul Marshall, Patty Booker, Rick Shea, Brantley Kearns, Kathy Robertson, veteran musicians battling it out for an uncompromised stage on which to perform their own original songs. Many have recorded and released a series of fine CDs, strictly independent efforts that are almost invariably overlooked by both record distributors and the press.

While it’s a bruising grind for those actively pursuing a career in straight-ahead country, the popular perception of country music has in the last several years been slightly broadened by a thriving if artistically limited community of nightclub mutants, the retro-hillbilly set. Vintage-gear- and wardrobe-reliant acts have managed to win national reputations with fetishistic replications of established style. Operating on the periphery of the country idiom and aimed squarely away from country fans in favor of the 20s-ish nostalgia crowd, these cats have yet to write a song even half as good as the sources that inspired them. Stretching even further, one comes to the “Americana” market, a post-Dylan/Parsons cadre of wordy tunesmiths who owe far more to Neil Young and the Eagles than classic California-based balladeers such as Wesley Tuttle, Tommy Duncan and Wynn Stewart.

Still, it’s undeniably part of California’s way to embrace such disparate elements, a wild pool of often-conflicting sounds and attitudes. Fifteen years ago, Cal country and its heritage was underdocumented, scarcely appreciated and on the verge of extinction; the forceful campaigning of performers like Dwight Yoakam, authors such as Gerald Haslam and a handful of journalists has managed to re-introduce the legacy. Even Music City has, at long last, grudgingly conceded the vital role California played in the development of modern country.

It’s a wide-open field, not exactly lucrative, but still kicking. As Merle Haggard once said, “Country music doesn’t belong to Nashville, and it doesn’t belong to California — if you like it, get onboard.”

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