Bakersfield Sound

The Bakersfield sound is a country music style that was first developed in the 1950s by Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, Bonnie Owens, and Merle Haggard.

Although they never recorded together as a group (or even appeared on stage together), these artists from Bakersfield, California, created an entire subgenre of country music to be known as the “Bakersfield” sound.

What Is the Bakersfield Sound?

  • The Bakersfield sound is referred to as “country western” music, but it has its roots in honky tonk;
  • The genre is characterized by a louder, more aggressive sound than the softer and smoother Nashville sound;
  • And this was all thanks to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

A Brief History of the Bakersfield Sound

While you might think of Nashville, Tennessee, as the center of country music, a lesser-known city played a major role in shaping the genre: Bakersfield, California.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the golden age of country music, Nashville’s elite artists began experimenting with a more polished sound known as the “Nashville Sound. This new style was characterized by lush orchestration and more commercial recording techniques.

For some artists, this was a positive change – but for others, it meant producing watered-down songs that lacked grit. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were among those who embraced the rougher edges; they created their own distinctive sound with a style called “The Bakersfield Sound.

As they developed it over time, they unknowingly laid the groundwork for other genres like rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll to emerge in its wake.

Musical Characteristics of The Bakersfield Sound

It is not difficult to recognize the qualities of the Bakersfield sound when you hear it. You can tell it apart from other styles of music by the prominent use of guitar and drums. These instruments were not used in traditional country music; instead, violins or fiddles were often used.

In addition, the guitar was almost always acoustic, giving a softer sound than an electric guitar would. Then there’s that unmistakable twang (used in abundance by Haggard) that immediately catches your ear and demands your attention.

Despite these characteristics, Owens and Haggard disliked being labeled “The Bakersfield Sound” because they wanted to be recognized as classic country artists, not as pioneers of a unique sound they didn’t particularly care for.

How is the Bakersfield Sound Different from the Nashville Sound?

The Bakersfield sound differs from the Nashville sound in several ways. For one, the Bakersfield Sound is driven by the electric guitar and has a distinctly twangy playing style, while the Nashville Sound often features steel guitars.

Also, the themes in Bakersfield songs tend to be about working hard and having fun – things like raising hell on the weekend or being bored at work. Nashville’s songs tend to be more about love and loss.

The Bakersfield Artists

  • Buck Owens was one of the main creators of the Bakersfield sound. In an interview with NPR, Dwight Yoakam said that Buck Owens “was everything to me that a performer could be, and I tried to emulate his stage presence and his energy.
  • Yoakam, along with artists such as Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons, also helped bring elements of the Bakersfield sound back to country music through the band “The Byrds”.
  • Merle Haggard is another artist associated with the Bakersfield Sound. All three of these men were fans of Bob Wills and heard him on radio stations from California to Texas.
  • Like Bob Wills, they used western swing instrumentation as well as rockabilly musical elements that made this new genre sound so fresh in music at the time.


The Bakersfield Sound has recently experienced a resurgence due to California’s socio-economic conditions and listener nostalgia.

Artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens continue to record music classified under the genre. Wynn Stewart’s music has been played on classic and retro radio stations.

This style of country music continues to be based on the same essential elements and remains one of the most identifiable sounds in the world of country music.
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