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 hub for country music, a lesser-known city played an important role in shaping the genre: Bakersfield, California.
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 their rougher edges; they created their own distinct sound with a style called “The Bakersfield Sound”.
As they developed it over time, they unknowingly laid down 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 hard to pick out the qualities of The Bakersfield Sound when you hear it. You can tell it apart from other musical styles with its prominent use of the guitar and drums. These instruments were not used in traditional country music; instead, violins or fiddles were commonly used.
Despite these features, Owens and Haggard disliked being labeled as The Bakersfield Sound because they wanted to be recognized as classic country artists that paid homage to Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills rather than pioneers of a unique sound they didn’t particularly care for.
How is the Bakersfield Sound different from the Nashville sound?
The Bakersfield Sound is different from the Nashville Sound in a few ways. For one thing, the Bakersfield sound is driven by the electric guitar and has a distinctly twangy style of playing, while the Nashville sound often features steel guitars.
In addition, the themes in Bakersfield songs are typically about working hard and having fun—things like raising hell on the weekend or feeling 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 Buck Owens “was everything to me that a performer could be, and I tried to emulate his stage demeanor and his energy”.
Merle Haggard is another artist who is associated with the Bakersfield sound. All three of these men were fans of Bob Wills, listening to him on radio stations from California all the way down to Texas.
Like Bob Wills, they would also utilize western swing instrumentation as well as rockabilly musical elements, which was what made this new genre so fresh sounding in music at that time.
The Bakersfield sound has seen a recent resurgence due to the socio-economic conditions in California and the nostalgia of listeners.
Artists like 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 around the same essential elements and remains one of the most identifiable sounds in the world of country music.