Huge for the economy of California, Bakersfield is significant in production of the nation’s agriculture, as well as oil production. The County Seat of Kern County, Bakersfield is the ninth largest city in California and covers over 150 square miles in size and ranks as the 52nd largest city by size in the country, ahead of Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
Bakersfield was founded on hospitality. In the mid-19th century, Col. Thomas Baker was known for offering travelers a place to rest in the area he settled. It was called “Baker’s Field.” By 1870, with a population of 600, Bakersfield was becoming the principal town in the area.
Oil is what drew people here at the turn of the century. It’s what kept the Okies here fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. And when they came—nearly doubling Kern County’s population—they brought their hillbilly music with them. Displaced and impoverished, they sang around campfires in work camps. They held dances in Farm Security Administration settlements. They opened cheap beer joints—later called honky-tonks—whose house bands began to play a different kind of country music: electric, danceable, swinging.
Music became the region’s second natural resource. Performers such as Lefty Fizzell, Wynn Stewart, and Ferlin Husky ignited a national buzz around Bakersfield. The 1953 Jean Shepard/Ferlin Husky classic, “A Dear John Letter” marked the inauguration of the musical eminence that would define this town. It was the area’s first national hit.
Right around this time, Buck Owens strapped on that Telecaster. He started out as the lead guitarist for Bill Woods’ Orange Blossom Playboys, the house band at a local honky-tonk called the Blackboard (which has since shut down). He hit sharper, more rock-and-roll lyrics than the sweet country tunes being over-produced in Nashville by Chet Atkins and performed on the Grand Ole Opry.
Buck Owens moved from Texas (by way of Arizona) in 1950 when he was 20 and had dreams bigger than the truck-driving career he’d landed. And in 1969, Buck Owens hit his first Top 10 single, “Under Your Spell Again”. Three years later, he was off and running on his marathon of Number-Ones. Most significant, perhaps, he’s credited with giving rise to a new kind of country—the hard-driving, bare-bones honky-tonk style that came to be known as the “Bakersfield Sound“.
Buck’s Bakersfield legacy is rivaled only by that of local boy Merle Haggard, who also started out by playing in honky-tonks when he wasn’t doing time. (Merle sings about these establishments—Blackboard, Lucky Spot—in “Bars of Bakersfield”.) Buck and Merle share that guitar-driven sound, a line-up of No. 1 hits, an ex-wife by the name of Bonnie Owens (herself a local singer of note) and a reverence for Bakersfield which reveals itself in many of their lyrics.
The difference is that Buck stayed here. He lived on a ranch 20 miles out of town while Merle moved up to Shasta County in the early 1980s.
The main exit of Highway 99 is now known as Buck Owens Boulevard. The old Bakersfield sign, once down on Union Avenue/Highway 99, now arches over Select Avenue adjacent to the Crystal Palace, a $6.7 million nightclub and restaurant opened by Buck in 1966. Buck bought the sign to save it from the wrecking ball. He also owned the main country music station, KUZZ.
Buck first recorded “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1972 and re-recorded it in 1988 as a duet with Dwight Yoakam, again hitting No. 1.
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Streets Of Bakersfield
I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself
I’ve spent a thousand miles a-thumbin’
Yes, I’ve worn blisters on my heels
Trying to find me something better
Here on the streets of Bakersfield
—lyrics by Dwight Yoakam; vocals by Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam