Why Is Bakersfield Associated with Country Music?

by Patria

Bakersfield, California, might not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about country music. Traditionally, country music is associated with the Southern United States, with Nashville, Tennessee, being its heart. However, Bakersfield has carved out its own significant place in the history of the genre. This article explores why Bakersfield is associated with country music, delving into its history, key figures, and the distinctive sound that came to be known as the “Bakersfield Sound.”

1. The Historical Context

The Dust Bowl Migration

In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl drove many families from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri to California in search of a better life. This migration had a profound impact on Bakersfield, as many of these migrants settled there, bringing their musical traditions with them. They found work in the agricultural fields and oil industries, but they also brought their love for country music, which began to thrive in their new home.

Post-War Boom

The end of World War II saw another wave of migration and economic growth in Bakersfield. The city’s population grew rapidly, and with it, the demand for entertainment. Dance halls, honky-tonks, and bars sprang up, providing venues for country musicians to perform. This environment nurtured a burgeoning music scene that would eventually lead to the creation of the Bakersfield Sound.

2. The Bakersfield Sound

Origins and Characteristics

The Bakersfield Sound emerged in the late 1950s as a reaction to the polished, string-laden productions coming out of Nashville, often referred to as the “Nashville Sound.” Bakersfield musicians favored a rawer, more stripped-down approach that featured prominent electric guitars, a strong backbeat, and elements of rock and roll. This sound was characterized by its use of Fender Telecaster guitars, which provided a bright, sharp tone that became a hallmark of the style.


The Bakersfield Sound was influenced by a variety of musical genres, including Western swing, rockabilly, and honky-tonk. Artists in Bakersfield were also influenced by the Mexican music prevalent in California, which added a unique flavor to their sound. This blend of influences created a fresh and energetic style that stood in stark contrast to the more polished productions of Nashville.

3. Key Figures

Buck Owens

Buck Owens is often considered the father of the Bakersfield Sound. He moved to Bakersfield in the early 1950s and began playing in local honky-tonks. Owens developed a distinct style that emphasized electric guitars and a strong rhythm section. His band, the Buckaroos, became one of the most influential groups in country music, producing hits like “Act Naturally” and “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail.” Owens’ success brought national attention to Bakersfield and its unique sound.

Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard, another central figure in the Bakersfield Sound, grew up in Bakersfield after his family moved there during the Dust Bowl. Haggard’s music reflected his rough upbringing and his experiences with poverty and incarceration. His hits, such as “Mama Tried,” “Okie from Muskogee,” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” became anthems for working-class Americans. Haggard’s songwriting and vocal style had a significant impact on country music, further cementing Bakersfield’s place in its history.

Other Notable Artists

Other artists who contributed to the Bakersfield Sound include Wynn Stewart, who is credited with helping shape the sound in its early days, and Tommy Collins, whose songwriting influenced many of his peers. Together, these artists and others created a vibrant music scene in Bakersfield that rivaled Nashville’s dominance.

4. The Legacy of Bakersfield

Influence on Modern Country Music

The Bakersfield Sound has had a lasting impact on country music. Its emphasis on electric instruments and a rock-influenced rhythm set the stage for future subgenres, including country rock and outlaw country. Artists like Dwight Yoakam, who emerged in the 1980s, explicitly drew on the Bakersfield Sound, blending it with more contemporary influences to create a hybrid style that appealed to a new generation of fans.

Bakersfield Today

Today, Bakersfield continues to celebrate its musical heritage. The Buck Owens Crystal Palace, a music venue and museum, attracts visitors from around the world who come to experience live music and learn about the history of the Bakersfield Sound. The city hosts various music festivals and events that honor its contributions to country music.

See Also: 3 Basic Genres of Country Music Revealed: A Full Guide


Bakersfield’s association with country music is rooted in its unique history and the distinctive sound that emerged from its vibrant music scene. The migration of Dust Bowl refugees, the post-war boom, and the influence of key figures like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard all played pivotal roles in establishing Bakersfield as a significant center for country music. The Bakersfield Sound not only provided an alternative to the Nashville Sound but also laid the groundwork for future developments in the genre. Today, Bakersfield remains a testament to the enduring power of music to shape and reflect the cultural identity of a community.

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