The “Bakersfield Sound”—inland California’s answer to Nashville country music—traces its roots to the dusty streets of the Great Depression, when Okies headed West to find work in the oil fields. Buck Owens, a figurehead of the scene, gave the Kern County city its anthem, “The Streets of Bakersfield,” in 1973. His defiant opening lines: “I came here looking for something I couldn’t find anywhere else.”
That song and the music scene it belonged to were so distinctive, and remain so influential, that the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville only just closed the exhibition “The Bakersfield Sound” after almost three years on display. Bakersfield still remains a magnet for people looking for new opportunities—but most of them no longer come from Oklahoma. Who will write the song that will represent Bakersfield in a museum decades from now? And what will it sound like?
In advance of the Zócalo/James Irvine Foundation event “What Does Bakersfield Sound Like Today?”, we asked people immersed in the city’s art scene today to answer the question: What will the next iconic Bakersfield song be about?
Bruce Springsteen has never written a song about Bakersfield. And considering the somehow-still-rocking artist’s age, he probably won’t ever get around to it.
But imagine his heir apparent, let’s say, 20 years from now. And at the same time, imagine Bakersfield. Imagine Kern County and the San Joaquin Valley.
Imagine that our historic, horrific drought had turned from hardship into the new normal. Imagine multi-generational ranches and orchards being reclaimed by the valley’s dust. Imagine children learning about oil booms from driving past long-dormant pumps–instead of seeing the dirt caked under their fathers’ fingernails.
Imagine that living a simple life is no longer certain.
These gloomy scenarios are what Springsteen songs are made of. These are the hopeless (yet anachronistically hopeful) players and settings hinted at in “Youngstown,” “Factory,” “Reason to Believe,” and “My Hometown.” The dingy assembly lines of small New Jersey towns aren’t much different than the dawn-lit fields found in Kern County.
Bakersfield isn’t paradise, and we don’t pretend to be sophisticated. It’s a hardworking, sometimes-dirty town, and we were bought up by hardworking, sometimes-dirty men and women.
This is not Silicon Valley. This is not Beverly Hills. As time marches on, we’re probably going to feel the hurt more so than in other locales. It’s progress, sure, but there’s going to be pain as well.
I don’t know who exactly will take on the futile effort to replace The Boss. But I do know he will write a song about Bakersfield—and it will likely comfort some and anger far more. But it will be something that needs to be written.
This is a prediction, not a hope. It’s a would-be reality, not an attempted silver lining. But when times turn better—“I believe in a promised land,” Bruce sang—the song will take on new, more hopeful meaning.
Mark Powell is a reporter and editor for The Bakersfield Californian. He produces video stories and columns for Bakersfield.com and helps design the daily opinion section. He was born and raised in Bakersfield and has lived there most of his life.
I think that the next iconic Bakersfield song will be about Bakersfield: about living here and working here and surviving along the way. Bakersfield’s rich musical heritage sets it apart from most cities. This city has changed the face of music twice (Buck Owens and Korn). Not many big small towns can say that.
Songwriters from here earn their visibility by putting the work in and not being too loud about it. A band like the Aviators know this, and they are good candidates to write the next song about their hometown of Bakersfield. But anyone in a band here also knows that fame and money won’t come easily when artists “age-out” of the music industry around 25 years old and the inevitability of life’s responsibilities kick in. The only styles where that age doesn’t matter are jazz and blues where age equals accomplishment just by the sheer act of perseverance.
The most iconic song about Bakersfield in my mind is “Streets of Bakersfield” and that song perfectly encapsulates the attitude and grit this town has. As for the next great song from here, it will probably go one of two ways: a younger artist could write about leaving Bakersfield, idealizing escape. Or, a more established, older songwriter could write about finding happiness here. But you won’t find much middle ground between the malaise of someone wanting to get out and the security of someone deciding to settle in, unless it’s the story of a life come full circle.
Songwriters work best when they work with what they know, and one thing musicians here know is Bakersfield. As my friend Ty Elam says, this is a place where “the friends are deep and the rent is cheap.” This town still has an unapologetic, strongly artistic community buried under its surface. And luckily, it still has many venues and an audience for live music to support songwriters and performers when record companies don’t foot the bill anymore.
Cesareo Garasa is a professional musician who has been performing statewide with his band Mento Buru and many others since 1989. He is also a contributor for The Bakersfield Californian, and a private drum teacher in Bakersfield.
Bakersfield could use a song, its own anthem, and maybe, if a new one came along we would put down our phones and hum a few bars. This song would have to raise our reputation, since Bakersfield is usually number one on top 10 worst anything lists. It’s not that we drink; we are one of the drunkest cities in the nation. It’s not that we are in a drought; we are the driest place in California. And as for our air; yes, it too, is the worst.
Why would anyone want to walk the “Streets of Bakersfield”? Because we are the friendliest town on the planet. It doesn’t matter where I go—downtown, the river, or Costco—I know half the people I see, and those I don’t say hi anyway. I dare you to take a drive here and not wave. It’s impossible.
Bakersfield truly is the friendliest big-little town you have every set cowboy boots in. And if that isn’t enough, leave town and tell someone where you are from, and I bet they have a Bakersfield story. I met my first true love in summer school at Harvard, and guess what? He was born in Bakersfield.
You probably got your dog in Bakersfield. Or maybe you used to live here. Or your car broke down here, and a generous family helped you get back on the road. Next time you’re in line at the airport, mention you’re from Bakersfield, and those around you will become your new friends and will send Christmas cards for life.
Bakersfield might be in the top 10 for diabetes and teen pregnancies, but in an age where texting and social media are clogging our lines of face-to-face conversing, this town just gets friendlier and friendlier. I guess you can say we are “Hi on This List.” Catchy, isn’t it?
David Gordon is a third generation Kern County native and executive director of the Arts Council of Kern. He is also an established landscape painter and landscape designer.