Occasionally, I’ll be asked to sit in the front of a charter bus and point out landmarks associated with Bakersfield’s musical glory days.
Here, on the left, the saloon where Merle Haggard, out of prison for a year, met for the first time the two small record company bosses who were to change her life, and he theirs. There, on the right, a few miles down the road, is the impossibly small studio where Buck Owens recorded rockabilly records under a pseudonym so as not to impersonate a rock’n’roller.
More often than not, I will point to an empty dirt lot. The challenge of bringing color and twang to a barren patch of land beside an abandoned rural road is a storytelling obstacle akin to trying to run with a sandbag draped over your shoulder. It will build muscle that might be useful later, but it might not be pretty to look at.
Since the height of the cultural phenomenon known as Bakersfield Sound in the 1960s, this town has lost nearly every important landmark that heralded its rise as a community of musical consequence.
Now, at least symbolically, he wins one.
The Kern County Museum’s standalone Bakersfield Sound exhibit, 20 Years in the Making, opens to the public on Sunday. The proximity of the 850 square foot barnwood building to two other iconic landmarks of the era is in itself a telling illustration of the challenges of preservation.
The new exhibit’s new collection of guitars, boots, Nudie jumpsuits and salvaged honky-tonk sit 100 yards down an asphalt driveway from the converted railway carriage where Haggard spent several years of his childhood. In 2015, the curators, with the family’s approval, moved the dilapidated house from its working-class Oildale neighborhood 2 miles south of the museum. The renovated boxcar opened to the public in 2017, a year after Haggard’s death, and has been a mecca for pilgrims ever since.
A hundred yards in the other direction is the place — the square – where Bakersfield’s most famous and influential honky-tonk cultivated the distinctive sound and style that helped make this place the country music capital of the West Coast for more than a decade. The Blackboard Cafe, a mandatory stop for all the big names in country music who toured the state in the 1950s and 1960s, was demolished in September 2001. The fact that the Kern County Museum owned the land on which the Blackboard resided is an irony. not lost on the people who will cherish the new exhibit the most.
And, yes, the demolished saloon is also a stop on my empty bus tour.
The Blackboard, like the Lucky Spot, Clover Club, Tex’s Barrel House, Trout’s and other honky-tonks that are now razed or remodeled beyond recognition, was a utilitarian structure with few redeeming architectural features beyond of her white neon on black sign. That doesn’t mean the building – its walls would be riddled with lead slugs from its post-saloon days as an indoor shooting range – wouldn’t have made a fine home for a Bakersfield Sound exhibit.
Which shouldn’t detract from the reality that Bakersfield now has, in fact, a beautiful Bakersfield Sound exposure.
The classroom-sized building in the southeast corner of the museum grounds houses more than 200 artifacts from the era that made Bakersfield famous – from the rusty, mottled red and white metal sign of 6 square feet from Chet’s Club (next-door to Lucky Spot and essentially its artists’ green room) to a collection of branded ashtrays and lighters.
The show’s dozen garish stage costumes, many designed by legendary star tailors Nudie Cohn and Nathan Turk, are the showpiece. The exhibition’s collection features embellished outfits worn by Rose Maddox of the vastly underrated Maddox Brothers and Rose, Cousin Herb Henson, Billy Mize, Tommy Collins, Barbara Mandrell and others including Owens and Haggard.
The exhibit literally features pieces of the old honky-tonks, including a piece of Trout’s bar – complete with a section of the saloon’s original glass block – to the original barrel-shaped front door of this Long gone saloon Garces Circle, Tex’s Barrel House.
“There were a lot of beer bottles thrown at it, I’m telling you,” museum director Mike McCoy said of Tex’s door. “And those are three of the original bar stools.” They are authentic too, down to the slight cigarette burns in the naugahyde.
True believers might shed a tear in their beer at the sight of the Trout sign on the wall behind the Trout Bar, but, alas, it’s only a facsimile.
The famous sign disappeared years ago when Trout’s former owner Thomas Rockwell had it removed for renovations, or so he claimed. Neither he nor the sign has been seen since, at least not here, and Rockwell is currently serving time on a fraud conviction for several unrelated crimes in Tuolumne County.
The building that once housed Trout’s on North Chester Avenue – purchased four years ago by Kern Medical Properties LLC – has finally begun undergoing extensive exterior renovations, beginning its transformation from the era’s last surviving saloon into a medical facility, so those who hoped that the nightclub could somehow return to its former glory should now, sadly, withdraw those dreams. Fans can at least take solace in the new exhibit’s “Trout Corner,” which also features a wagon-wheel chandelier and the beaten-up wooden bench that has occupied the front sidewalk for decades.
This is not the kind of exhibition that lends itself to a single visit. It’s not a seen-a-fiddle, seen-them-all sort of thing. McCoy said the museum’s huge basement, which housed most of the artifacts currently on display, is full of other great candidates that he and museum curator Rachel Hads simply couldn’t fit into the exhibit – not yet.
“This is an ever-evolving exhibit,” McCoy said. “It’s not going to stay static. We will add, remove, all that.
Visiting country music fans projecting sufficient degrees of seriousness already got a glimpse of the new exhibit last week, McCoy said.
“I had a nice couple come here from Nashville … (and they) were wearing a huge Haggard shirt,” McCoy said. “So I brought him here and let him hold Merle Haggard’s boots. And he started crying. He was delighted. And then I let his wife hold Buck Owens’ guitar. And she started crying. »
It’s the kind of scene that hosts of other Bakersfield country music shows have experienced over the years: teary-eyed tourists overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of some remnants of their lifelong fandom.
Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace dinner club and museum – the city’s No. 1 tourist attraction – has seen many visitors develop happy lumps in their throats. This kind of thing also happened at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, a recording studio and concert venue owned by Kim McAbee Carter and her husband Kyle Carter. (Carter, according to McCoy, was among several local donors who contributed dollars to the new Kern County Museum exhibit, and much of the funding came from a California cultural and historical foundation).
Get ready for more aqueduct. Bakersfield may not have the honky-tonk scene it once had, but the city is steadily accumulating tourist-attracting tributes to those same honky-tonks. And it’s almost as good.