Arts, Music, Column

Like A Rolling Stone: Learning to Love the Bakersfield Sound

When I say I’m from California, people automatically assume I’m from Los Angeles. I imagine a mental map of California for those from the Northeast is composed of a massive southern portion labeled “L.A.,” a decent-sized chunk for San Francisco thrown haphazardly above L.A., and maybe a tiny dot for Sacramento somewhere in the northern region if I’m speaking to a true intellectual with a grip on state capitals. I was born and raised in the forgettable region of California—the Central Valley. Despite being located roughly two hours away from the city of angels, my hometown of Bakersfield seems as though it could be in a different state entirely.

Referred to as the armpit of California, it serves as the punchline of jokes for the elite California coast natives—Bakersfield is the origin of the porta-potty door that washes up in Cast Away and the place that Karl goes to buy drugs in Workaholics. I grew up despising Bakersfield for its blazing hot 100 degree days in summer and good ol’ Republican values. The entire city seems as though it was transplanted from the South and dropped between the Sierra Nevada Mountains with a surplus of cowboy boots and the occasional unfortunate Confederate flag. There was one aspect of the Bakersfield culture that I came to blame for all of the city’s unfavorable qualities: country music.

Bakersfield loves country music like Boston College loves “Mr. Brightside”—some drunk girl is bound to be pouring her heart and soul into singing it at every party. Contemporary country music stars take over my Snapchat feed when they make a stop in town, and there is always that friend who insists on listening to Thomas Rhett or Eli Young Band during every car ride. I found almost no redeeming qualities about the genre. When I listened to country music, I just heard tired guitar riffs and sexist undertones.

It wasn’t until I purchased The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls on vinyl at a rundown store full of boxes of underpriced vintage records in downtown Bakersfield that I began to see a different side of country music. I put the record on the Crosley turntable in the corner of my bedroom and reveled in the authentic sounds of “Miss You” and “Just My Imagination” before flipping to the B-side and hearing Mick Jagger croon the name of my hometown for the first time. To hear Jagger’s voice even utter the name of a place so familiar to me sent a chill down my spine. I played it again, thinking I heard it wrong the first time, but the word didn’t change. Jagger opens “Far Away Eyes” singing “I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield” in an egregiously fake Southern accent against a pedal steel guitar and slow drum beat.

Despite being rock stars from the faraway land of Britain, The Stones get so much right about Bakersfield on the 1978 track. Although Southern accents aren’t native to Bakersfield, the rock-infused country music beat perfectly mimics the Bakersfield sound that still booms out of the city’s iconic honky-tonk bar and restaurant (Buck Owens Crystal Palace) today. Jagger also touches on the simplicity and Christian values of Bakersfield when the preacher on the gospel radio station tells him, “You know, you always have the Lord by your side.” So, as any God-fearing Bakersfield local would, Jagger “ran 20 red lights in His honor,” saying “Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord” all the while. The lyrics are both hilarious and true—Bakersfield wouldn’t be the same without its megachurches led by millionaire pastors.

The Rolling Stones aren’t the only rock group to take a few notes from the Bakersfield sound, however. The Eagles discussed their reverence for the signature sound when they stopped at Rabobank Arena a few years ago. The remnants of the country movement of the ’50s and ’60s pervade their early works, including hits like “Take It Easy” and “The Best of My Love.” Don Henley and Glenn Frey even recalled conducting early recordings in a shack just south of the twangy town.

I had never realized what an essential role the sound I had so staunchly resented played in shaping the music of bands I idolized. Even Nashville, the mecca of country music, recognizes the impact of Bakersfield on the genre: While passing through on a road trip, I stopped at Bakersfield Tacos, a trendy restaurant inspired by the music and taco truck scene of my hometown located 2,000 miles away. The little piece of home and Country Music Association Fest taking place down the street didn’t stop my displaced Bakersfield best friend and me from blasting Kendrick Lamar with the windows down in the streets of Nashville, however.

While you won’t see me listening to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard or line dancing to live music at the Crystal Palace anytime soon, I have grown to respect the brand of country music with which I share my own roots. Quite frankly, if Bakersfield was charming enough for Mick Jagger to write a song about, it’s charming enough to call home.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor

February 28, 2018