I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. If you’re not familiar with the newsletter already, click here to find out more.
I’m constantly trying to think about unexpected places where music journalism happens. For those who grew up in a completely digital world, you wouldn’t expect liner notes to be a place for it. But I’ve often found great writing and information you can’t get anywhere else printed on the back of an LP or stuffed into a jewel case. Each year, the Grammys highlights a fraction of this writing in their Best Liner Notes category. I reached out to all of the nominees this year to chat about their work. Scott B. Bomar wrote the notes to Various Artists, The Bakersfield Sound: Country Music Capital of the West, 1940-1974.
Can you please briefly describe the release for those that may not be familiar with it?
The Bakersfield Sound: Country Music Capital of the West, 1940-1974 is a 10 CD box set with an accompanying 224-page book that attempts to preserve the country music heritage of the California town that was once known as “Nashville West.” While Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the city’s best-known musical exports, they sprung from a rich local tradition that goes all the way back to the Grapes of Wrath era. In addition to writing the book, I also assembled all the tracks and produced the box set, so this was a real passion project for me personally. And it was super cool of Chris Shiflett of Foo Fighters to write an amazing foreword for the project!
Have you done much writing like this before? How did you get into it?
I’ve done several projects for Bear Family Records before, including a box set on songwriter Red Simpson (who’s been called the Bard of Bakersfield) and a two-disc collection of rare Bakersfield rockabilly-influenced stuff called The Other Side of Bakersfield. In fact, I was nominated for a 2015 Album Notes Grammy for that project, but I lost out to Ashley Kahn’s excellent John Coltrane notes. If I’m beaten out by someone as great as Ashley Kahn, then that makes me a proud Grammy loser!
In terms of getting into it, Bakersfield’s country music history is something I’m slightly obsessed with. I grew up in Nashville and grew up around the music industry. Obviously Nashville looms large in country music and is kind of the dominant power player. When I moved to Southern California and learned how much country music history there was on the West Coast, I wanted to wave that banner. I’m just naturally rebellious that way, and I love David and Goliath stories. When the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville did a big Bakersfield exhibition several years back they recruited me to write the anchor essay for the accompanying book. It was gratifying to get to champion my adopted home state’s musical heritage in my original home state!
I love all kinds of music, but there’s just something about the underdog nature of the Bakersfield story that keeps me coming back to it. And thank God for Bear Family Records, which is probably the only company that would put out something this niche and this lavish! Richard Weize, who founded the label, has been my biggest enabler in terms of helping me put my Bakersfield research out to the masses….or at least to the small handful of people who are really into this kind of thing!
What sort of primary material did you have to work with to write the liner notes?
I’ve been researching the Bakersfield music scene for several years and drew much of the information in the set from first-hand interviews with around 90 people. Some were folks like Merle Haggard and Wanda Jackson who are well-known, while others were local artists who put out a single record 55 or 60 years ago and hadn’t ever been interviewed before! There was a lot of detective work involved in tracking down some of these super-rare artists or, in some cases, their family members. So many of the pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound are no longer with us. In fact, about 25 of the people I interviewed have died since I first began my research. It’s like racing the clock to try to make sure these important stories are preserved and continue to be told.
What's the most interesting thing that you learned while researching this music?
I’m always struck by how important Ferlin Husky was to the Bakersfield story. Ferlin, who’s no longer with us, isn’t a household name today, but he was a big star in Nashville in the ‘50s and ‘60s with #1 hits like “Gone” and “Wings of a Dove.” He’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame and is very much associated with Nashville, but he got his start as a recording artist in California. He was the first Capitol Records artist to move to Bakersfield, and he became the gateway to Capitol for everyone else. In 1953, Ferlin and Jean Shepard had a #1 hit duet with “A Dear John Letter,” which was the first single to feature almost all Bakersfield-based backing musicians. Ferlin’s producer, Ken Nelson, wanted more hits, so he kept bringing the Bakersfield guys down to Los Angeles to play on country records.
Ken signed Tommy Collins, who was one of Ferlin’s guys, and Ferlin played lead guitar on Tommy’s records. When Ferlin’s career took off, however, he couldn’t play on Tommy’s sessions anymore, so he got Buck Owens the job to replace him. If it weren’t for Ferlin, Buck might not have gotten his shot at Capitol. And if it weren’t for Ferlin opening that floodgate between Bakersfield and Capitol we might not have gotten Merle Haggard. Of course, Buck and Merle were so talented that they might have found another way to the top, but I love the stories of the various people who played such important parts in making it all happen as it did. I don’t think people have really connected those dots about how central Ferlin was to this story, so I like being able to dig out that kind of stuff and really shine a spotlight on the people who don’t always get the credit.
What's next for you?
I’m currently editing and project managing a cool tabletop book about The Byrds with Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby. Very different from Bakersfield, but that’s why I love my job!
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