IF YOU GO
◆ The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
◆ Admission: $22 adults, $14 childen, buckaroos under six are free.
◆ “The Bakersfield Sound” runs through Dec. 31. (615) 416-2001, countrymusichalloffame.org
Updated: March 11, 2013 6:36AM
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Every long road can lead to a golden valley.
The drive southon I-65 into Nashville heads through the lush gorges of West Tennessee and the Wigwam Village in Cave City, Ky.
I’ve made a couple trips from Los Angeles to the oil valleys of Bakersfield, Calif., through the majestic Tehachapi Mountains. Bakersfield — the stomping ground of my hero Merle Haggard — remains wide open with a renegade spin.
Nashville, though, has always been a step ahead of Bakersfield as a more polished recording center. And now Bakersfield has come to downtown Nashville in the ambitious exhibit “The Bakersfield Sound,” which runs through the end of the year at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Much of the exhibit is narrated by Dwight Yoakam, who recorded the 1988 hit “Streets of Bakersfield” with Bakersfield icon Buck Owens and Flaco Jimenez. The remarkable collection of more than 100 pieces in the exhibit is well worth a weekend road trip.
For me, Haggard is as much of an American poet as is John Steinbeck. It is stirring to get up close and personal with his measured handwritten lyrics to “Today I Started Loving You Again.” Visitors can see Haggard’s 1972 pardon granted by President Ronald Reagan and there’s a tip of the cowboy hat to Haggard’s ex-wife Bonnie Owens, too.
Owens transcribed Haggard’s road hit “White Line Fever” and I loved the 1978 wedding photo of Haggard and Leona Williams with Owens (former wife of Buck) as a bridesmaid. The exhibit also includes an Oscar Schmidt autoharp played by Bonnie.
I stopped at Ernest Tubb Records in downtown Nashville to pick up the new five-disc box set “Hello, I’m Red Simpson” on the German import Bear Family label. Simpson’s plugged-in truck driving music was the perfect tonic for the six-hour drive back to Chicago.
Simpson, 78, is “The Bard of Bakersfield.” Bob Dylan has called him “The Forgotten Man of the Bakersfield Sound.” Simpson’s family migrated to Bakersfield in 1937. He never left.
“I first visited Nashville in 1965,” Simpson said earlier this week from his Bakersfield home. “I wasn’t recording. I came with Buck Owens in his camper. I was writing songs with Buck and [Owens’s guitarist] Don Rich.”
The king of truck driving songs is a perfect window into the exhibit. (Simpson guests at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 23 in a rare performance and conversation as part of quarterly series “Poets and Prophets: Legendary Country Songwriters” in the museum’s Ford Theater.)
“Nashville used more strings in the music,” Simpson explained. “We used cheap guitars and they seemed to take hold. Nashville instruments were more bassy. We played more treble in Bakersfield. People danced more. We had 12 to 14 clubs and the dance floors would be full. You go to Nashville nobody dances. They sit there and look at you. They still do. The Bakersfield music stands out pretty good.”
And it holds up.
Simpson is known for truck-driving classics like “Highway Patrol,” “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” and “I’m a Truck” (his 1972 red satin “I’m a Truck” tour jacket is in the exhibit).
But the only truck Simpson ever drove was a Good Humor Ice Cream Truck in 1955.
“Buck used to live in East Bakersfield,” he said. “I’d go by there when I was selling ice cream. One day I brought him a song [“Someone With No One To Love”]. He worked on it a bit and got a record on it by the Farmer Boys.”
Don’t miss the Farmer Boys stage outfits in the exhibit: western-cut shirt and pants embroidered with silos, corn stalks and other agricultural motifs made by Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors for the Bakersfield group in the 1950s.
The exhibit pays homage to the hard-driving guitar sound that fueled Bakersfield honky tonks, populated with hard-living farmers and migrant workers.
In the 1960s the Bakersfield area was home to several guitar manufacturers including Hallmark and Mosrite. Mosrite was started in 1959 by Andy and Semie Moseley who migrated to Bakersfield from Oklahoma. At the peak of production in 1968, Mosrite made more than 1,000 guitars a month including double- and triple-head models. Mosrite guitars were played by honky tonker Joe Maphis, the Ventures surf band and Johnny Ramone of the Ramones. The Bakersfield axes were well designed with a narrow neck and low profile so musicians didn’t have to push down hard on the strings to play it.
“My mother Lilly came from Louisiana and my father John Thomas came from Georgia,” said Simpson, who was born in Higley, Ariz. “They kept migrating out this way. They had 13 kids. I was the last. My Dad worked in farm labor. I’ve never read ‘Grapes of Wrath’ but I’ve got a [Henry Fonda] movie of it. It was filmed out by where I lived, where light and dark people meet, kind of like Basin Street.”
I always remember museum pieces that humanize the exhibit — such as Jim Morrison’s handwritten notes to his parents in the Rock and Roll Hall of FameThe Bakersfield exhibit gets the job done with the aluminum suitcase that Simpson used to carry his songs.
“I got it in 1952 when I was stationed in Japan on the U.S.S. Repose,” he said. “They called me ‘Suitcase Simpson.’ One time I took out all the songs I wrote and laid them out from one patio to another in this trailer park where I lived. It was 40 feet long.”
The only bump in the exhibit road I felt were the much needed props to late Chicago born producer (and WJJD-AM musical director) Ken Nelson who shaped much of the Bakersfield sound. Nelson, who died at age 96 in 2008, recorded more than 100 No. 1 hits with Glen Campbell, Wanda Jackson, Haggard and others.
“[Ken] had a big part in my career,” Simpson said. “He’d leave you alone and not get in your way. He’d doodle with his pen and wouldn’t show any excitement or anything. It was just, ‘Okay boys, what’s the next song?’ He’d leave you alone and not get in your way.”
And that’s a sure sign of success in making any kind of art.
Or driving a truck.