Bakersfield’s Honky-Tonk History Boxed

The California honky-tonk hotbed of Bakersfield represents more than just a launching pad for Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, as celebrated by Bear Family’s 10-CD box set, The Bakersfield Sound, 1940-1974.

The 307 song compilation spans from early field recordings of migrant workers and radio appearances by Western Swing pioneers Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to the pivotal year of 1974 – the last full year Haggard made his home in the city, the year of Owens’ final Top 10 hit as a solo artist and the year Buckaroos band member Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident.

In between, you get rare, early recordings by the great songwriter Harlan Howard and future legends Ferlin Husky, Jan Howard and Barbara Mandrell. Beyond those marquee names, there’s tracks from a long list of locals on the ground level of 30-plus years of honky-tonk heroics.

As for Owens and Haggard, they’re represented by rarities and previously unreleased material, including recordings from Owens’ annual Toys for Tots charity shows and a newly discovered Haggard session for Tally Records. In short, they’re not asking you to buy “Together Again,” yet again – unlike your average compilation from country music’s back pages.

Like other Bear Family box sets, this collection’s 220-page book is almost worth the hefty list price by itself. It contains unseen photos, a foreword by Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, in-depth analysis by scholar and author Scott B. Bomar, profiles on each artist and a track-by-track commentary.

The set, out Aug. 2, carries a price tag of nearly $200, but it’s worth the price if you want to take a deeper, multi-hour dive into country music history than even the best documentaries and podcasts provide.