Who needs Nashville? California has had country-and-western know-how for more than 50 years. Take Bakersfield, hometown of Buck Owens, whose Buckaroos had a phenomenal run of chart-toppers in the 1960s. Buck's is just one boot print on a well-traveled path that brought country musicians out from Texas and Oklahoma to Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley, where the music took on a life of its own.
Razor & Tie's three-CD SwingWest! series sketches a detailed map of California country, which has influenced surf music, the so-called California Sound of the Eagles, the Byrds, and Linda Ronstadt, guitar players of most stripes, and, of course, modern-day Nashville. SwingWest! captures the good (fine picking, singing, and songwriting), the bad (novelty ideas like Red Simpson singing "I'm a Truck"), and even the ugly, like the story of '40s fiddler Spade Cooley, whose alcoholism sidetracked his career. But all three volumes -- Bakersfield, Guitar Slingers, and Western Swing -- are powered by ace musicianship and characters even more unusual than Bob Wills' touring bus, the one with the longhorns on the front.
Take Ferlin Husky, the voice of several country hits in the 1950s. He did the usual story -- a youngster whose first guitar was a broomstick or a cheap acoustic from the Sears catalog -- one better. Living in backwoods Missouri, the Huskys couldn't afford to buy the guitar young Ferlin spied on a neighbor's porch, so they traded a hen for it; problem was, the hen wouldn't lay. But returning that guitar didn't keep Ferlin from a big career. His lilting yet rugged voice opens the Bakersfield volume with 1951's "China Doll." It and "Gone" are as simple and pretty as Hank Williams classics, featuring heartfelt vocals with swooping, delicate pedal steel guitar accompaniment. On "A Dear John Letter," a duet released during the Korean War, Husky is the soldier on the receiving end of a heartbreaking letter belted out by Jean Shepard: She's dumping him for his brother, Bob, and could he return her photo? It couldn't be more hokey, but it also couldn't have been more true to some folks: The song was a No. 1 hit for six weeks.
Bakersfield's Blackboard Lounge was one of the honky-tonks in the San Joaquin where California country took root, and a song inspired by it has had legs, despite its commercial failure when recorded in 1953. Joe and Rosie Lee Maphis' "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)" was rerecorded and catapulted toward a new audience by Gram Parsons, the spark plug in the influential '70s country-rock bands the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds.
Bakersfield's own Merle Haggard is represented by two early '60s cuts that don't measure up to his later marvels of songcraft, while Buck Owens is nowhere to be heard because of licensing problems. But there are plenty of other winners, including Red Simpson's rumbling "The Highway Patrol," covered in 1995 by pedal-steel man Junior Brown.
Guitar Slingers contains several treasures, thanks to speedsters like Jimmy Bryant, whose playing was so furious and clean that knowledgeable listeners believed he was speeding up the tapes until they saw him live. Joined by exceptional pedal steel player Speedy West, Bryant's four near-bop contributions outshine even those of guitar pioneer Les Paul. Those fireballers share space with more traditional masters like Merle Travis, Maphis, and Roy Clark (reverbing furiously on "Dented Fender").
Western Swing is an entertaining mix of hip and square: Adventurous solo passages jazz up chicken-fried two-steps and waltzes. Bob Wills' falsetto asides are the trademark of his quintessential western swing band, the Texas Playboys, who spent some of their best years based in the Central Valley. Wills' impeccable sound is well-represented here, but the best-known tune on the CD is Tex Williams' "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)," a classic novelty number recorded in Hollywood in 1947.
Capturing the western swing extremes the best is Spade Cooley, whose "Oklahoma Stomp" veers from square to swinging in two seconds: Spike Featherstone's opening harp flourish suggests Lawrence Welk, but then the drums rumble and it's a-rocking. Likewise, Cooley's life was one of extremes. Prone to alcohol-fueled tantrums, in 1961 he killed his wife in a violent rage; on the night he was released from prison, he played some fiddle and then dropped dead of a heart attack. Just as well, you might say. But the music lives on.
-- Bill Kisliuk