Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Vinyl Tourist: Bakersfield, California

The downtown of the "Downtown Records" sign refers to downtown Bakersfield; the records refers to what was once sold inside the building on which the sign is affixed. Downtown Bakersfield is full of empty storefronts and empty of crowds on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Like countless American cities, the building boom of strip malls along the highway at the edge of the city had sucked the downtown dry of commercial activity.

I had stopped in Bakersfield to see if there were any signs of the vital country music scene that started a new genre, "The Bakersfield Sound", the original alt-country movement back in the 50s and 60s. My favorite country artists are Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both hailed from Bakersfield and helped define the Bakersfield Sound as an alternative to the sleek, mainstream country music coming out of Nashville at the time.

I thought I'd find something on Buck Owens Boulevard. It looked promising on the map. But it turned out to be a five-lane road lined with fast-food joints, gas stations, motels and chintzy stores. If Buck Owens had ever seen the ugliness of the street named in his honor, I'm sure he would've cried.

I managed to find a record store that was still open, located across from Rabobank Arena, home of Bakersfield's minor league hockey team. The man running the store told me he used to work for so-and-so, a famous country music DJ, who he assumed I knew. (I didn't.) I asked him if there was still an active music scene in Bakersfield. He just shook his head.

Gone is the downtown; gone is the vital country music scene; gone are most record stores in Bakersfield. Bakersfield is representative of what has happened in this country over the past 40 years or so. Vibrant downtowns have been replaced by soulless strip malls; the authenticity in country music has been replaced by cynically marketed pop-country music; and the warmth and tactileness of vinyl records have been replaced by cold digital compact discs and now digital downloads on the internet. I couldn't help but think all of these trends were connected somehow. It may sound reactionary, but the feeling of loss in that city was strong. That was my Bakersfield state of mind.

(Postscript: I drove out of Bakersfield with an original pressing of Merle Haggard's Mama Tried. Alas, the record store only had a second pressing of I'm A Lonesome Fugitive. The Bakersfield Sound lives on in the grooves of these records.)

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