Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music In California
Such is the power of Nashville, as both a place and a metaphor, that it can be hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t the center of the country music universe. Even for those with enough history under their belts to know better, a certain aura of timelessness and inevitability and inclusiveness surrounds it. At this late date in the city’s commercial hegemony, the more casual fan can be forgiven for assuming that Nashville has always been what it is today. Workin’ Man Blues, Gerald W. Haslam’s frankly partisan history of country music in California from the Crocketts to Yoakam, wants to be a demystifying operation, recentering the past as it decenters the present.
Not that Workin’ Man Blues is any sort of revisionist history. Its narrative fundamentals differ little from, say, Bill Malone’s Country Music USA, it just gives those fundamentals a California spin. So you find the familiar elements and themes of the generally accepted history as they played themselves out against the specific socio-economic backdrop of California: stringbands and live radio, singing cowboys and crossover hits, western swing and big ballrooms, electrification and honky tonk, jukeboxes and DJ-driven radio, the institutionalization of Nashville in the decade following Hank’s last ride, the challenge of rock ‘n’ roll, hillbilly on the tube, countrypolitan and country rock, urban dudes and neo-trads, the mainstreaming and alt.-ing of country.
But Workin’ Man Blues is not only the story of country music in California, it’s also the story of California in country music. So the state’s proud contributions to the history, including horse operas, Capitol Records, Bakersfield and Telecasters, Nudie suits, etc., are given due time, and the dramatis personae are the likes of Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, the Maddox Brothers & Rose, Ken Nelson, Buck and Merle, rather than any members of the Grand Ole Opry.
Haslam is a California boy born and bred (he went to elementary school with Merle Haggard) in love with the music and the legacy. Fair enough, I’m a fan too, but his boosterism sometimes gets the better of him. An undercurrent of resentment toward Nashville runs near the surface of the story, as if its primacy since the ’50s were merely a matter of usurpation through tireless self-promotion, and its influence since mostly baleful. The “bosses in Nashville” are held largely responsible for diluting country with pop impurities over the decades, the “Tennessee juggernaut” for homogenizing a rich tradition, and the West Coast subtly absolved of these tendencies by the casual conflation of “deep country, hard country, California country.” This, even though Haslam knows well enough that Jimmy Wakely was recording in Los Angeles in 1948, as were the Maddox Brothers & Rose; and that the success of the Buckaroos’ tonk in the 1960s was matched by that of Glen Campbell’s countrypolitan. And while a guy may go along with Haslam in preferring Dwight to Garth — or Tulare Dust, the HighTone tribute to Haggard, over the Arista/Nashville version, Mama’s Hungry Eyes (he grants it’s a good record) — it’s not at all clear that “authenticity” or fealty to tradition have all that much to do with it.
Haslam’s tone runs hard enough to the celebratory, and there’s so much light and so little shadow to the narrative that one might wonder at times if Workin’ Man Blues was commissioned by the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce. He’s apparently done hard time in the library, if 33 pages of bibliographic material are any evidence. Still, when he strays very far from what he knows well, he runs into trouble. For example, Elvis was unknown to Billboard in 1953 (p. 135); BMI lists Bobby Austin and Johnny Paycheck as the co-writers of “Apartment #9”, rather than Fuzzy Owen and Fern Foley (p. 152); Dylan scandalized the folk faithful when he went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, not with John Wesley Harding in 1967 (p. 196); Big Sandy and Robert Williams are one and the same person (p. 218); and a couple members of Los Lobos may be surprised by their new names (p. 266).
No question that a history of country music in California has been overdue. Haslam’s survey of the terrain, from the heydays of the ’30s and ’40s, when the state was a country music mecca, through to the latest release from Heather Myles, when all country highways only seem to lead to and from Nashville, is a serviceable first attempt to fill the void in the literature. But the story of country music in California, and of California in country music, still awaits its Wolfe, or Escott, or Guralnick.