PBS Documentary References California Influences
For eight nights in September, Public Television aired the Ken Burns documentary Country Music. It was a comprehensive timeline of the evolution of this genre. From the roots in Irish folk songs to the stages of twenty-thousand seat arenas, the program held true to its intention of telling the story of a truly American art form.
California’s Central Valley played a significant role in the story of country music, and the documentary features a few vignettes of pivotal players.
The Valley’s connection to the bigger picture of country music starts with the influx of migrants from the Midwest during the dust bowl.
The program begins with the group known as Maddox Brothers and Rose. The Maddox family came to the west as a migrant family looking for work. The documentary quotes Don Maddox, the only surviving member, telling the story of hearing a country song on the radio as the family picked vegetables with other migrant workers.
In the documentary, Maddox talks about finding a better way to earn a living, telling the interviewer, “We thought, maybe we can form a group so that we can get out of the fields.”
The Maddox Brothers and Rose eventually settled in Modesto, and went on to be a successful act in the late 1940s and 1950s.
The music of what was then known affectionately as a Hillbilly band enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.
Reissues of their music have opened up the Maddox Brothers and Rose to new audiences. In addition to being interviewed in the Ken Burns program, Don Maddox has made sporadic appearances at different venues.
In 2012, he performed on the highly regarded music program “The Marty Stuart Show”.
The development of the Bakersfield Sound is detailed in the broadcast. The program includes a segment on Buck Owens, the singer who, along with Merle Haggard and others, established what most identify as the Bakersfield Sound.
Buck had a prosperous career that included dozens of hit records in the 1960s and 1970s, a big television profile from his years co-hosting the music/comedy show Hee Haw with Roy Clark, and a retirement that featured him and his band The Buckaroos performing regularly at his night club “The Crystal Palace” in Bakersfield. Buck passed away in 2005.
The late Merle Haggard’s story is poignantly on display in a few sections of the program.
The viewer learns the well documented back story of Haggard’s troubled Central Valley childhood that took him to youth detention centers and would eventually take him to an adult prison sentence at San Quentin.
There in the prison, he attends a Johnny Cash performance and commits himself to turn his life around. Through his music, his poetic lyrics of hard times and redemption, he becomes a star and ultimately a legend in the field.
Helping tell these stories is country music singer and songwriter Bill Anderson whose interview reflections are sprinkled throughout the sixteen hours of the documentary.
Bill returned to the Central Valley a couple of years ago for a performance at Modesto’s Gallo Center.
At that time, he shared with me some of his encounters with these Central Valley music legends.
Of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Bill talked about knowing the group in the 1960s, telling me “I knew Rose rather well and was acquainted with Fred Maddox. Rose ran a nightclub in Ocean City that I performed at back in the sixties.”
For my book, 9 From 99, Bill Anderson told me about meeting Buck Owens on a flight from Los Angeles to Nashville. “We got into a debate about whether singers should only record songs they wrote as opposed to including songs from other writers,” he recalled. “It didn’t take me long to realize I was in the presence of a man who knew who he was and where he wanted to be in his life.”
Bill was performing with Merle Haggard the night Merle played Okie from Muskogee before a live audience for the first time. “I talked to him about it after the show,” Bill said. “Merle said he wasn’t sure how audiences would accept the song given it had patriotic overtones. I told him not to worry.”
Thanks to the Bakersfield Sound, Central California was well represented in the PBS series Country Music. And thanks to the would-be historians of the genre, like Marty Stuart and Bill Anderson, who gave their time to the Ken Burns team to share their reflections, the story of Country Music now has been told.
California’s Central Valley and its’ contribution to the growth of country music, remains a big part of that history.