Can you imagine Southern California without Hollywood? Or the Bay Area without Silicon Valley?
No? History suggests the identities and core industries of regions are more fragile than we care to admit. (Just ask Detroit autoworkers.)
So it’s quite possible that Los Angeles’ entertainment industry, struggling with shifting media economics, could be much smaller in the near future. And Silicon Valley? Here’s a nightmare scenario: What if the security state escalates its current war against Apple to the point that technology companies move to countries with laws that protect customers’ privacy? Heck, they may be able to lower their taxes, as well.
These dark thoughts occurred to me while reading a smart new book about a California place – Bakersfield – and its identity as a capital of country music. “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music,” by Bakersfield Californian editor Robert E. Price, is an entertaining history, essential for fans of musicians such as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
But the book also says something profound, and troubling, about how places come to be hotbeds of a particular enterprise and how they can lose that identity.
Bakersfield became a country music capital through accident and intention. The accident was the Dust Bowl, which brought refugees to Kern County in the 1930s and ’40s. The migrants mixed with each other and other outsiders, creating music that was what Price calls “a synergy of economic hardship, determination, kinship and dumb luck.”
Technology played a role, too, with the invention of Clarence “Leo” Fender’s Telecaster, the guitar that produced the rough, uncultivated country that became known as the Bakersfield Sound.
The intention involved the creation of an infrastructure to support musicians – honky tonks starting with Joe Limi and Frank Zabaleta’s the Blackboard, then growing to more than 20 clubs in the 1960s that provided Bakersfield’s musicians with gigs to pay the bills.
But then the story of the Bakersfield Sound became its own country song – and Bakersfield lost its status.
Why? Cultural infrastructure didn’t develop as deeply in Bakersfield as in other places – such as Nashville, where “saloons beget restaurants, which beget jobs, which beget hotels, which beget apartments and markets and home improvement stores.”
Social change played a role, as well. The rise of Mothers Against Drunk Driving made a night of drinking and driving between honky tonks a dicier proposition. Another problem, paradoxically, was the success of the Bakersfield Sound, as other musicians and genres borrowed it and made it their own. Price shows how a “big chunk of it up and moved to Texas,” where you can still hear it on Austin’s Sixth Street.
Bakersfield still has a music scene, but it’s harder to find. Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace and Trout’s Nightclub are still around. I’m a fan of Jerry’s Pizza and Pub downtown, where owner Jerry Baranowski, a Polish immigrant, says he hosts two kinds of musicians: the very good and the local.
Price identifies two lessons for communities: First, cities must develop strong identities; second, they can’t allow that development to stop, even after they’ve created a culture so central to their identities that it wouldn’t seem to need nurturing.
“Every American city, whether it prides itself on its public sculptures or deep-dish pizza … needs to develop that identity, or if it has been allowed to escape remember what it once was,” Price writes. “It’s a conversation Bakersfield should have initiated decades ago.”
It’s an especially important conversation in California, where the promise of our defining creative industries is also its peril. These days, you can write code, make movies or hear the Bakersfield Sound just about anywhere.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.