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Chris and Herb
Bakersfield Bound,  Sugar Hill CD SHCD 3850

The real alternative country

Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen   have teamed up once again on  Bakersfield Bound, their successor to  Second Feeling. This is but the latest permutation of the Southern Californian country-rock extended family continues, this time branching out to honor the Bakersfield sound that pioneered Californian country music. The combined artistic lineage of Hillman and Pedersen is as incestuously intertwined as the Gordian knot. Cutting through most of the history, the most relevant facts are that Hillman and Gram Parsons were key members of the  Sweetheart of the Rodeo version of the Byrds and founders of the Flying Burrito Brothers. Pedersen’s been kicking around the same gang for quite a while, including playing on Emmylou Harris’s  Southwest (Hillman having discovered Harris and introduced her to Parsons). More recently, Hillman and Pedersen have played together in the successful country band Desert Rose for a number of years. In fact, it’s hard to spend much time poking around the country rock scene without repeatedly running into the trail of these two characters.

 Bakersfield Bound is a bit of a departure from the standard, heavily produced country rock fare, to a leaner sound celebrating the musical legacy of Bakersfield, California. Nearly the whole CD is cover tunes, including material from Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, Skeeter Davis, Red Simpson, and of course, Buck Owens himself. The Bakersfield sound, which seems rather mild today, occupies a critical niche in country music history.

In the early ’60s, the country music industry was quite frankly a mess. Too much commercial success had diluted the heart-blood of country music. Oblivious, Nashville continued to experiment with more crossover schemes, like the misbegotten ‘countrypolitan sound’. Meanwhile, the ground was stirring in Bakersfield with a guitar-driven, somewhat rockier, singer-songwriter movement. The lyrics dealt with working class men coming to terms with dashed dreams and limited prospects in the new West: truck driving songs, honky tonk blues, and meeting former lovers running around with new men. In truth, there was little revolutionary in this music, but it served as a tonic to the country establishment.

There were a number of memorable tunes that came out this era, many of which Hillman and Pedersen celebrate with modestly updated arrangements. The arrangements are pretty subdued–a male vocal harmony up front, with a pedal steel accent and a bit of mildly reverbed guitar. Given modern tastes, it seems a bit odd to have such extremely masculine music played with little bluster or aggression. Mainly, what you get is a bunch of guys singing the songs they love. The two original compositions, "Just Tell Me Darlin’" and especially the title cut do a wonderful job of recapitulating the Bakersfield sound, even if "Bakersfield Bound" does sound like a rewrite of Merle Haggard’s "California Cottonfields". In between, there are a number of interesting diversions.

"Close Up the Honky Tonks" was recorded by the Flying Burrito Brothers, with Gram Parsons singing lead vocals. It’s always interesting when an artist re-records a song, especially after over 20 years. On the Burrito version, the song is punched up quite a bit, mildly rocking while Parsons’ beautiful vocals sound like his heart is broken. Here, the effect is much more that of a bar band covering a favorite–the tempo is more country shuffle, a pedal steel adding subdued accents. "He Don’t Deserve You Anymore" and "There Goes My Love" are the two Buck Owens classics covered here–hard to improve on the originals, but always a pleasure to hear them again. Skeeter Davis is the anomaly, since her maudlin popular arrangements were part of what Bakersfield was rebelling against.

The CD is awfully short (under 35 minutes), and there sure is plenty of other material they could have included. Still, this is a loving tribute documenting an important reaction to an overly commercial and bland country music scene. Who’s out there now, with a meaningful reaction to the current county morass?–  Bill Kuhn


Chris Hillman, lead vocals, mandolin; Herb Pedersen, harmony vocals, acoustic guitars; with Larry Park , lead electric guitar; Jim Monahan, lead electric guitar; Jay Dee Maness, steel guitar; Gabe Witcher, fiddle; Lee Sklar, bass; Willie Ornelas, drums.

Copyright © 1997 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.