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O’ Joy: Rock ‘n’ Role Model Interview with Homer Joy and Bakersfield Sound
By psychologist Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, aka Dr BLT
To get you ready to receive the following interview, check out this prelude, the one-song "soundtrack" that was inspired by the interview and this cup--the cup that both Homer Joy and Rockwell autographed. And just to add a little trivia to the mix, I actually threw this treasured cup in the trash by mistake and had to drive back several miles to retrieve it, when I discovered, much to my dismay, that I had foolishly left it behind.
March came in like a lion this year, and its not about to go out like a lamb, not if Homer Joy has anything to do with it. It has nothing to do with the weather, per se. It has everything to do with a pioneer in the Bakersfield Sound movement taking the world by storm.
For anyone unfamiliar with Homer Joy, he is best known for penning one of Buck Owens’s biggest hits, The Streets of Bakersfield. But as you shall soon find out, this singular song is but one chapter in the story of a remarkable life that is still boldly unfolding.
It was a beautiful Saturday on The Streets of Bakersfield on March 1, 2008. But the lovely weather wasn’t the only thing making it beautiful. It was the day one of the greatest pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound movement had agreed to participate in one of my Rock ‘n’ Role Model interviews.
He was to bring Bakersfield Sound’s quintessential music mogul, and promoter, Rockwell, with him. Rockwell runs Trout’s a night spot in Oildale that is quickly becoming the hub of what I’ve taken the liberty of dubbing the New Bako Sound movement.
There’s just something about country music stars, and those bearers of good news that showcase their talent, that makes them stand out from the crowd, and I quickly noticed both men as I walked into Starbucks (or should I say Star, Buck’s) on Olive Avenue right off of the 99 freeway in Bakersfield, California.
I approached them with a sense of awe and a growing sense of unworthiness to be standing in the presence of such giants.
I offered to pay for the coffees and over-priced pastries, but Homer Joy insisted that he do the honors. So I let him. After paying for the coffee, he poured out his heart and soul in one of the best interviews anyone has ever delivered to me.
Dr. BLT: I’d like to welcome both of you to this Rock ‘n’ Role Model Interview. Let’s start from the beginning, for the benefit of those who have never really been into the Bakersfield Sound or those who may not understand the history of the movement.
So, Homer, would you tell us how you began to get plugged into the whole Bakersfield Sound movement?
Homer: Well, basically I got involved with this because my name is Homer Joy. By that, I mean that by the time I got into this, Buck was getting about 600-800 tapes a week. And so all they were doing was taking those 600-800 tapes a week and throwing them into the waste basket. They couldn’t listen to that many.
Well, it was 2 or 3 years after I signed with Buck, that the publisher finally told me the story. He happened to be going through this box of tapes, and to collect those 600-800 tapes and start throwing them into the trash. He happened to pick up this one tape, and it said “Homer Joy” on it. And he said, I don’t know why, but it just cracked me up.
He said, “I couldn’t believe anybody’s name was Homer Joy. This was when Buck first built the studio. It wasn’t opened for business yet, but they were using it as a place to rehearse. So the Buckaroos were in there rehearsing, and Bob Morris, who was publishing for Buck, gets on the intercom and they were ready to take a break, and he said, “Do you guys want to hear a song by a clown by the name of Homer Joy?” Then he added, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I said,” and they all laughed----thought that was funny.
They thought that it was just made up like Engelbert Humperdinck or something. So they came into the control room and played the first song and they said, “Well, that’s not bad,” and so they played the second song, and he said about half-way through the third song, he said to Don, “Don, go get Buck,” so then went and got Buck and Buck came back, and he said, “I want you to hear something.”
Buck listened to the song, and just about the same place in the song, he said, “Why don’t you call that kid, and we’ll sign him.” So that’s how I got in this deal.
I was living in Spokane, Washington at the time. I mailed the tape, but if my name hadn’t have been Homer Joy, I would have never got listened to. That’s how that part of it happened.
We all laughed heartily over that story, right in between sips of Starbuck’s coffee (pun intended) and over-priced pastries paid for by Homer, man of the hour.
Dr. BLT: Great story! So that was the spark that got everything going for you, and it also really boosted Buck’s career. It was kind of in a lull, wasn’t it?
Homer: Well, I signed in 1970. Buck was #1, but it was right after that. 1970 to 1973, during about 2 ½ years as a new writer, I sold over 3 million records of my songs.
In 1973, Blue Book Music, which was Buck Owens’s publishing company, for the first time, before, or since, we beat Acob Rose, and Tree, which were the two largest country music publishing companies in the world, for the CMA award for Publisher of the Year.
It was the first time it had ever been done. People forget things like that, and it really gets me ticked off. It happened right here in Bakersfield, California.
Of course later, in ’85, Buck sold everybody’s catalogue to Tree, and I think that’s why Tree ended up buying the catalogue, because it was the only catalogue that ever beat them. Now Sony, not only owns Tree, but they also own Acob Rose, which is the second largest publisher. So, that was the claim to fame for writers here in Bakersfield--that we beat them in 1973 for that.
This is the type of thing people forget. When anything happens in Nashville, you get all of these press releases and you don’t hear anything from Bakersfield anymore. Now I don’t know who is responsible for that, or who’s supposed to be carrying the ball, or anything, but another thing I think people have forgotten is the fact that Buck Owens was the one, single-handedly, who was bringing in new artists and new talent. There was a little girl named Kenny Husky, there was Mayf Nutter, there was Buddy, (Buck’s) son, there was Susan Ray, Ira Allen that wrote Waylon’s tune, "Just Enough to Keep Me Hangin’ On." There were some great writers, and there were more writers than just that. There were a lot of good people—a lot of talented people. And then when Buck retired, everybody just thought it was kind of just over, and I’ve never understood that at all. If you’re a good writer, and a good artist, the opportunity is always there. You just have to find a back door. There are no front doors, or back doors, or even windows opened in Nashville.
I think the greatest thing to happen in the music industry is the advent of the internet. There are all of these independent people doing independent things. And right now, at a time that people think it’s dead and gone, it’s just starting.
Dr. BLT: Well, I sort of think about it like a place where there’s been some good, solid oak trees. They grow up to be really big and very strong, and their roots go down deep. What’s bound to happen is that those big oak trees are going to spread their seeds around and it’s going to become a very fertile region for more of the same sort of great, big oak trees to develop. And I would like to change the perception of some here in Bakersfield that the Bakersfield Sound is dead and gone—a thing of the past. I think it’s very vibrant, and some people just aren’t tuned in (no pun intended). They don’t realize just how rich our heritage is.
The next question I have for you is this: How did your life change, from the moment Buck expressed an interest in recording The Streets of Bakersfield? Would you mind comparing and contrasting your life before and after that event?
Homer Joy: Well, obviously, Streets of Bakersfield put a lot of pork and beans on my table, but I guess it was actually Bob Morris, who was running Buck’s publishing company, who was my inspiration as a songwriter. Bob wrote a few songs himself, including the theme song, "Buckaroo"—which was an instrumental. He also wrote "Made in Japan," and some other things that Buck did.
I had, like I said, already sold a couple million records when I first started—through Freddy Hart. And I wrote a song called "California Grapevine" that Ken Nelson liked awful well, so, they didn’t want to hear Freddy to do any more love songs, they wanted an up tempo song, so Freddy cut "California Grapevine," and he did it in Nashville. He was kind of upset about having to do it at all, but George Richie, who was married to Tammy Wynette in those years before she passed away, was a producer.
When he heard my song, he called out here and wanted to know if I had any more songs. He liked my stuff. So anyway, I ended up with three songs the California Grapevine album. Then, when they pulled "Easy Lovin’" off this album, then he turned around and put all three of my songs right back on there again. So it was a pretty good deal for me, as a writer, and then Freddy went on to do a couple more of my songs.
It was a real growing experience, because, as a songwriter, and every songwriter has that thing, I was having some problems in my life—most of them personal, and so Buck called me up one day and said, “Homer, I haven’t heard from you in awhile.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, I just kind of dried up, or whatever, you know.” So he said, “Well, why don’t you come down and talk to me?”
And I learned, in that trip, two of the most important things anybody could ever learn in their life. I came down to talk to Buck, and when I came into his office, there was a pile of papers on his desk. Well, everybody knows that a writer, an artist, anybody in the industry, what you do in the studio—all that time, and the musicians and all, is held against your royalties. That’s charged to you. Well, Buck picked up those papers, which showed that I owed Buck Owens Enterprise $53,000.00 in studio time, and he said, “If this has anything to do with what’s bothering you, it won’t any more. And he ripped it in half, and threw it in the waste paper basket.
Then I went from there to Bob Morris’s office, and he and I were talking, and Bob said to me, “You have to decide for yourself what you want to be. Do you want to be a songwriter, or do you just want to write songs?” And I said, “What does that mean?” and he said, “That’s what you have to figure out for yourself.”
Well, about a year later I was sitting around working on some of my stuff, and all of a sudden it dawned on me, what that means. It means do I just want to write lines that rhyme, or do I have an idea that I’m trying to convey to somebody—something I feel strongly about? More than just lines that rhyme.
Dr. BLT: Yes.
Homer Joy: That carries over to when I wrote Streets of Bakersfield. I was mad, I was feeling upset, and my feelings were hurt, and I just wrote what I was feeling like. Obviously, I was on the right track, just like Bob was trying to get me to be.
Dr. BLT: Well, you’ve touched on something very important involving looking to other role models as examples. In your case it was Bob Morris. You didn’t just go out there and say, “This is me.” You were tied in with something and connected to another person that you looked up to as mentor.
And I would have to say that you are the songwriter I’m looking to as a mentor and as a role model as I work on this audio/spoken word recording project. My interview series with Phantom Tollbooth is called the Rock ‘n’ Role Model series.
A couple of the others that have been interviewed for this series include Barry McGuire. Are you familiar with him?
Homer Joy: Yes.
Dr. BLT: Well, he’s been busy doing something called Trippin’ Through the 60s, where he’s teamed up with other artists like Terry Talbot and other well-known of that era. They’re re-creating that whole musical scene for people and playing all of their favorite folk-rock songs of that era. And they’re bringing the music to a whole new generation. Barry’s been one of the rock ‘n’ role models that I’ve looked up to.
Pat Boone, who’s been working on his 50-year me moiré, is another. And now, you are being featured among them as one of those rock ‘n’ role models.
Homer Joy: And there are other people here that are doing amazing things. Like Rockwell here, from Trout’s, and I have been talking. We talk about it a lot. I don’t know how to cure the situation, really, but people like Red Simpson. Simpson is 4 days older than God, and Red Simpson has Dwight’s new song—Close Up the Honkytonks. The music video for that song has just been nominated for an award. Why don’t more people know that?
If it were Nashville, it would be splashed over every trade paper and everything in this industry, because that’s what they do. That’s what we, (and by we, I mean, we, individually, and collectively), need to be doing. We’ve got to start recognizing the people right here in Bakersfield.
Red had a number one record back in the '70s called I’m a Truck, and those kinds of things, and he’s a great entertainer, and he’s still here. He hasn’t gone anywhere. And yet people don’t know that. They’re not aware of that. So part of what we’re trying to change is just that. We’re trying to make people aware of the fact that we are alive and well. Now it’s our job—everybody who’s interested in this industry, in the Bakersfield Sound and the West Coast Sound, in general, it’s up to us to be a little louder and a little prouder—not in an egotistical way, but in a way that says, “We’re still here. We’re as good as anybody.” And I alluded to the independents awhile ago. That’s what so great about the new, independent thing.
The major labels don’t realize what a force the independent artists are getting to be. The major labels are pitching their stuff to the independent charts. So, here you’ll see Kenny Chesney, and all these people on there. But you’ll see a lot of independents sewed in between them.
So you can see that the people—and I’m talking about the fans, are preferring some of the independents that some people have never heard of, over these other established artists. So, it’s a totally level playing field out there. That’s what makes it so great.
I was talking to someone here a while back, and, I didn’t really realize it at the time, until they kind of pointed it out to me. There are, just hypothetically, let’s say there are 500 major artists, okay? And so the major labels are pushing their 500 artists. And so, when you have a number one record in a major field, well, that’s a great thing. You’re competing against 500 other people.
When you have a success in the independent field, you’re competing against millions of people. And so it actually really ought to mean more, to the independent people, when they start having some success, because, not only are they competing against all the majors. They are also competing against all of the millions of independents who are trying to step up that ladder just like they are.
So, I never really thought about that until we, on the independent charts, broke the record at number five, when John Law, the duet I did with Buck, was number one five times. And now, it’s been number one seven times, or, number 4, right now. You see what I’m saying?
Dr BLT: Yes.
Homer Joy: As more people hear the song, and as more radio stations pick it up, then it comes up to number one again. From there, even more people will hear it, and more radio stations will pick it up. We’ve gone down as far as number nine.
The amazing thing to us is that this song came out last July. And in four weeks it was number one. And it’s been number one seven times since then. That’s never happened in the major label charts. We’re allowed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and compete against the majors. And, isn’t it funny to anybody but me, that we’re allowing the majors to compete with us. And we don’t care. Good music is good music. But they don’t allow us, because they’re afraid of the independent people, so they don’t allow them to compete with them.
Dr. BLT: That’s right. Also, it seems to me that when artists are on the independent charts, they’re at their best, because they’re very authentic, their hungry, and it comes across. People love it, because it’s real. Once they cross over into the major charts, they start thinking, okay, I’ve got a hit that sounds like that, now I’ve got to put out one that sounds just like it so I can repeat my success.
Let me turn to you, now, Rockwell. I would like to know how you met Joy, and what your experience has been with Homer Joy.
Rockwell: Wow! How I met Homer Joy? You know, honestly, it was about 3 years ago. I was watching the evening news. I saw a picture of this guy that the news station was giving credit to for writing the song, "The Streets of Bakersfield." And they mentioned this whole story about how this significant contributor to the whole music scene had just had a full heart transplant. And I thought, you know, no matter who anybody is, at any age, this is an amazing miracle in modern science.
And if I were to, as I do, ask a trivia question every single night, who the writer is, of the song, Streets of Bakersfield, over three quarters of the people would say, “Buck Owens!”
We get into these ruts, as people, especially in the music industry. We hear something, and we hear somebody singing it, but that has so very little to do with the roots of the song.
Homer said to me one time, “Buck said to me, remember something, Homer. We sing your songs, you don’t sing ours.” So those roots are incredibly important.
When an icon—a legend like Buck Owens realizes, it’s not just about me, it’s about where this stuff came from, what a great aspect of awareness must root into somebody’s soul here.
I saw this news clip here, and I was just excited. There’s just so much more to this great history of Kern County than I was even aware of. So, somehow, a few years later, he had come out here to the Crystal Palace, and he was going to meet with Buck and stuff, and, nothing in my day goes perfect.
So, I had driven out there, and I’m in the parking lot. And my relationship there was much more important than this great old boy who wrote a song. So as Marla and I were out in the parking lot talking, I had a call from the club, and I had to rush back to work, so I didn’t even meet Homer, or see him, or pay tribute. So I went back and kept the honky tonk going.
Anyway, sometime later, as we were about to expand our stages, to expand opportunities for local musicians, as we got ready to open the new Blackboard Stage at Trout’s, somehow our communication avenue started to open. I don’t recall exactly how.
Homer Joy: Through emails.
Rockwell: Just through emails! Thank God for this method of communication. So we started interacting, and his wife, Susan mentioned that they were going to be in Kern County for this time frame.
So I actually scheduled the opening of this evening around someone with such great talent—someone who is such a contributor to this great niche, on our new stage. So we worked an arrangement out, timing-wise, we worked out an arrangement for him. And that was the first time we’d actually met in person.
And it was a great moment, because it’s been backed up by every subsequent moment after that. He’s our family. And I’m part of his family. I’m just a small speck of dust in this heaven full of dustpans and brooms up here, but when Homer was the opening act on that stage—for something that is really playing a role in the revitalization of the Bakersfield genre of music—the whole Kern County essence, was just a blessing for everybody.
The whole club’s always held together with duct tape, staples and the real raw deal, but, you know, when I think about how they started out in barns, and grange halls, without electricity, without drum sets, without telecasters. I’m just happy to have plumbing that works, and the power on.
So Homer was a busy guy, they were doing sound checks, with such great locals on stage, like Kim Macabee, and Theresa Spanky. It was just amazing to watch these people interact—like stepping into the twilight zone—the Hall of Fame that was floating through time. I was just able to pop in and hear this essence, and these story, and this memory, and it was amazing.
We had pool tables stacked in the middle of the dance floor. We had things covered in plastic. We had no carpet installed on the new stage. We opened this huge thing to Bakersfield with nothing. We were placing the tables strategically, where the floor was warped. We just didn’t have the time or the budget to make this stuff work.
Johnny Mac and I were up for 42 hours straight at opening time, while he was on stage, weak at the wheel as you could ever be. But as challenging as it was, it really all just came together.
From the Sheriffs being there, to the patrons being there, from the people that played roles in the past—and it really started making sense how dramatically important that evening was for history.
When Homer sent me an email sometime later, and he sent it all over the place, thank God for myspace, he said, “You know, so many people give up,” and he said, “but what I experienced, this evening, and throughout this multi-day period, was where people gave in—they gave in to God, they gave in to a concept, they gave into a common thread of something that was only meant and designed to be positive for the entire future.
If you didn’t cry there, or believe that there was something bigger looking out for everything in this big umbrella, then, I don’t know, then you’ve really never been to Bakersfield.
Ever since then, I don’t know we’ve just…
Homer Joy: …been brothers.
Rockwell: We’ve been brothers. But it’s all just about this big family, and I’ve been blessed just to play even a small role in anything that’s happening in this community, and absolutely blessed enough to have any moment of Homer’s time. He’s a great part of our family. So, there’s a touch of chapter one.
Homer Joy: We’re not looking at this like it’s the past. We’re trying to start something, right now. And Rockwell, and Trout’s who have, for so long, kept the Bakersfield Sound alive for so long, giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and have been waiting for something to happen don’t have to wait any longer. It’s happening now. Thank God for that. And thank God for people like Rockwell, and Larry Patrie, and all of the guys over there, who have kept this alive, and who refuse to let it die, because it’s worth saving. So we’re thankful for these guys and we’re going to see to it that their hard work has come to something. Then they will look back, and say, “I’m glad I held on. I’m glad I did that.”
Dr. BLT: I have one more question. What can we all do to make this a friendlier environment for young artists following in your footsteps as they strive to make their dreams come true?
Homer: The advice that I received from those in the Buck Owens’s family—and we are a family, though it was a little confusing to me at the time, was something I later treasured like gold. I don’t care who you are, or where you come from. Nobody can tell you how to be successful. But, as Buck told me, I can tell you what not to do.
And that’s what they told me. And it’s the same way with any of us, I don’t care if you own and manage a club, I don’t care if you’re a songwriter, I don’t care if you’re an entertainer, you can’t tell people how to be successful at what you do.
But, through your own mistakes, and your own trial and error, you can—if they will listen, say, “Don’t do this, and don’t do that.” You only get one shot to make a first impression. If there’s anything in this life that we don’t want to hear, it’s this: We don’t want people to tell us what not to do. And so that’s the hardest part of being successful for the new people, as it is and has been for myself. But you find out later that they were absolutely, stone-cold correct.
Dr BLT: That’s why I don’t usually turn over my songs to my wife. She tells me all the things I need to hear, but don’t want to hear. Rockwell, I’ll give you a crack at the same question.
Rockwell: I think your question was the essence of what young artists and musicians should maybe pay attention to, in order to understand the roots of Kern County and the music genre called the Bakersfield Sound. The Bakersfield Sound movement wasn’t a particular time period, it wasn’t a particular musician, and it wasn’t specifically one band.
Everything evolved. The Bakersfield Sound genre is more of an entire compilation of people, musicians, songs and heart—songs like Mama Tried, or Tiger by the Tail—anything that had to do with roots, that were based in the transition or the migration from the mid-west. These were not simply songs that came from the place of “Hey, I’m in the shower, I’ve got a great idea.” When you’ve got blisters on your heels and you’re writing about it, and you come up with something like The Streets of Bakersfield, it’s based on, “Do you know what? I’m pounding the pavement; I’m trying to make this happen. I’m trying to get in a door. The door’s closed. And I’m not going to sit around, I’m going to kick the door open, and do whatever it’s going to take.” Ring a bell, Homer Joy?
Homer Joy: Yeah, I think so.
It’s all about the hard times—like stories from people like Bill Woods, that helped move Bobby Duram out…Bobby’s a good friend of ours. He one of the young players now, I think he’s 64. He’s playing in a pool hall, trying to get in there. And when you hear the stories about the people that walked beside the cars, when they brought the children and the wives, just to come out here, that’s a whole lot different than the song in the shower, which deserves all the credit as the end result here. But there’s so much more heart, and reality, and overwhelming power and just a heart-felt root in every word of every song rooted out of the essence, and the influence, and the genre of Kern County as a whole.
When a musician gets on stage and simply sings a song somebody else wrote, it’s one thing, but when the writer of that song is listening, or singing it themselves, they’re reminiscing. And that sound that comes from this area of the world, every word, is designed of a reminiscence of reality, not just what’s come out of a fax machine and we’re expected to cut it in a recording studio in three hours.
If a young, upcoming artist—an artist of any age, wants to combine Bakersfield and Kern County and its history into the roots of anything they are doing, they can simply get out of bed, get in their car, hop on a bus, walk their silly boots on down here, and meet the people they may think do not exist anymore—people like Homer Joy. It’s alive and well and kickin’ like you wouldn’t believe. It’s got more energy than I do. Red Simpson, Larry Petrie, and these young legends like Don Kidwell, who is just 57-years-old, and has opened for dozens and dozens and dozens of people, and has played for tens of thousands of hours. Johnny Barnett Jr., and Senior, Billy Mize, who got Merle Haggard on his first gig. These people are not part of the pasture, these people are part of the future, and people shouldn’t forget this.
Then there are two other things: The first, life goes by in the blink of an eye. Value every single moment, whether it’s a good day or a bad day. Every minute it’s going to take 60 seconds to make an effort and contribute positively or fail for being too lazy to care about your community.
Dr BLT: Boy, that’s an awesome speech, I think you should be running for president.
Homer Joy: I do too. I’ll give you one last little thing. The other jewel and most important information I ever got in my life. Buck Owens pointed out the fact that, while there are were other big stars at the time, like Ray Charles and Merle Haggard, and others—today it would be Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, there are a lot of people lined up behind those guys, trying to be them. But Buck pointed this out to me: Who is in line behind you trying to be you? Nobody, so that makes you unique, that nobody is you. So, anybody who is in the least bit talented can maybe mimic me, ha-ha, or Tim McGraw or even Merle or some of the old guys, but nobody else can be you. If you turn on the radio today, that’s what’s missing. Sometimes I’ll listen to three or four songs trying to figure out who it is. They all sound alike. Nobody’s trying to be themselves anymore. They are trying to be like someone else. What makes you unique, and what will make you unique in the future, is being you because nobody does you better than you.
Homer and Rockwell shared
one more story before we all “left the building.” It was the story
of how Homer recently moved from to Kern County. It was a great story,
it was an immensely funny story, but it added yet another story to this
building of an interview that, as is, without my own personal secretary,
will surely test the limits of my Carpel Tunnel Syndrome-stricken wrists.
After the inspiration had just received from the cup of Joy that Joy shared,
and from the words that flowed like wine from the man I wished would be
the next president, I wanted to save my wrists for picking and strumming
my guitar as I strive to become the next big thing, or, rather, the next