Country music is filled with working man poets like Stephen David Austin.
Absorbing the reality of his surroundings and putting them to song, the Tehachapi singer/songwriter continues a well-traveled musical tradition. Equally influenced by the Dust Bowl narrative of Merle Haggard and the honky-tonk twang of his idol Buck Owens, Austin hopes to touch fans the same way with his debut solo CD, “A Bakersfield Dozen.”
A gritty ode to the American experience told through the eyes of a wandering troubadour, the collection is a reflection of Austin’s life and the figures he’s encountered who have helped color the way. From late-night whiskey jams to the pains of love and defeat, the material is, in part, the product of two brief conversations Austin had with singer/guitarist Dave Alvin.
“I told Dave how much his music was like my life story. Then we started talking about Okie history. At one point he said it sounds like Merle Haggard wrote what I was saying. I met him again at Fishlips when he was in town and we started talking about those same things again. He finally said, ‘You should write your own life story.’”
Turns out, Austin, 56, had already been doing that through a series of half-written songs, most of which ended up on “A Bakersfield Dozen.”
Above: Cover of "A Bakersfield Dozen out now.
“They were written in bits and pieces. I’d been sitting on them for some time. I started out with 13 songs and was going to call it a “Bakers Dozen,” but two of the songs didn’t quite fit. When I had it pared down to 11, I figured anyone who’s done any time in Bakersfield would get the irony.”
Unbeknownst to Austin, Bakersfield Sound musician Red Simpson already had an album of the same name, purely coincidental, Austin said. In truth, Simpson’s 1967 album and Austin’s release bear little resemblance to each other. But if anyone was to dispute Austin’s intentions, consider it more of an homage than misappropriation.
“It certainly wasn’t theft,” Austin said.
Austin was born in Omaha, Neb., but he moved around a lot, thanks to the demands of his dad’s job as an agricultural chemical salesman. The family eventually settled in Southern California, but Austin can still recall those long drives with his father and the sounds of country music on the radio during work calls. His father’s favorite: “El Paso” by Marty Robbins.
“That’s where I think I learned to love the open road and got to know a lot more about my father. All my life I’ve been exposed to what he always listened to — Buck and Merle, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Tom T. Hall, Hoyt Axton. I just loved music. I never really drew a line as to what was cool — I just loved the way stories could be told. There was always depth and a great pathos in country music you couldn’t find in rock music.”
Country artist Stephen David Austin was member of various bar bands before finally stepping out on his own to begin working on “A Bakersfield Dozen” last year. Felix Adamo / The Californian
His parents enrolled him in music lessons at age 9, when he was presented his first Sears guitar. But as time went by, he was ready to call it quits.
“My teacher wanted to teach me how to finger pick and read music. I just wanted to play songs.”
Among the songs that influenced his early playing was The Beatles cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally.”
“I started noticing how George Harrison played so much like Don Rich from the Buckaroos. That was my introduction to the Bakersfield Sound, like most people around (Southern California).”
In years to come, Austin found himself playing in various rock bands before discovering the burgeoning Americana music movement in Hollywood during the ’80s. Exciting, raw and unconventional, bands like The Blasters, The Beat Farmers and Lone Justice were reinventing the country wheel.
“I loved the energy, but I never took steps to get involved. I think a lot of it was about finding the right players,” he said.
After relocating to Bakersfield that decade, he continued making the music rounds as a member of various bar bands before finally stepping out on his own to begin working on “A Bakersfield Dozen” last year.
“I spent about a year in my basement alone before I realized I need to get out and really get this thing going.”
He managed to assemble some top country session players for the project. At the top of the list is steel guitarist Marty Rifkin, whose recording credits include sessions with Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam and Bruce Springsteen.
“Marty’s parts were done at his studio in Santa Monica, where we also mixed and mastered the CD. It was the only time I’ve ever seen quadruple platinum cassette tape on the wall for Bruce Springsteen. I feel so great to consider him a friend now. It was fun and totally painless working with him.”
Others on board include bassist Paul Marshall, guitarist Dave Currall, pianist Skip Edwards, drummer Shawn Nourse, vocalist Teresa James and Brantley Kearns on fiddle. Together they make one powerhouse of a backing band.
“When you’re playing with people this great, it always raises the bar.”
That being said, all the songs on “A Bakersfield Dozen” make for a cohesive musical statement.
The album opens with the humorous “Best Ex I Ever Had,” a song inspired by a Bakersfield bartender. It’s followed by “Heroes and Heroin,” a cautionary tale about the tragic lives of musicians Charlie Parker, Gram Parsons and Jerry Garcia.
“That song had a bunch more verses about a lot of guys that were musical heroes that had done a lot of horrible things. I had to pare it down. Always makes me think of a quote from Henry Rollins, who said, ‘How many people Keith Richards has killed just for being Keith Richards?’”
On the upside, “Dance With No Pants” is a burner that would make a hilarious music video with its redneck storyline, while “Back to Bakersfield” is a reminder of the city’s mythical draw.
“The Grapevine, Panorama bluffs — it was just short of the ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ It’s all about migration and how people always end up coming back once they leave.”
Among the CD’s standouts is a track about Wichita’s methamphetamine problem, called “Kansas Ain’t in Kansas Anymore,” co-written by drummer and Californian staff writer Steven Mayer.
“A lot of my stuff is poetic license. Steven had done a story on the meth labs taking over. It was a quote from someone he interviewed.”
“The Day Buck Owens Died” opens with a riff from the legend’s signature tune “Buckaroo,” before Austin recounts the moment he was given the sad news.
“I did it as a tribute to his sound. In his lifetime, he accomplished more than what 20 musicians could. He passed away on my birthday.”
“A Bakersfield Dozen” closes with “Bad Dog,” featuring Austin’s grandson, Kayleb, who was only a year old at the time it was recorded.
“Bad Dog” was one of the only things he could say. I had to hold him on the mic. I put it on there to show I’m not all Holden Caulfield. Kayleb is the light of my life and the source of my inspiration. Everything’s new to him, and I’m kinda jaded.”
Austin said there are plans to perform the songs as they were recorded, but for now he hopes his music will continue to circulate.
“I’ve always said that my idea of making it is walking into a bar where I know no one, and they get up and play my song on the jukebox.”
To buy the album: “A Bakersfield Dozen” can be purchased at cdbaby.com and also available for download on iTunes. For more information visit stephendavidaustin.com.