By Steve Karras
Anticipating Waylon and Willie’s outlaw country by a decade-plus, the “Bakersfield sound” sprouted in of California in the 1950s as a raw twangy riposte to the slick, syrupy sounds being ladled out of Nashville. Before Buck Owens and Merle Haggard made the Bakersfield sound famous (and the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, and other country- and roots-influenced ’60s bands rocked it up), its seeds were carried west out of the Dust Bowl by Depression-era migrants, planted in Central Valley honky tonks, and nurtured by The Cousin Herb Henson Trading Post TV Show, which hit local airwaves in 1953 and featured a rich-voiced singer, guitarist, and songwriter named Billy Mize.
From his TV perch Mize helped launch the sound out of Bakersfield, and he remained a recording artist and West Coast radio and television personality into the 1980s. But his influence exceeded his fame, and his life was scarred by tragedy: two sons died young, and a stroke at age 59 robbed Mize of his ability to speak and sing. His life, his singular impact on country music, and his painstaking effort to regain his voice are chronicled in Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound, a music documentary that more than most deserves to be called a labor of love: director William J. Saunders is Mize’s grandson. After a lengthy festival run the film came out on DVD and VOD last month (and it screens this weekend at the Macon Film Festival in Georgia). This is an edited version of an interview with Saunders by Chicago-based freelance writer, filmmaker, and friend of MFW Steve Karras; click here to listen an uncut audio version, done for the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival.
Steve Karras: What you had done prior to making this documentary?
William J. Saunders: I used to work at NFL Films, that was kind of my first job out of undergraduate. I was a producer there, making football documentaries, off-the-field stuff – stories on fans, stuff like that. I’d always wanted to go into fiction, and to do that I ended up going to graduate school at Columbia University. I started this documentary while I was there, as something that I knew needed to be done and [that] I wanted to do, before these gentlemen were too old to be able to interview. Some of them were passing away at the time.
Where did you grow up?
I split time between San Diego and Kansas City. I went to high school in Kansas City, so I say I’m from there. I was never really a fan of country music, and Billy didn’t have his ability to speak most of when I was growing up, so I didn’t really know a whole lot about him or his musical influence, or the Bakersfield sound in general. It was all discovery for me.
You go into a project like this and you don’t anticipate what it’s going to do to you on an emotional level. At what point during the production were you having epiphanies? Did that start from the beginning?
It was the whole thing. It seemed to evolve really slowly, but it seemed like every step I took I uncovered something more interesting than the last. I guess that’s really good if your making a film [laughs]. I didn’t know much, you know? As I was growing up, there wasn’t the access of the internet. There wasn’t a lot of information readily available on this subject, and there hasn’t been a lot written on it. There’s been one TV documentary, for PBS, I think, which came out ’95 or something. I really had to look to find that one. So every time I learned a little bit more about Billy’s life, a little bit more about the Bakersfield sound, it kept getting more and more exciting.
Did you notice doors opening up a little quicker because of his reputation preceding him?
Yeah. You know, obviously I had heard that Billy, my grandfather, had some ties to Merle Haggard. I didn’t realize how deep that went. I found out when I just put in the request to interview him and it happened right away. Merle was more than gracious in helping out. And talking to people like Willie Nelson and Ray Price about my grandfather and them just praising him – it was really incredible. I thought a lot about the fact that I was his grandson interviewing these guys and maybe they’re just sugarcoating stuff because I’m his relative. I tried to make sure that didn’t happen by prefacing things with, “I need to know the full story of Billy Mize, please tell me the truth as you know it and stick to that. I want to know all about the guy.” But people just continued to tell me these fantastic things about him – how great a person he was, how charismatic, how wonderful a musician he was. There’s really not a lot of bad stuff to say about Billy Mize.
What can you tell me about the difference between the Nashville country sound and theBakersfield sound? It’s almost like a different American experience.
Everyone has, and I’m sure you do too, a different understanding of what that is. Everybody I asked had a different answer. My conclusion is that it’s just a label that was put on these individual musicians that shook the cage a little bit in country music – Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Billy Mize, and those guys who came out of that scene. They were all playing different types of music. You would say Billy Mize is part of the Bakersfield sound, and literally he was, but he wasn’t playing that Buck Owens-style music. He sang very smooth, more like the Nashville country that was more popular in his time. People say there’s a literal meaning of the Bakersfield sound, they know it when they hear it. I really just think it’s a label that’s been put on those individuals that rebelled against the Nashville sound.
There were a lot of great verite moments in your film about your grandfather. I was thinking about Albert Maysles’s style. Were you a fan of that direct cinema approach?
I am. It’s obviously all subjective, and I do have my opinions, but I do think documentaries are at their best when they are documenting. I’m not a big fan – I mean, I’ll watch a documentary that’s all about re-creations, people talking about the past or something, those are interesting and those have a place. But I’m more interested in documentaries that are unfolding as we watch them. I couldn’t do that in a lot of places with this documentary, obviously. It was really important to me to get all of that archive footage, and a lot of it is being shown for the first time in this documentary – some of the Cousin Herb stuff and The Billy Mize Show, some of his other TV. [But] I was very aware of those verite moments and wanted, as much as I could to put all of those in.
Beyond his general accessibility because of you being related, did it take him a while to warm up to you making this film?
Not at all. He was on board right away. I think he was a little flattered that I wanted to make this piece on him. I don’t think he realized how long I would be working on it [laughs], or the extent to which I would go to research it. And there’s a lot of his personal life that comes out in this documentary, and I don’t think he understood that that was going to be just as important as far as the story was concerned as the rest of it. When we started talking about the more sensitive issues, tragedies that happened in his life, he pulled back sometimes and doesn’t talk about a lot of it. But he was always very willing. He’d always say, “Whatever you need.”
Are you a country music fan now?
I’m a fan of that music. One of the guys I interviewed for the documentary, Scott Bomar, just produced an album called The Other Side Of Bakersfield, a collection of Bakersfield B-sides, and and it is great. You can really kind of see what the barroom was like with this kind of music – real raw, just a few musicians pumping out some dance music. I’m a huge fan of that stuff.
By Steve Karras