The Bakersfield sound is often defined by the men who where there at the beginning. From the looming shadows of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, to Ralph Mooney’s steal guitar and Roy Nichols’ Telecaster, these country legends have become synonyms with not only the musical movement, but the city of Bakersfield itself. While these musicians are often considered the founding fathers of the sound, it was actually a largely forgotten man, who was the driving force behind the rise of Bakersfield.
Although Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and later, Dwight Yoakam, would reach higher pinnacles of fame, it was Wynn Stewart who pioneered the Bakersfield sound and allowed his peers to have unprecedented success. In fact, he even made Merle Haggard a star.
While Merle Haggard would eventually become one of the most well known names in country music, in 1962, he was a struggling artist on the small label, Tally Records. Performing throughout the West Coast, Haggard eventually sat in for Wynn Stewart in Las Vegas, while the latter was out of town. When Stewart returned, he was impressed enough by Haggard to invite him to be his bass player. During this time, Haggard heard one of Stewart’s new compositions titled, “Sing a Sad Song”, which Wynn had planned on recording on an upcoming album. Hearing the song, Haggard knew that it would be hit. Reflecting on this moment, Haggard recalled:
“Wynn had written this song called “Sing a Sad Song” and I felt like it was a charter…and one day I asked Wynn out of the clear blue, we were both on stage, ‘Wynn if you had it within your power to make me a star would you do it?’ and he looked at me kind of funny and said ‘well sure I would’ I said ‘well you can’ and he had written this song and he was fixin to record it on his next record’… and I said “let me have Sing a Sad Song” and he just paused and said ‘you got it’.”
Haggard’s intuitions about Sing a Sad Song proved to be right. His recording of the song would reach #19 on the Billboard Country Charts, providing a jumping point for his career. Following the release of the single, Haggard would be signed to Capitol Records, where he would have a series of hit records beginning with 1966’s Strangers. By the end of the decade, he would be a country music superstar.
While Wynn Stewart would continue to have modest hits throughout the 1970s, he never became a household name. Despite this, he was always held in high regard by his peers. Often named as Haggard and Owen’s biggest influence, Stewart would also be revered by the musicians who he had worked with to create the Bakersfield sound. Ralph Mooney, who would go on to play with Haggard, Owens, and Waylon Jennings, among others, would refer to himself as Wynn Stewart’s steel guitar player for the rest of his life.
Wynn Stewart died of a heart attack in 1985 at the age of 51. At the time of his death, Stewart was set to start a comeback tour that featured a new band, a new bus, and a batch of new songs. While he never got the recognition he deserved for his roll in the development of the Bakersfield Sound, he was a mentor and a hero to those who would eventually follow in his footsteps, and his musical legacy lives on.