Suburban Twang: When L.A. Was Country

Roots | Photo: Brent/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The death of country singer Kitty Wells at 92 and the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie (had he outlived Huntington's disease in 1967) fell only days apart in mid-July. Between Guthrie's first radio performances in 1937 and the end of Wells' career in the 1990s, "country western" culture defined much of white working-class Los Angeles.

Guthrie sang with his cousin Leon "Oklahoma Jack" Guthrie and later with Maxine "Lefty Lou" Chrissman on KVFD radio when so-called hillbilly bands performed on nearly every station from Bakersfield to San Diego. Wells, at the height of her career in the late 1950s, performed with her husband at the Palomino in North Hollywood and other country western clubs in the suburban communities that gathered around the auto plants, refineries, and aerospace industries of Southern California.

Guthrie wrote the grit of Depression Los Angeles into topical songs like "Fire in Los Feliz Hills," "Fifth Street Blues," "Lincoln Heights Jail" and "Los Angeles New Years Flood." Wells remixed the regrets and romances of country music from a woman's perspective in songs like "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," "Paying for That Back Street Affair," and "Your Wild Life's Gonna Get You Down."

L.A. radio hybridized Guthrie's wry ballads of bad times and Wells' laments for relationships gone wrong with traditional folk music, written-in-Hollywood cowboy songs, and jazz-based western swing. Stations KFOX, KFI, KXLA, KRKD, KEHE, KMTR, KFWB, KMPC, KGER. KZLA, and KRLA all featured country western performers; some programmed only country western music, often by unpaid bands hoping to turn airtime into bookings at L.A.'s many dance clubs.

"Country" radio yoked the backwoods of Georgia and Tennessee and the llanos of west Texas and Colorado to a local industry of country western music that exploited and consoled the tens of thousands of working-class migrants from the South and Southwest who poured into Los Angeles just before and during World War II.

Many of them were like Steinbeck's Joad family from "The Grapes of Wrath," completing a migration that led from the Dust Bowl, through the labor camps of the Central Valley, to a house in Hawthorne or Lawndale or Torrance and a job in an aircraft plant. In 1941, columnist Ernie Pyle called them "Aviation Okies." Billboard magazine, in describing their music preferences, called them "khaki and overalled Okies." In time, they became my neighbors.

The roots musician Dave Alvin, who grew up in Downey, remembers how pervasive "county" was on the suburban fringe of Los Angeles:

Between the Dustbowl and the end of aerospace, "country" gave Los Angles a distinctive style of music, language, and cultural preferences, but it also saddled Los Angeles politics with additional layers of southern-inflected populism and racial antagonism. Today, it's hard to say how much of that remains, with the passing of first generation migrants and the blurring of "country" culture into the cultural generalities of L.A.'s Anglo minority.

Almost entirely gone (although not completely) are the dance clubs and the radio programs that brought "country" into the lives of lonesome and displaced Okies, Arkies, and their southern kin.

Price's Foothill in Long Beach turned from Billy Mize and The Tennesseans to salsa and reggaetón. After switching to rock and funk in the 1980s, the Palomino closed. KZLA, once the dominant country music station in Los Angeles, abandoned the format. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause," was the station's last web posting.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focusblog.