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ROBERT PRICE: How we can untap Bakersfield’s tourism potential | Robert Price

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ROBERT PRICE: How we can untap Bakersfield’s tourism potential | Robert Price

was written by , 2019-10-20 00:29:37

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Mr. Bubba paused to consider the question.

How does a rural, modest Mississippi town pack its hotels, restaurants and nightclubs practically 365 days of the year with tourists from every corner of the world?

“It’s bizarre,” Mr. Bubba finally acknowledged. “You can’t explain it. It’s a phenomenon.”

But really — how? Well, for starters, there’s this:

The area around Clarksdale has produced some of the most revered names in the history of Mississippi Delta blues. After overlooking the tourism potential of that fact for decades, Clarksdale broke out of its self-imposed anonymity in the 1990s, embraced its compelling legacy and became an essential pilgrimage site for music historians and casual fans alike.

That story line ought to interest those who’ve wondered why Bakersfield, pop. 400,000, with its rich connection to American music history, has not fully exploited its own possibilities as a music Mecca and, in doing so, multiplied its tourism dollars. (Visitors spent $92.8 million on Bakersfield hotels in FY 2018-19, to put a number on one key measurable.)

Maybe Bakersfield should take a lesson from Clarksdale, pop. 16,000 — about the size of the Kern County farm town of Lamont.

“What you’ve got in Bakersfield is something no one else has,” Mr. Bubba, aka Kinchen O’Keefe, director of the Coahoma (Miss.) County Tourism Commission, told me Friday. “How do you do it? I don’t know, but I know how we did it.”

Start with an incredible roster of talent incubated along a 200-mile stretch of the Mississippi River’s eastern banks — a succession of artists who date from the late 1930s: Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker among them — and add the proximity of music capitals to the north (Memphis) and south (New Orleans). Throw in some seed funding and mix well.

Bakersfield, of course, has Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who lifted this city from cultural obscurity in the 1960s with an unprecedented string of No. 1 blue-collar hits, as well as adopted stars of the past and present such as Wynn Stewart and Dwight Yoakam. 

Country-music aficionados, both foreign and domestic, have long known about the Bakersfield Sound but they don’t visit this city in the same numbers as places like Memphis, Nashville, Austin, New Orleans and Clarksdale.

How does Bakersfield change that?

Each of those other places has a robust digital presence, with online listings, updated regularly, that help visitors find live music venues. Some, like Nashville, have street signage that points the way. Some, like the Mississippi Delta, have historical markers that help guests conduct self-guided tours of the locations, however humble, where the magic took place. Most have themed museums, several apiece in the case of some cities, that celebrate local history with photos and artifacts from the glory years — and docents who can point tourists to venues making music that very evening.

Memphis has street-level “way finding” signage that helps tourists on foot locate venues and historical sites that might interest them, Kevin Kern of Memphis Tourism told me Friday. “We try to make it easy for people,” he said.

Live music must be playing somewhere for any of this to makes sense, of course, and this isn’t 1962. The Blackboard is gone, and so are the Clover Club, Lucky Spot and Tex’s Barrel House. Plenty of others are out there today, however, playing one type of live music or another: Not only Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, but also the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, Temblor Brewing, World Records, Sandrini’s Public House, Bellvedere Lounge, Pyrenees Cafe, Padre Hotel, the Park at the Mark, Ethel’s Old Corral Cafe, Rustic Rail Saloon, Long Branch Saloon, Jerry’s Pizza, Fox Theater, Spectrum Amphitheatre, Kern County Museum, Bakersfield Museum of Art, CSU Bakersfield, Bakersfield College, Rabobank/Mechanics Bank Arena and more.

It might seem like cat herders’ folly to try to organize those places into a latter-day trail of Bakersfield Sound venues, but we ought to try, and award those that choose to participate with durable signage: Hear the Bakersfield Sound Here.

It’s important to note that a 21st century version of the Bakersfield Sound need not be limited to Buck and Merle tribute bands or covers of Red Simpson songs. Original music by homegrown talent, countrified or not, should qualify. Big House and Truxton Mile, to name two, can speak more to this.

But first, a plan is in order.

“We start by defining what we’re trying to do,” said David Lyman, manager of Visit Bakersfield, the city’s tourism agency. “It’s multi-pronged. Do we just put up a sign (near a venue) because that will get the attention of someone who happens to be driving by? If they’re coming to town this week or next month, we would need to have that info (in advance), not just who’s playing at Ethel’s tonight.

“We get visitors in here (at Visit Bakersfield) all the time that we ask, ‘How long will you be staying in Bakersfield?’ The answer often is, ‘Well, I don’t know, it depends what’s going on.’ If we can’t give them a good answer, we’ve lost them.”

Municipal government, economic development organizations, private businesses and the music community need to be part of the answer. With cooperation, funding (such as hotel tax revenue) and patience, Bakersfield can create jobs, meaningfully diversify its economy and further enhance the image its new branding campaign (“The Sound of Something Better”) seeks to spread.

Might state tourism funding also be available? One would hope so, given Sacramento’s clearly expressed intent to manage the decline of the California oil industry, a vital part of the Kern County economy. The state Environmental Protection Agency is coordinating a study that, in part, will be exploring ways to boost the Central Valley economy in a post-oil environment. Well, here’s one avenue. 

Bakersfield will never be Memphis, which boasts Graceland, Sun Studios, Stax Records, Beale Street and much more. But neither should civic leaders here listen to the miserable drone of its abundant, change-loathing nay-sayers. 

It can be done, as long as Bakersfield heeds Mr. Bubba’s wisdom in this matter.

“This was not an overnight project for Clarksdale,” O’Keefe said. “It’s been a process. And it might be for you, too.”

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price is the author of “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music.” Reach him at at 661-395-7399, [email protected] or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.



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