Bear Family Records' upcoming The Bakersfield Sound 1940-1970 box set, due out Aug. 9, was a labor of love for producer Scott Bomar. He found even more to love when he was presented with was thought to be a lost early recording of Merle Haggard singing "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can," featured on the box and premiering exclusively below.
Haggard recorded the version included on the set for the independent Tally Records label, where Haggard was signed before Capitol. "I'd heard he'd recorded it for Tally, but nobody ever heard it and it was assumed it was lost," Bomar — who also annotated Omnivore Records' recent Buck Owens reissues — tells Billboard. "When I started beating the bushes and putting things together, someone handed me a tape box that was just labeled 'Merle' — I think it was under somebody's bed somewhere — and said, 'I don't know if anything on here would be of any interest, but check it out to see.' It turned out to be the original version of that song, which is quite a bit different than the Capitol version he recorded a few years later. It was a real find, quite a nice historical glimpse into that moment in the studio."
The tape also houses a recording of "If I Had Left It Up to You," which Haggard also re-recorded at Capitol, as well as an early version of "Number One Heel" by Bonnie Owens, Owens' first wife who later married Haggard.
The Bakersfield box, which features a booklet with a foreword written by Foo Fighters' Chris Shiflett, weighs in at 10 discs and 307 tracks, starting with migrant field recordings from the 1940s and contains both well-known and rare recordings by Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys, Tex Butler, Tex Marshall, Ebb Pilling and others. It runs through the year before Haggard moved from the city, when Owens had his last Top 10 hit as a solo artist and when Don Rich, a local guitar hero, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
"Bakersfield is a fascinating story," says Bomar, who spent six years working on the compilation, which includes many records from his personal collection. "There were so many people coming out to central California during that whole Dust Bowl era — the Grapes of Wrath story– because there was farming work there. And they were bringing their music traditions with them from Texas and Oklahoma and Missouri and Arkansas. They came out there and brought their music and established this community that a Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were able to launch from."
After devoting so many years to the project, Bomar is ready to take a break from Bakersfield. But he's not ruling out the possibility of another visit — perhaps for a documentary on the scene. "That'd be great," he says. "One day, perhaps. We'll let Ken Burns have his country music documentary moment, and then we'll see."