Homegrown Shit-Kickers Sing Us Home

I would have given two joints of any finger if my friend Jim could have been with me for Brokedown In Bakersfield’s show at the Sierra Nevada Big Room last Monday. We both spent time growing up in trailer parks, and we both loved that tributary of country music that flowed out of Bakersfield.

But Jim died three years ago come November, and I teared up when Brokedown In Bakersfield ended their show with a honey-sweet rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.” Jim called himself an “Okie-Portugee,” and in the two hours the band played, there wasn’t a song Jim wouldn’t have known by heart—tunes by singers like Dave Dudley and Merle Haggard, that bad boy from Bakersfield. For an old dude like me, it was a show freighted with nostalgia, but for the thirty-somethings who danced at the lip of the stage, it was nostalgia in the making.

The band was on third base with the sold-out audience even before they took the stage. Chico music lovers incubated The Mother Hips—the ‘90s rock ensemble that would grow up here before spinning off this shitkicker-variant, driven by the vocals of Tim and Nicki Bluhm. Judging from the reception they received, you’d have thought the entire audience was made up of Tim Bluhm’s immediate family—but hell, most families don’t like their kin as much as that Big Room crowd loved Brokedown. They whooped and hollered as though the paternity suits against them had all been dropped, and Duck Dynasty had just announced a new season. When a homegrown Chico band can evoke the spirit of Bakersfield without having to actually live there, they’ve won the lottery.

The band kicked off their set with “California Cottonfields,” Hag’s old song about Okies in “labor camps filled with men with broken dreams.” From then on, the audience was taken on a tour through some of the best stuff in the country music canon. Nicki and Tim resurrected memories of duets by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The band offered crackerjack covers of Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn classics, with the requisite amount of cracker in that jack. They turned in standout renditions of “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Mama Tried.” They also did “Okie from Muskogee,” a song that still pisses me off as I recall Merle kowtowing to Nixon by singing that right-wing mantra in the White House back when we “hippies out in California” were protesting Nixon’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. That context was lost or forgiven as the band plowed a straight furrow through a field of Okie heartache, always true to the sources but with a stamp all their own, compressing a thousand honky-tonk nights into one.

Tim Bluhm has a terrific voice, as does his wife, and their onstage chemistry is a flirty mix of musicianship and love. Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz, the pedal steel player, is as good as Cindy Cashdollar, and she’s as good as they get. Scott Law plays a Telecaster like he was born with it in his hands, and Dave Brogan’s drums linked up with Steve Adams’ bass to tie the band together in a tight rhythmic wrap.

If Jim could have been there, it would have been just about perfect.

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