Billy Mize was born in a small Kansas town during the Great Depression. To the families living in the central United States it was known as the “Dirty Thirties”. A decade when giant, black, dust clouds forced many families west in search of jobs. The Mize family, as well as others, settled in a growing California oil town named Bakersfield. These families brought the musical styles of Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas and Kansas with them. This fusion gave birth to an exciting, raw-edged style of country music known for its piercing guitar and honest, down-to-earth lyrics. This was the birth of the Bakersfield Sound, and one of its founding members was Billy Mize.
This film isn’t just about a music movement- it’s about legacy and the institution of family. When Billy was 3-years-old, his father, Earnest Forth, skipped town leaving Billy and his mother to suffer the dust bowl depression of Kansas. Out of this abandonment, Billy formed strict principles of what a husband and father should be. In the face of life’s challenges his response has always been, ‘family first’.
My film explores how Billy Mize made it to the brink of super-stardom, turned it down to be a father, befell horrible tragedy, and climbed his way back into the spotlight. We will show how he gave up a life on the road (an essential ingredient for success in the music industry) for a life with his wife and kids. And in the prime of his career, just after being nominated for Single Record of the Year (his competition included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Glen Campbell), Billy and his wife Martha lost their first son. Three years later, they lost their second. The pain of losing two children overwhelmed Billy and Martha. In the words of his brother Buddy, “something like that happens and it either pulls a family closer together or tears it apart.” Billy Mize and his wife divorced a few years later.
After these horrific events, Mize turned to his music for solace. He stayed close to his daughters Karen and Margie, playing at local clubs and hosting country variety shows. But fate, it seems, wasn’t done with Billy Mize. At the age of 59, Mize suffered a stroke and lost his ability to speak and play guitar. His family had already been taken from him. And now, so had his music.
Billy went a full year without speaking a word. After several unsuccessful stints in speech rehabilitation he was admitted to an experimental speech rehabilitation facility in Florida, where after weeks of stressful therapy he has miraculously re-gained the ability to sing. The remaining members of the Bakersfield Sound- including Merle Haggard- will celebrate Mize’s 80th birthday party during a tribute concert. No one in the audience knows Billy has the ability to sing again. Our documentary concludes with Billy Mize standing in front of his loved ones and singing for the first time in over 20 years. A swan song for an amazing and inspiring career.
Click here for a selection of Billy Mize Music.