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CMT Edge: by Craig Shelburne
For fans of California country’s golden era, Billy Mize is an icon. A good-looking guy with a natural hosting ability, he transitioned from touring musician to TV personality with ease.
But the story doesn’t end there. Actually, there’s a whole lot more to be said, which is the premise of a new documentary, Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound. The film will have its Southeastern premiere on Saturday afternoon (Dec. 6) at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
After giving up a steady gig playing steel guitar with his musical hero, Western swing bandleader Tommy Duncan, Mize chose to stay home with his wife, Martha, and their growing family. Instead of traveling relentlessly, he’d play seven nights a week in Bakersfield, just as the Bakersfield Sound was about to explode. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ray Price are among the musicians who attest to Mize’s influence in the film.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Mize became a West Coast star by emceeing TV shows like Chuck Wagon Show, Cousin Herb Henson’s Trading Post and Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch. Along the way, he also penned a country classic, “Who Will Buy the Wine,” recorded by Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ernest Tubb, Charlie Walker and many more.
After two unthinkable tragedies, the storybook ending unraveled, but Billy is still around to recount the story — even though a late-career stroke nearly stole his voice. The final scene, though simply shot, is quite astonishing when you consider all the circumstances.
Joe Saunders, the film’s director and producer (and Mize’s grandson), answered a few questions by email.
CMT Edge: When did you start working on the film? And what sort of preparation did you do before the first day of filming?
Saunders: I shot the first interview (Martha’s solo) in 2009 and worked on it when I could between projects and life’s other priorities. This entire film evolved over the years. I had spoken with several of Billy’s friends over the phone before the first interview and had a general idea of what happened in Bakersfield. But there were still many surprises, both in Billy’s personal life and his career, that I would discover in subsequent interviews.
Can you share some of those examples?
Sure thing. I didn’t know that Elvis was a fan of Billy’s or that he borrowed Billy’s style. I also didn’t know Billy used to be an actor. He has all these headshots as different ‘professions’ — doctor, bad guy, office worker, etc. I touch on this a little bit in the documentary, but I didn’t realize it was such a viable option for him.
I also didn’t realize that once you’re a performer, you’re always a performer. I’ve been a documentary filmmaker for over a decade now, and I’m used to directing nonactors. Billy and I were doing a publicity shoot in front of the yellow “Bakersfield” arc outside the Crystal Palace, and I asked Billy to turn to the arc and turn back to the camera. He nailed it with that smooth charisma that awarded him so many TV hosting gigs. I was floored, then remembered he’s been doing that his whole life. He’s a pro.
There are a lot of scenes from Billy’s TV shows, and those were some of my favorite parts of the film. What was on your mind when you were looking at the vintage footage?
It’s hard to pinpoint one feeling when watching that old footage. I felt sad at first. To see what a great talent Billy was — and to know that age and health conspired to take his voice — it’s so tragic. You feel bad for him. But he looks like he’s having so much fun singing and performing that you also feel proud and happy he was able to do what he loved — even if he would lose that ability.
What do you remember most about the day you showed the final film to the whole family?
During the sequence of Billy Jr., my aunt Marji turned to her son Kyle and said, “I never realized how much you looked like my brother.” He truly is a spitting image of Billy Jr. It became very emotional for everyone.
By THE BAKERSFIELD CALIFORNIAN
“Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound,” a long documentary, took Best in Show on Sunday in the second annual Outside the Box Bakersfield Film Festival.
The documentary about songwriter Mize’s contributions to Country Western music took one of 21 awards at a ceremony presented by the Tejon Ranch at the Fox Theater. Read More ▸
BY JENNIFER SELF The Bakersfield Californian firstname.lastname@example.org
The temptation to liken the life of Billy Mize to one of the melancholy country songs he wrote is a potent one — except that no one would ever write anything so damned sad.
Unthinkable family tragedies, one after another, medical setbacks and a stroke that prematurely ended his career offer a pretty compelling case that Mize just may be the biblical Job of country music.
Filmmaker Joe Saunders reports he’s just signed a deal with a company called Cintic to distribute the movie. “It looks like we’ll be distributed digitally via Film Buff (its sister company) who will put us on all digital platforms in early 2015,” Saunders wrote in an email. “And they are out looking for TV opportunities, etc.” Read More ▸
BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor email@example.com
The film had its world premiere in Los Angeles, but “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” finally comes home on Sept. 18, to a venue that doesn’t get more Bakersfield Sound-ified: Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace.
“Now it’s finally going to be played for the people who helped make it,” said filmmaker Joe Saunders, the grandson of Mize, a country music performer and television personality who, decades ago, joined Owens, Merle Haggard and their contemporaries in creating a raw and thoroughly original hybrid of rockabilly and honky-tonk that made the city famous.
“I met my grandfather as an adult — not literally — but I’ve learned so much more about him as an adult and have a deeper understanding and respect for him,” said Saunders, 35, a Los Angeles filmmaker.
The festivities kick off at 6 p.m. with, naturally, a little Bakersfield Sound music, courtesy of Tommy Hays and other local trailblazers of the 1950s and ’60s. The screening follows, at around 7 or 7:30.
Saunders hopes his grandfather will be able to attend, but a recent fall broke a vertebra in Mize’s back “and he’s kind of been immobile.” The filmmaker’s mother and aunt — Mize’s daughters — are expected, and Saunders has invited several Bakersfield Sound players, like Red Simpson and Bobby Durham. Read More ▸
By Bob Strauss
Billy Mize was the biggest deal in California country music that you’ve probably never heard of. A founding father of the Okie-influenced Bakersfield movement, he gave early boosts to its eventual superstars Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. But Mize was an equally talented singer, picker, writer and regional television host who never quite made it beyond the L.A. airwaves. Read More ▸
LOS ANGELES BUREAU OF ARTS AND CULTURE – SUMMER 2014 ISSUE
BUREAU Magazine: New CINEMA
Billy MIZE & The Bakersfield Sound
By Joshua TRILIEGI
History is sometimes told by outsiders, sometimes by insiders and sometimes by someone simply very interested in the facts, in this case: it’s a little of each. Billy MIZE and The Bakersfield Sound is a New Documentary that tells the story of California’s forgotten history. We have got a lot of those around this Golden State. So very much has happened out here in The West. William J. Saunders steps up to tell the story of his Grandfather, songwriter and musician, Mr. Billy Mize. A local legend of sorts for anyone living in the middle of California in the 1950’s & 1960’s. Billy Mize was a big part of what is now commonly called, ‘The Bakersfield Sound’. An offshoot of Country Western Music with its own Rock – a – Billy bar room blend of hard driving guitar, rough edged rhythm and wide audience appeal that to this today is influential to musicians such as Dave Alvin, who appears in this film to help tell the story. So too does Merle Haggard and a host of people who were there or highly influenced by the music that was created during that time. A hard driving, hard working community of people whom many migrated to California during The Great Depression ala John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and settled into middle California seeking employment in Agriculture. Read More ▸
A filmmaker profiles his grandfather, one of country music’s leading lights of the ’50s and ’60s, and the influential Central California honky-tonk scene that he helped to build.
He lent his guitar to Buck Owens when the newcomer was auditioning for a club. Merle Haggard’s first TV appearance was on his show. Waylon Jennings, Barbara Mandrell and Dean Martin, among many others, covered his songs. And no less a trendsetter than Elvis copied his sartorial style. Though he’s no household name, Billy Mize is a key figure in country music, and an affectionate documentary portrait shows that he had it all — smooth-as-silk voice, songwriting talent and good looks. But as Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound details, a series of exceedingly challenging personal setbacks put his career on a lower-altitude trajectory than anyone would have predicted. Read More ▸
When California Sang Country
Documentary Recalls Billy Mize, and When Los Angeles Rivaled Nashville
LOS ANGELES — Even the vinyl addicts among us have to dig deep for Billy Mize.
Scratching past Wynn Stewart’s “It’s a Beautiful Day” and the Jean Shepard and Buck Owens albums, I still couldn’t find a copy of Mize master sessions like “Please Don’t Let the Blues Make You Bad,” from Columbia Records in 1965. But there he was, sure enough, with the writer’s credit for “Who’ll Buy the Wine,” on Merle Haggard’s “Pride in What I Am” album.
Read More ▸