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▸ February 18, 2016

By Carl Kozlowski, Pasadena Weekly News —

Nashville may get most of the credit for being the hub of America’s country music scene, but Bakersfield is the city that transformed the genre into the backbeat-driven art form that rules the airwaves today. And while stars like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard garnered the greatest fame for their work in that world, it was another, oft-overlooked man named Billy Mize who actually drove the scene to creative greatness.

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Thankfully, Mize was fortunate to have Joe Saunders as his grandson. A longtime documentarian for NFL Films, Saunders shifted his focus over the past five years to honoring his grandfather’s life by creating the documentary “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound,” which will be shown for at 7 p.m. tonight, Feb. 18, in the Community Room of the South Pasadena Public Library. 

The evening will be a treat for fans of country and Americana roots music. In addition to the screening and a live Q&A with Saunders about the movie and Mize, South Pasadena’s “Wine & Song” troubadour Brad Colerick and Jake Kelly of the Podunk Poets will open the show with a set of live music. 

“I was working at NFL Films doing documentaries on football players and fans, and my mom was helping Billy move from Bakersfield to another town when she found his career archives,” explains Saunders. “He was on television a lot, so there were tons of video archives and she asked me to organize and digitize it all.”

That set off a journey of discovery about his grandfather and the impact he had on the art of country music. Saunders had never before been very close to Mize, since he lived in Philadelphia and Mize had never left California. As he discovered his grandfather’s ties to “the kings of country music,” he decided to go beyond the short film he was planning to make for the family itself and make the project a testament for the broader world of music fans. 

“Billy’s still alive, almost 87, and his health is poor,” says Saunders. “He’s seen the film a couple times. A lot of the film talks about the tragedies of his life, of which he’s had quite a few. He would have been a household name like some of his peers without those turns in his life. He liked it a lot, but it’s sad for him to watch.”

Mize was born in Arkansas City, Kansas, and moved to the San Joaquin Valley as a boy, spending his childhood there before moving to Bakersfield with the steel guitar he received as a present on his 18th birthday. The valley had been a hotbed for country music, due to the thousands of “Okies” and other relocated Southerners who had moved there during the Great Depression in search of agricultural work. 

“All these migrants traveled there in search of jobs, bringing with them Texas Swing, while the deeper South brought folksy sounds, Chicago brought jazz influences, and it all melted together in Bakersfield,” says Saunders. “We had a lot of other influences: black music, and mountain man style, so Bakersfield had more of a rock feel to it which Nashville tried to stay away from. The Grand Ole Opry didn’t have drums for years. That was how Bakersfield stood out: country music you could dance to.”

Once in Bakersfield, Mize formed his own band, playing local gigs and also working as a disc jockey. In 1953, Bill Woods, Herb Henson and he put together a local TV show called “The Cousin Herb Trading Post Show,” and it grew quickly in popularity thanks to the fact its host station, KERO-TV, had a signal that carried all the way to Los Angeles. 

Featuring then-rising local acts like Haggard and Owens, in addition to national stars such as Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, “Cousin Herb” proved hot enough to launch Mize as a television star. By 1957, he was appearing on seven different shows each week in the LA area, and he eventually was named the Academy of Country Music’s TV Personality of the Year award three years in a row between 1965 and 1967. 

Yet, true national stardom proved elusive for Mize. According to Saunders, that unfortunate fact was tied to a highly important and personal decision he had to make at an early age. 

“When he was 19, he was already married and he was asked to tour with one of the biggest Texas swing bands in the country,” says Saunders. “While on tour, his wife — my grandmother — miscarried their first child. He was on tour and couldn’t get back until a couple months later.

“He vowed never to leave his wife and family again, which hurt him becoming a star because Haggard and Owens toured a lot to promote their album on radio stations around the nation,” Saunders continues. “He didn’t want to do that, which was the main reason he didn’t catch on. He took jobs in TV to keep him closer to home, so his reach was only as far as the local television would allow.”

Mize suffered a stroke during the mid-1990s, but has recovered enough to play his beloved steel guitar. With the documentary now able to be screened on Hulu Plus, iTunes and Amazon, in addition to being available for purchase on DVD from billymizemovie.com, Saunders can take pride knowing he has helped bring his grandfather’s legacy to life. 

“This part of California history is so unknown, it was a pleasure to be able to tell that story within the framework of my grandfather’s life,” says Saunders. “My grandfather was one of the kindest and warmest men I’ve ever met in my life. As much as this is about California history, it’s also about this wonderful man.” 

“Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” will play, along with a live music concert by Brad Colerick and Jake Kelly at 7 p.m. tonight, Feb. 18, at the Community Room of the South Pasadena Public Library, 1115 El Centro St., South Pasadena. Admission is free. Call (626) 403-7340. 

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