"Who'll Buy the Wine" is an outtake of sorts from West of the West, my tribute CD to California songwriters. Its composer was Billy Mize, who is one of the true pioneers of West Coast country music and the Bakersfield sound in particular. A true unsung honky-tonk hero.
Gerald Haslam, the noted California novelist/essayist/ historian and Bakersfield native, told me that local folks, back in the early 1950s, thought Billy Mize was supposed to be the Bakersfield kid that would make it big in country music. Not Merle Haggard or Buck Owens. Handsome and multi-talented, Billy Mize was a singer, songwriter, sideman and television personality (I still remember seeing him on Cal Worthington's old Saturday evening country music shows and on the Town Hall Party back when I was a boy) who seemed to have all the right ingredients for big time stardom. Despite his success on the west coast country music scene, Billy Mize never became as big a star as Merle or Buck would become in the 1960s.
Who can say why some people become big stars while others don't? I certainly have no idea why, believe me. All I know is that Billy Mize wrote one of my favorite (if not my favorite) drinkin' and cheatin' songs, "Who'll Buy the Wine." It was a big country hit for Charlie Walker in the late 50s and has been subsequently recorded by a Honky Tonk Who's Who including Jerry Lee Lewis, Ernest Tubb and Merle Haggard.
Besides paying tribute to Billy Mize by recording his song, I also wanted to tip my hat to a world that has vanished to a great extent. From the 1940s up into the early 90s, there was a thriving country barroom scene on the southeast side of Los Angeles County where I grew up. Joints like The Tumbleweeds in Bell Gardens, Nashville West in El Monte, The Dodge Saloon in Norwalk and The Blue Bayou in Bellflower. Long Beach had more than it's share of clubs with places like George's Round-up, Hollywood By The Beach, Nashville Beach and, up on Signal Hill maybe the greatest of them all, Bonnie Price's Foothill Club. For many years Billy Mize and The Tennesseans was the house band at the Foothill and more than once, after I turned 21, I stopped by to catch one of his sets and have a beer or two. These were neighborhood clubs that catered to the local blue collar factory and oil field workers and what was left of the old dairy and agricultural workers in the area. As tastes changed in country music and the customers and jobs moved on or, sadly, as the old timers passed away so did these honky-tonks and the music scene they supported.
Many of the musicians I've worked with over the years (Chris Gaffney, Greg Leisz, Rick Shea and Gene Taylor to name a few) cut their teeth in these joints as young sidemen to countless, nameless bandleaders. I was fortunate to have Greg (pedal steel) and Rick (electric guitar and harmony vocals) join me in recreating a lost world that they were a small part of. The superb rhythm section of David Jackson on bass and Don Heffington on drums (no strangers to the honky-tonks) added the necessary country shuffle groove while Craig Parker Adams did his usual stellar job recording this at his Winslow Court Studio. While I consider myself a rock and roll/folk/blues guy, country music, and especially the kind played by Billy Mize in the local bars of my youth, has always had an immense influence on me and my songwriting. So, anyway, who is going to buy the wine? See you at the Foothill.
- Dave Alvin, June 12, 2008