7 Country Stars from Sunny California—Including Merle Haggard and Buck Owens

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

When you think of the stars of country music, it’s inevitable that locales like Nashville or Austin come to mind. Music City is known for harboring and honoring its many twangy standouts.

But in truth, stars from the country music genre come from all over the world, from Memphis to Melbourne to Montana.

Here, though, we are going to dive into seven significant stars of country music who were from The Golden State.

1. Buck Owens

Born Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. on August 12, 1929, Buck later became the singer and band leader for Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, which boasted 21 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. He was a pioneer of what later became known as the Bakersfield sound (named after the California town). From 1969 to 1986, Owens co-hosted the CBS variety show, Hee Haw.

While Owens was born in Sherman, Texas, his family moved to Mesa, Arizona, in 1937 during the Great Depression. As a young adult, he earned some fame playing in Phoenix. Later, he became a truck driver and the job took him to California where he found Bakersfield. He settled there with his wife in 1951 and soon started traveling to Hollywood for recording sessions with Capitol Records.

Owens also spent time in Washington State in Fife and Tacoma. But it’s in the bohemian town of Bakersfield that he made his name, fame, and fortune. Owens died in 2006 at the age of 76.

2. Merle Haggard

Born April 6, 1937, in Oildale, California, toward the end of the Great Depression, Haggard was sent to prison several times in his youth. He was released from San Quentin State Prison in 1960. That’s when he began to turn his life around thanks to country music. He sang about the working class and between the 1960s and 1980s, he earned 38 No. 1 hits on the Hot Country Songs chart.

In 2010, he received a Kennedy Center Honor, and in 2006 he earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Haggard died on April 6, 2016, on his 79th birthday at his ranch in Shasta County, California.

3. Molly Tuttle

Born on January 14, 1993, in Santa Clara, California, this modern-day guitar wizard is one of the more prominent artists today in country music. She plays banjo, guitar, and sings, and is known for her skills in country, Americana, and bluegrass. In 2017, she was the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association Guitar Player of the Year Award. She won it again in 2018. She was also named the Americana Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year. At the 65th Grammy Awards, she earned a nomination for Best New Artist and it’s her California roots that she cherishes today.

4. Jon Pardi

Born on May 20, 1985, in Dixon, California, Jon Pardi is signed to Capitol Nashville today. He’s released four studio LPs from 2014 to 2022 with the most recent being Mr. Saturday Night. He began writing music as a teenager. After high school, he moved to Nashville to pursue his love of songwriting. Today, he’s known for his fun lyrics and party songs like No. 1 hits “Heartache on the Dance Floor” and “Dirt on My Boots.”

5. Linda Ronstadt

While she was born on July 15, 1946, in Tucson, Arizona, Linda Ronstadt established her professional career a little bit west. In California, at the forefront of the region’s emerging folk rock and country rock movements, Ronstadt began to make a name for herself. The result of her work? 11 Grammy Awards, three American Music Awards, an Emmy Award, and many more. She has gold, platinum, and multi-platinum certified records. She’s also earned nominations for a Tony Award and a Golden Globe.

Today, Ronstadt is known for her hit songs—34 of which have charted on the Billboard Hot 100—like “You’re No Good,” which hit No. 1. Other hits include “Blue Bayou” and “Somewhere Out There.” When she made it to California, she joined forces with Bobby Kimmel and Kenny Edwards and became the singer of a folk-rock trio, the Stone Poneys. She even toured often with the Doors, Neil Young, and more.

6. Dwight Yoakam 

Born on October 23, 1956, in Pikeville, Kentucky, Dwight Yoakam paid his dues in California. He moved to Los Angeles after the encouragement of a friend. While there, he struggled before meeting guitarist and record producer Pete Anderson in 1982. The two became friends given some common love for artists like Haggard. Yoakam began to perform in clubs where acts like Joe Ely and Rank and File were known to play. He soon gained exposure and was on his way to becoming a standout artist. Yoakam first achieved acclaim in 1986 with the release of his debut LP, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. He’s since won two Grammy Awards and his 1993 album, This Time, was certified triple-platinum.

7. Jean Shepard

Born on November 21, 1933, in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, Jean Shepard was raised in Visalia, California, near Bakersfield. As a teenager, she played in an all-female band formed in 1948. A few years later, Hank Thompson discovered her. She signed with Capitol Records in 1952 and then began to record hits.

Today she is seen as a pioneer for women in country music, having released 73 singles that made the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. “A Dear John Letter,” her duet with Ferlin Husky, hit No. 1 in 1953. She recorded 24 records from 1956 to 1981 and was given membership into the Grand Ole Opry in 1955. Shepard died of Parkinson’s disease in 2016. She was 82.

Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images

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