It took an invitation to appear at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for Don Maddox to realize the impact he's had on American music. "The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California Country" opened last weekend and is set to run through the end of next year. It explores the music, performers, venues and cultural factors that came together to make the California town a force in country music.

It took an invitation to appear at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for Don Maddox to realize the impact he's had on American music. "The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California Country" opened last weekend and is set to run through the end of next year. It explores the music, performers, venues and cultural factors that came together to make the California town a force in country music.

Maddox is the remaining member of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, the children of an Alabama sharecropping family who moved to California in 1933 and became a precursor to the honky-tonk movement that shaped the Bakersfield Sound.

"I'd never felt like a country star," Maddox says. "But everyone in Nashville treated me like one."

Maddox — along with siblings Cal, Fred, Rose and Henry — created a sensation in the '40s and '50s. The group had a playful, distinctive approach to Western swing that got them dubbed "the most colorful hillbilly band in America."

"It's a rags to riches tale," Maddox says. "We lived 'The Grapes of Wrath.' We hitchhiked and rode trains to get to California, but the gold was panned out when we got here. That winter, we were homeless. We didn't have a match to light a fire with."

The following summer, after Maddox's father, Charlie, found work at a peach orchard in Modesto, Fred saw a barn dance and decided to form a band with his brothers and sister.

"Our pot of gold turned out to be the music industry," Maddox says.

The Maddox Brothers and Rose got its start on Modesto's KTRB and in honky tonks up and down the San Joaquin Valley.

"We played weekends at the Pumpkin Center Barn Dance," Maddox says. "It sat at a crossroads 12 miles south of Bakersfield. We packed 'em in.

"Later, we toured from San Diego to Seattle. We packed the house whenever we played Medford, too. We played in a bowling alley that sits where the armory is now."

The Maddoxes moved to Hollywood after landing regular appearances on "Hometown Jamboree," then to Shreveport to play for two years on "Louisiana Hayride." The group appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in 1947, with its hit "Whoa Sailor," and again in 1949 with "Philadelphia Lawyer," written by Woody Guthrie.

"A boy named Merle Haggard liked our guitar player, Roy Nichols," Maddox says. "He hired him away from us, and Nichols played with Haggard for the rest of his life."

The Maddox Brothers broke up in 1955 when Rose decided she could make more money as a solo artist.

"I was sitting in Hollywood with nothing to do," Maddox says. "I'd always wanted to be a cattle rancher, so in 1958 I bought a 300-acre ranch in Ashland for $27,500. I've lived here for 54 years."

Earlier this year, country artist Marty Stuart asked Maddox to appear on his show on RFD-TV, so when Maddox arrived in Nashville for the exhibit opening last week, he called Stuart to let him know he was in town.

"He was playing that night at the Grand Ole Opry, and he got me a spot on his show," Maddox says. "I played 'Step It Up and Go,' 'Bile Dem Cabbage Down' and told a couple of jokes.

"The house just exploded with applause. Everyone in the audience was on their feet," he says. "It blew my mind. I didn't think anyone remembered the Maddox Brothers and Rose, but it turns out we're big stars down there."

The next day, Maddox appeared at the Country Music Hall of Fame for a three-hour show, along with Red Simpson, Gene Breeden, Dallas Frazier, Rose Lee Maphis, Gene Moles, Buddy Mize and other artists led by bandleader Deke Dickerson.

"I was treated like a star," Maddox says. "I loved it. It was great."

He was equally delighted to see two pairs of boots that he used to wear, along with some of his group's costumes made by Nathan Turk of Hollywood, in the exhibit.

Maddox turned 89 last December.

"These are my golden years," he says. "I've been recognized as a country artist, and I just got married to a wonderful lady. Barbara's been taking care of the management end of things. If it wasn't for her, I'd still just be sitting here on the ranch."

Maddox will perform at the next Old-Time Fiddlers jam to be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at the Roxy Ann Grange, 1850 Spring St., Medford.