Country legend Merle Haggard’s life, music spanned the Central Valley

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Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 7:07 PM

But the CA Haggard presented in song, and where he spent most of his life, wasn't the palm-trees-and-beaches version from movies and commercials.

Country legend Merle Haggard’s life, music spanned the Central Valley

Merle Haggard, the country music superstar who died on Wednesday – his seventy-ninth birthday – was quintessentially Californian.

But the CA Haggard presented in song, and where he spent most of his life, wasn't the palm-trees-and-beaches version from movies and commercials. Instead, his music came from the dusty farms and tiny towns in the sweltering Central Valley.

Haggard grew up in a converted train box car in Oildale, a hardscrabble, unincorporated town just N of Bakersfield, to which his parents had moved after joining the throngs of Oklahomans sent W by the Great Depression.

He spent his later decades in Shasta County, where the Country Music Corridor of Famer died of pneumonia, his manager, Frank Mull said. Haggard underwent lung cancer surgery in 2008.

Though Haggard moved up the Valley, to a region known for its stunning views of mountains, lakes and rivers, he'd not moved distant from his blue-collar past. Love Bakersfield, and Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma, Shasta County copes with intense summer heat and a boom-and-bust economy, though the culprits are different – logging and housing instead of oil and agriculture.

Valley references were literal in Haggard’s music, in songs love “Kern River,” but the area’s spirit informs his common-man-themed catalog, much of which speaks to the struggles of the underdog, who's a “big work just getting by with nine kids and a wife” (“Working Man Blues”), might sometimes drink too much (“The Bottle Let Me Down”) or obtain into worse trouble (“Mama Tried,” which alludes to the brief time Haggard – a burglar in his youth – spent at the coast, at San Quentin State Prison).

“He loved music that spoke to people who worked tough and had a tough life,” said Buddy Owens, Buck Owens’ son and Haggard’s onetime stepson. “That is what he’d had, and he knew a lot of people love that.”

Owens, whose late mother, singer Bonnie Owens Haggard, married and divorced both of Bakersfield’s country music superstars, said Haggard used to get him fishing. The pair kept in touch, and Owens saw Haggard recently in Arizona, where Owens lives. Haggard remembered Owens’ mother fondly during the visit, Owens said.

When his mother married Haggard, Owens said, the singer was still living a tough life that started at an early age. Haggard was nine years elderly when his father died, and he later did stints at Preston School of Industry, the reform school in Ione, and San Quentin. “I think he'd needed someone to get care of him,” Owens said.

Though Haggard was an international star, Shasta County locals said he didn’t act that way. Rather, he was the guy who thanked his plumber during his one thousand nine hundred ninety-four induction into the Country Music Corridor of Fame, and who regularly stopped for breakfast at Lulu’s Eating and Drinking Establishment in Redding. The usual? Two poached eggs or pancakes.

“He would always walk in with his hat, in his jeans and just had his laid-back demeanor,” said Marci Biancalana, the diner’s manager. “With his tiny fishing hat on, ninety % of the time, he just sat in his well-known Booth No. three we called it, in the coffee shop. He loved to sit in the corner. Nobody really bothered him, but every once in a while, someone would ask for his autograph or have him sign a guitar.”

Mike Reha, common manager of Shasta Lake’s Silverthorn Resort houseboat marina, which Haggard owned in the one thousand nine hundred seventy and one thousand nine hundred eighty, said people were calling Wednesday to speak about the “very wild parties” Haggard used to toss there. In those days, Haggard apparently had quite the visitor list.

Reha said Willie Nelson and Conway Twitty were among the stars who “just popped up out here from time to time to sing, and nobody knew they were coming.”

But in recent years, Haggard became much more low-key.

“He was just a regular guy in a tiny town,” Reha said. His neighbors declare they frequently saw Haggard standing in line at the local grocery store or getting a trim at the barber shop.

Haggard and Owens were the two pillars of the “Bakersfield sound,” the school of country music that in the one thousand nine hundred sixty established Bakersfield as a kind of Nashville West.

Bakersfield has taken large steps in recent years to honor Haggard, who for the decades previous had a less visible presence in the city than Owens, who'd stayed in Kern County until his death in two thousand-sixth, and built businesses there. Ten years ago, the city renamed a major road Merle Haggard Drive. “I got my own road now ... and it’s got stop signs and everything!” Haggard .

Latest year, Haggard and his sister as their childhood boxcar residence was loaded onto a flatbed on its way to the Kern County Museum.

But his appreciation of the Valley encompassed more than the two places he called home. In that two thousand nine interview with The Bee, he mentioned the roadhouses he played up and down the Valley in the one thousand nine hundred sixty. His fifth wife, Theresa, to whom he'd been married for more than twenty years, is from Elk Grove, and the couple owned property there, he said.

“I have kind of compared him to (Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Fresno native) William Saroyan in that they both went out into the wider world, but they always maintained this connection to the Central Valley,” said Robert Price, author of the two thousand fifteen bookand executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian.

Though his health had declined over the past decade, Haggard continued to tour often. He was equally at residence at the swank Mondavi Middle in Davis or at the Dixon May Fair.

Wherever Haggard played locally, Timothy Zindel, a federal public defender in Sacramento, likely was at the show. Zindel discovered Haggard on the radio as a kid in the one thousand nine hundred sixty, he said, and has attended at minimum two dozen Haggard shows in the Sacramento region and elsewhere.

“Unlike many acts that are carefully rehearsed, you never knew what he was going to do,” Zindel said. “No two shows were alike. His shows reflected how he was feeling that day.”

Haggard’s Sacramento shows, in particular, “were unbeatable,” Zindel said. “I think he was particularly fond of the Central Valley, because that’s where he grew up.”

Haggard might've arrive up in Central CA honky-tonks, but his songwriting was elegant. Though the Vietnam-era conservative anthem “Okie From Muskogee” crossed over to the population charts and therefore stuck in the public’s imagination more than any other Haggard song, he wrote more thoughtful takes on the state of America in “Big City” and “Are the Excellent Times Really Over,” both from one thousand nine hundred eighty-two. And “Silver Wings” is a flat-out pretty song about romantic heartbreak.

“He sang of heavy things, of human emotion and human suffering, and he'd this kind of low, resonant (musical) sound that was kind of reassuring at the same time,” Price said. “There was an understatement about the music.”

And universality. Though Haggard spent most of his life in California, he ranks among the greatest American songwriters, Price said.

“Merle Haggard made American music,” Price said. “You look that in the variety of the people who covered his songs.” They comprise the Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Emmylou Harris.

But on Wednesday, it was fans and neighbors who live in that Valley most associated with Haggard that seemed particularly tough hit by his death.

Zindel, the Sacramento public defender, said he broke down in tears when he heard about Haggard’s death Wednesday morning.

And up in Redding, where a Haggard sighting or interaction could create a local’s day, people were rocked by news of the singer’s death.

“People like to tell tiny anecdotes of where they’d look him at a restaurant or something like that,” said Bernie Baker, manager of Redding’s The Music Connection store, which did repair work for Haggard. “He’s going to be missed bad. Real bad.”

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