Merle Haggard, the country music superstar who died on Wednesday – his 79th birthday – was quintessentially Californian.
But the California Haggard presented in song, and where he spent most of his life, was not the palm-trees-and-beaches version from movies and commercials. Instead, his music came from the dusty farms and small towns in the sweltering Central Valley.
Haggard grew up in a converted train box car in Oildale, a hardscrabble, unincorporated town just north of Bakersfield, to which his parents had moved after joining the throngs of Oklahomans sent west by the Great Depression.
He spent his later decades in Shasta County, where the Country Music Hall of Famer died of pneumonia, his manager, Frank Mull said. Haggard underwent lung cancer surgery in 2008.
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Though Haggard moved up the Valley, to a region known for its stunning views of mountains, lakes and rivers, he had not moved far from his blue-collar past. Like 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 like “Kern River,” but the area’s spirit informs his common-man-themed catalog, much of which speaks to the struggles of the underdog, who has a “big job just getting by with nine kids and a wife” (“Working Man Blues”), might sometimes drink too much (“The Bottle Let Me Down”) or get into worse trouble (“Mama Tried,” which alludes to the brief time Haggard – a thief in his youth – spent at the coast, at San Quentin State Prison).
“He loved music that spoke to people who worked hard and had a hard 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 like that.”
Owens, whose late mother, singer Bonnie Owens Haggard, married and divorced both of Bakersfield’s country music superstars, said Haggard used to take 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 hard life that started at an early age. Haggard was 9 years old 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 had needed someone to take 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 1994 induction into the Country Music Hall 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 little fishing hat on, 90 percent of the time, he just sat in his famous Booth No. 3 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, general manager of Shasta Lake’s Silverthorn Resort houseboat marina, which Haggard owned in the 1970s and 1980s, said people were calling Wednesday to talk about the “very wild parties” Haggard used to throw there. In those days, Haggard apparently had quite the guest 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 small town,” Reha said. His neighbors say they often 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 1960s established Bakersfield as a kind of Nashville West.
Bakersfield has taken big steps in recent years to honor Haggard, who for the decades previous had a less visible presence in the city than Owens, who had stayed in Kern County until his death in 2006, 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 told The Sacramento Bee in 2009.
Last year, Haggard and his sister watched as their childhood boxcar home 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 2009 interview with The Bee, he mentioned the roadhouses he played up and down the Valley in the 1960s. His fifth wife, Theresa, to whom he had been married for more than 20 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 2015 book “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music,” and executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian.
Though his health had declined over the past decade, Haggard continued to tour often. He was equally at home at the swank Mondavi Center 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 1960s, he said, and has attended at least 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 have come up in Central California honky-tonks, but his songwriting was elegant. Though the Vietnam-era conservative anthem “Okie From Muskogee” crossed over to the pop 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 Good Times Really Over,” both from 1982. And “Silver Wings” is a flat-out beautiful song about romantic heartbreak.
“He sang of heavy things, of human emotion and human suffering, and he had 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 see that in the diversity of the people who covered his songs.” They include 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 hard 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 make a local’s day, people were rocked by news of the singer’s death.
“People love to tell little anecdotes of where they’d see 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.”
The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert and The Associated Press contributed to this report.