The young guitar player kept looking over his shoulder toward the stage door. The band had cycled through its softly urgent instrumental introduction three or four times, the stage lights low, the crowd quiet and anxious.
The guitar player looked toward the stage door again, an anticipatory grin on his face. Are you coming?
Two more cycles of the intro-ditty.
Then, at last, a figure emerged from the darkness, stage left. A small man, smaller than some might have remembered, moved slowly through the backstage shadows and into the light. And every throat in the building opened.
The audience was so well-illuminated that Merle Haggard could see every face almost all the way to the back of the sold-out Fox Theater. The sight must have moved him because he stopped at the very edge of the stage, the footlights silhouetting him in a shimmering aureole. He paused there in his brown wide-brimmed felt hat, his wrap-around sunglasses perched atop a crook nose, and absorbed the roar. And still he lingered, smiling warmly for a full 10, 12 seconds, accepting this transfusion of respect and affection. Finally he shuffled across the front of the stage to the opposite end and repeated the exchange, nodding slightly, appreciatively, as the ovation soared.
Merle Haggard had come home.
It's hard not to consider the possibility that, at 76, Haggard's one-night reunion with Bakersfield, the city of his youth, of his infamy, of his redemption and finest glory, might have been his last. At that age, every turn of a man's life, especially a life lived hard, has that flavor.
Haggard understands that. Retirement is not an option. "You people," he'd told the crowd in Lewiston, Idaho, a few nights before, "are keeping me alive."
And vice-versa. Haggard isn't merely breathing literal life into one of the great American songbooks; his presence personifies one of the landmark eras of the past musical century.
Bakersfield was a hot, dusty hell hole of oil rigs, cotton fields and Pentecostal Sundays when Joe Limi and Frank Zabaleta opened a bar on the north side of the town's main drag, just south of the Kern River, in 1949. It was rough and bawdy, but the Blackboard lured musicians who didn't know any better than to play what they liked and what they felt, and in diametric opposition to the competitive mating behavior that played out most every night around the dance floor, they liked and supported each other through poverty, divorce and hocked guitars.
It was into this world that Merle Haggard emerged, paranoid from having spent seven of his 23 years behind iron bars of one sort or another -- self-conscious and marginally employed but more talented than he or anyone else could yet conceive.
Over the next decade Bakersfield would shed its anonymity and present the world with a face and a style and a sound. Not everyone embraced it, not even everyone in Bakersfield, but the musical genre then called country and western -- managed by a Nashville hierarchy preoccupied at the time by commercial imperatives and, consequently, largely bereft of the honesty that once sustained it -- needed that sound, that attitude. And soon, most of America, even the buttoned-up half, accepted it as part of the cultural landscape.
That sound has now permanently infected the DNA of American music, but its evangelists and practitioners -- Buck Owens foremost among them -- are gone now, or mostly so. Prodigious songwriter Red Simpson is as mischievous and open-hearted as the day Bill Woods first put him a honky-tonk stage, but he is freshly 80.
Haggard turns 77 on April 6.
The current edition of the Strangers -- Haggard's backing band and historically one of music's most understatedly tight outfits -- includes a guitar prodigy of modest demeanor but outsize talent, one Ben Haggard, 21. He's the one who'd helped prepare the Bakersfield crowd for that grand entrance, Dad's grand entrance, stealing glances at the stage door as he picked his Telecaster with unconscious articulation.
Sixty years after it first took recognizable shape, the Bakersfield Sound lives on, if somewhat precariously, and Ben Haggard is one of its chief ambassadors. Perhaps one day he will be more than that.
But next week in Thackerville, Okla., and New Braunfels, Texas, and a dozen stops beyond, he will stand behind and just to the right of the small, behatted man illuminated in the footlights, nodding appreciatively to the people who keep him alive.
Email Executive Editor Robert Price at firstname.lastname@example.org.