Bakersfield native Ray McDonald can’t remember a time without his friend Merle Haggard.
Haggard’s mother Flossie, and McDonald’s mother were well acquainted in the mid-1960s, when their Oildale homes faced each other on Yosemite Drive.
McDonald, much younger than Haggard, moved to Los Angeles with his parents in 1965. But after a brief, and what he calls “unpleasant” stint in the area, he returned to Bakersfield to live with Bonnie Owens, former wife of Buck Owens, her sons, and her new husband Merle. McDonald spent his sophomore year of North High School living like one of Merle’s sons. He was just 14 years old and hardly aware that years later he’d be on the road with the singer.
You don’t come away from a childhood like that without some stories.
During a radio interview on Wednesday’s “First Look with Scott Cox,” McDonald recounted the first time Merle asked him to be his bus driver. He said the phone call came in the middle of the night. At that time, McDonald was driving luxury limousines.
“He called and said ‘Hey can you drive a bus,’ and I said, ‘Well, if you teach me,’” McDonald recalled.
Haggard’s driver had apparently quit in the middle of the tour, leaving the band stranded in Dallas. The singer’s friend Norm Hamlet, steel guitarist of Haggard’s band The Strangers, helped teach McDonald how to drive the fan bus.
After a year, McDonald was driving directly for Merle.
“It was really hard but it was so much fun. In fact, he used to tell me that Roy Nichols called it the hardest job he ever had and also the most fun he ever had.”
McDonald said a life on the road was exciting, but a real challenge.
“You can’t sleep right, eat right, you drive four, five hundred miles just to get from show to show and by the time you get home, you’ve driven 10,000 miles and you’re completely exhausted,” he said. “And that’s just the driver. I can’t even imagine what it was like for Merle with all of that being on his shoulders, or any entertainer.”