For a man who wasn't there, Merle Haggard was everywhere Sunday at Kern Pioneer Village: His hits on the sound system, his T-shirts on the backs of fans, his essence — his very Merle-ness — palpable at the dedication of the country music icon's boyhood home.
"He’s here in spirit, right here beside me, holding my hand," said an emotional Theresa Haggard, Merle's widow. Wearing a "Mama Tried" black tank, she dried her eyes following a private tour of the restored boxcar home built by her husband's parents, whom she never knew.
"This is really all for them," she said of James and Flossie Haggard. "If not for them coming out from Oklahoma, with very little money, with just their hopes and two kids, we wouldn't be here today."
But Merle wasn't the only one there in spirit; about 11,000 people from around the world watched a live video stream of the ceremony on the internet, according to the museum. Add that to the 2,000-plus who showed up for the museum's inaugural Boxcar Festival — plus the thousands who attended a tribute concert in Nashville on Thursday — and this was quite a birthday week for Haggard, who would have been 80 on April 6, the date also marking the first anniversary of his death.
Among the fans at the museum Sunday were Sandy and Royce Westheimer, from Washington State, in Bakersfield to visit their daughter. They were first in line for the public tours of the Haggard home.
"When we heard this was happening, we delayed our departure," said Mrs. Westheimer. "We're such Merle Haggard fans."
But before guests were allowed to make their way inside — the smell of paint still fresh and the rooms gleaming as if Flossie herself had prepared them for company — several members of Haggard's family spoke to the hundreds congregated under the blue sky.
"I thought about all the big houses here and all the stories and secrets and thought about our little home," said Merle's sister, Lillian Haggard Rea, 96, the only surviving member of the original boxcar family.
"It was like an open house. ... My brother (Lowell) brought home a buddy from the service and the two fashioned a boudoir out of a utility shed."
Even after her brother accepted a job out of town and left Oildale, his friend stayed behind in the shed, she said.
“Many people have called this boxcar a temporary home. If this boxcar could tell the stories that have bounced off its walls, it would make a great novel.”
Sheriff Donny Youngblood also spoke, explaining the unlikely friendship between the lawman and the ex-con.
"He was my friend all my life but I didn’t become his friend until 10, 11 years ago," said Youngblood, noting that before the two men got to know each other, Merle first required that Lillian vouch for the sheriff, which she did. The men even had a running joke, Merle gently ribbing the sheriff at concerts when he'd get to the line about marijuana in his signature hit, "Okie from Muskogee."
"He would stop and say, 'Is Donny Youngblood in the house?'"
Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh and Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard thanked restoration benefactor Cynthia Lake and sisters Glenda Rankin and Di Sharman, who helped get the project off the ground. Maggard said he had his doubts when the women approached him about their plan.
"I thought, I don’t think that’s going to happen after looking at the house in Oildale," he said, referring to the dilapidated state of the boxcar home before it was moved to the museum in 2015.
Joe Hughes, chairman of the foundation that runs the nonprofit museum, said fans deserve a Haggard landmark they can visit, offering as an example the case of his own father, a big country music fan from the Bay Area.
"When he visited, he said, 'Do you know where Merle Haggard's boxcar house is?' I said I had no idea. He said, 'How can you live in Bakersfield and not know?'"
The day had the feeling of a Haggard family reunion, with frequent hugs, stories and "How-the-heck-have-you-beens." Merle's cousins, his nephew, grandchildren and a few distant relatives were there, as were several of his children: Ben and Jenessa from his marriage to Theresa, and Kelli, one of four children from his first marriage.
"Grandma Haggard was the MacGyver of grandmas," Kelli said, addressing friends gathered around her. "She could pull a rubber band out of her apron and make a slingshot. We were her kids, after Dad."
Fuzzy Owen, perhaps Haggard's oldest friend, was amazed at what has become of the boxcar.
"I saw it in 1962 (for the first time), when it still looked something like a boxcar," he said. "It was nice. Flossie Mae, Merle’s mother, was a neat housekeeper."
Frank and Sharon Williams were at the end of a long line Sunday, patiently awaiting their turn as singer John Pemberton serenaded the crowd with "Silver Wings."
"Merle played my kind of music," Williams said, as his wife noted the two had donated what they could to the effort to move the boxcar to the museum.
"It's good to keep these things instead of destroying our heritage," Mrs. Williams said.
A few feet away from the line was Youngblood, wearing a "Hag" belt buckle he clips on only for special occasions, though soon he'll have another to choose from. Poised to step down as president of the California State Sheriffs Association, he will walk away with a belt buckle as a token of the group's gratitude. When asked by the organization what design he'd like, his answer was swift: A guitar for Buck Owens and an image of Haggard, the friend of a lifetime.
“No doubt," Youngblood said, "he’s sitting back here looking at this train and he's home.”