Pastor Phil Neighbors prepares to read Psalm 15 from the Bible of Merle Haggard at the country star’s Bakersfield memorial service at Valley Baptist Church in May. Haggard’s sister, Lillian Haggard Rea, read to her brother from the Bible before his death on April 6. Neighbors, a great fan of Haggard’s work, selected the song “Leonard” from the songwriter’s vast catalog as his favorite.

Casey Christie / The Californian

Right up to the end, Merle Haggard wrote songs about the people and places of his hometown. He never really forgot about all of us in Bakersfield.

My favorite Merle songs are his songs about Bakersfield. Great cities have great songs written about them. If that is true, then Merle Haggard put us on the map with his numerous songs about Bakersfield.

My favorite Merle Haggard song comes from this collection of Bakersfield songs. Of these, I have to single out the song, "Leonard." At first you may not realize that this song is about Bakersfield, but a closer listen proves that it is all about Merle’s hometown. It is a country ballad about Leonard Raymond Sipes, one of Merle’s lifelong friends from Bakersfield.

Leonard, also known as Tommy Collins, was an early Bakersfield Sound star from Bethany, Okla., who wrote numerous hits for Merle Haggard. Brother Tommy, as he was known to many in Bakersfield, became a Baptist preacher, and preached in several churches in our area. Leonard’s life was not always on the straight and narrow. Sadly, he struggled with the weakness of addiction.

However, Merle’s cryptic song about Tommy Collins and Bakersfield ends with the Gospel theme of redemption when he sings that “I forgot about a friend that Leonard knew,” an obvious reference to Jesus who can change our lives.

Maybe "Leonard" is just for us in Bakersfield. The world at large knows little if anything about the Okie country singer who became a Baptist preacher. "Leonard" never became one of Merle’s mega hits. But, for us in Oildale and Bakersfield, we know that Leonard is about one of us.

— Pastor Phil Neighbors officiated at Merle Haggard's Bakersfield memorial service at Valley Baptist Church along with co-pastor Roger Spradlin

(1) comment


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