They came in work shirts, cowboy hats, Wranglers and permanent tans. Suits were scarce and neck ties scarcer still. In many ways it looked like a typical Bakersfield funeral, a common man’s final farewell, but Merle Ronald Haggard, honored at Valley Baptist Church on Tuesday, was a most uncommon common man.
The icon of American music, a hero to millions around the world, was remembered by his hometown in a dignified, moving service organized by big sister Lillian Haggard Rea. Arriving with Haggard’s well-traveled Bible in her hand and a pendant that read “Mama Tried” around her neck, Rea stressed this would be no celebrity funeral and, except for an appearance on video by Vince Gill, it wasn’t.
“What we're really going to focus on is his spiritual life and his wonderful sacred songs he has written,” she said.
About 500 people gathered at Valley Baptist Church, which hosted the funeral of that other pillar of the Bakersfield Sound — Buck Owens — 10 years ago. But where Owens’ funeral demonstrated his showman’s flair, including performances by superstars like Brad Paisley, Haggard’s was modest and plainspoken, much like the man himself.
“Buck was a Christian and member of this church,” said co-pastor Phil Neighbors after the service. “I didn’t know Merle personally, but Lillian called and said, ‘I don’t want this to be about celebrities but about Jesus.’”
Mourners, most of them from Haggard’s peer group, consisted of fans, friends, a few remaining Bakersfield Sound players and about a dozen family members. Longtime manager Fuzzy Owen was there, as were mayoral candidate Kyle Carter and his wife, the singer Kim McAbee Carter, musicians Chuck Seaton, Tommy Hays, Larry Petree, Charlie Harwell, Brian Lonbeck and Jennifer Keel, and the unlikely close buddy of Haggard’s final decade, Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
“I had the luxury of knowing him as a human, not as the greatest singer/songwriter in country music history,” Youngblood said before the service.
The only one of Haggard’s six children to attend was his eldest, Dana Haggard, 59, who lives in Arkansas.
“It’s an awesome feeling, almost overwhelming, this love for him,” Haggard said before the service. The self-described ’dalian left Bakersfield at age 25 but still considers it home — and her dad did as well.
“I grew up in the boxcar,” she said, referring to the Haggard family home, a Santa Fe freight car converted into a cottage that sat on Yosemite Drive in Oildale for 80 years before being moved to the Kern County Museum for restoration in July.
“My dad was a lot deeper than anybody saw,” she said. “He loved to pick our brains. We never got in trouble for any thought we had, but he always played devil’s advocate with us. There were a lot of layers to that onion.”
Neighbors, a warm, intelligent speaker and astute student of country music, led most of the service, whose emotional high points were the Vince Gill video and Rea’s recitation of lyrics from a song reported to be among the last her brother wrote.
With references to Oildale fading away and kissing the old boxcar goodbye, “Kern River Blues” is a requiem for a lost Bakersfield, a distant way of life, from the pen of a man who sounded like he knew the end was near.
“I’d go down to the river but the old Kern River is dry,” Haggard wrote.
“In his music, I always thought of the Kern River as a metaphor for his life,” Neighbors said after the service. “So when he says ‘the river is dry,’ I thought that Merle knew he probably wasn’t coming back again.”
Though recording star and country traditionalist Gill was not present at the service, he allowed the Haggards to use a video of his recent Grand Ole Opry performance of “A World Without Haggard,” an emotional tribute to his mentor.
“Made me proud to be an Okie,” Gill sang. “God knows we paid our dues. He was my greatest inspiration, the reason why I sing the blues. I’m lost in a world without Haggard. Who’ll tell the truth to you and me?”
Among the other musical selections were live performances of Haggard’s gospel songs by local singers Bruce Cox and Ed Shelton. Haggard’s own voice filled the mega-church, his recording of “The Old Rugged Cross” made even more personal by a spoken-word tribute to his mother, Flossie, who initiated his spiritual journey.
Then, as the most familiar baritone in Bakersfield launched into the Red Foley classic “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” the 500 voices in the church — probably more accustomed to singing along with “Okie from Muskogee” — joined in:
“I am weak but thou are strong.
“Jesus keep me from all wrong.”
Virtuoso Brian Lonbeck was called forward to play a guitar fashioned by luthier Darren Williams from the floorboards of the boxcar home. Williams offered a shy wave from the crowd when acknowledged by Neighbors.
The service closed with what friends believe is Haggard’s last song — tellingly a gospel number.
“If you know of another last song Merle Haggard wrote, don’t tell us about it,” Neighbors quipped.
Inserted in the service’s program was a keepsake from Haggard’s mother, a bulletin noting the September day in 1953 when young Merle was baptized at the Church of Christ on Norris Road. Under a heading that said “Added to the Church” was a picture of a young Merle, at the ready, guitar in his hands.
“Merle is a new Christian and he needs your prayers now and in the days ahead,” the church program presciently stated.
The guests then headed to the church’s multipurpose room for refreshments and music.
Local public relations executive Jim Darling came to the service as a fan.
“This gives a sense of closure,” he said. “I had a friend who died of cancer at age 40 and there was no service. People need that.”
Darrel Mills of Bakersfield, a lifelong fan, said he learned something about his hero from the service.
“I didn't know anything about his life as a Christian, and I'm glad to know he was. It's good to know about that aspect of his life. We didn't always hear that much about that. Most of us knew the other Merle.”
James Francisco, whose father, Laurence, served time with Haggard in the county jail decades ago, decided on the spur of the moment to attend.
“I felt the lord telling me to come and offer my support.”
Bakersfield country singer Jennifer Keel said Bakersfield lost a “piece of its heart” the day Haggard died.
“We’re the children of the Bakersfield Sound. We sing it, we lived it, it’s part of who we are. It’s like losing an uncle.”
— The Californian’s Robert Price contributed to this report