The message was sent to his nephew: Get here now.
So Jim Haggard picked up his aunt, Lillian Haggard Rea, and the two drove through the night to Merle Haggard’s home near Redding, arriving at 5 in the morning.
“I thought he was in a coma, but when they told him I was there, he tried to open his eyes but couldn’t,” said Rea, Haggard’s sister and the last surviving member of his birth family.
Her friend accessed his music on her phone, placed it near his ear, and Rea watched as her brother moved his lips to the songs beloved by generations of country music fans.
And then she picked up her brother’s Bible, the one that traveled on the bus with him everywhere he went. Rea noticed that the 23rd Psalm — the famous “the lord is my shepherd” passage — had been underlined. She thumbed through the pages, landing on Psalm 15, which she read to him:
Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
will never be shaken.
Why that verse? Rea couldn’t say. Was it the line about speaking the truth, because Haggard, the gifted poet, certainly did that. Maybe it was just that that dark moment, hours before his death, called for a Psalm, any Psalm.
The content of the Scripture wasn’t the point, she said. She read the Bible to her brother to bring him comfort, to connect him with the Christian faith instilled by their mother, Flossie, a devout woman.
Reading the Bible took her back to the old church on Norris Road where their mother played the organ, the church their dad had helped roof, the church where Merle, as a young boy, mistook the pastor for God. The Haggard home was a Godly home and though the youngest son would deviate from the straight and narrow many times over the years, he never strayed far from his faith, his sister said.
“I read and told him I loved him. And he was gone.”
On Tuesday, Rea will celebrate Haggard’s spiritual journey and the sacred music he composed over the course of his career. The gathering, at Valley Baptist Church, also will serve as a public, communal opportunity for Haggard’s extended family — and many Bakersfield fans believe they qualify — to mourn and remember this favorite son of our city.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘I didn’t know Merle was a Christian,” said Rea, in an interview Monday.
“And I’d say, ‘Really? Well you didn’t listen to his music.’”
Repository of history
Rea hasn't had a chance just yet to miss her brother’s 2-o'clock-in-the-morning phone calls. There’s been so much to do, so many tributes to attend in the month since Haggard’s death on April 6, his 79th birthday.
Those middle-of-the-night calls were mostly his attempt to catch up. He never apologized for the lateness of the hour, but “I never complained,” Rea said. Sometimes he’d run a new song by his sister or quiz her on family trivia (16 years her brother’s senior, she remembered a lot more). She practically deserves a co-writing credit on “Grandma Harp,” a song Haggard wrote decades ago in tribute to the family matriarch.
“He’d say, ‘Hey, Sis. What was her maiden name?’
‘Where was she born?’
‘What year did she marry Grandpa?’
Haggard’s last middle-of-the-night call came around the time he got really sick last winter. He read to her the lyrics of “Kern River Blues,” a song inspired by the day last summer when the Haggard family home — a converted boxcar — was moved from Oildale to the Kern County Museum for restoration and safe-keeping. It was an emotional day for the siblings, who appeared to be in their own world as they watched the home their father built be lifted from its foundation, hoisted onto a flatbed truck and conveyed down North Chester Avenue.
“‘I want to sing it to you,’” Rea recalled her brother saying. “Halfway through the song, I heard sobs and by the time he was finished, he was weeping.”
On Monday, Rea recited the words to the song on camera outside the boxcar home. The recording will be played at the service.
“The gist is this: At the time we all went out to see the old boxcar house, he and I were sitting in the bus watching this action. Neither of us said a word but both of us wondered what would our mother think of this.
“During the convoy, people were waving and saying things to Merle and he said, ‘Can you believe this?’ In his mind, ‘Kern River Blues’ was born from that experience.”
The song ends with Haggard saying “kiss the old boxcar goodbye,” Rea said. “So today I kissed it goodbye for him.”
Even as an infant, Merle was musical, his sister said. She and her mother once caught him in his crib keeping perfect time to the western music playing on the radio.
Dad James played several instruments and sang bass in a gospel quartet. Mother Flossie played the organ at church and taught Merle his first chord on the guitar. Brother Lowell had a great voice, Rea said, and she herself was a member of a trio at church before her baby brother was born.
The only person from this devout Oildale family who didn’t sing in church? Merle. In fact, the first time his sister saw him sing in public was in a bar or other such establishment, “some place Mother wouldn’t permit me to go.”
But before he got to the bars, Merle was soaking up what he heard at home and at church, even though the behavior he displayed in his wayward younger years might suggest he hadn’t been listening.
“We always went to church and Mother had cautioned this little boy, ‘Now when you go to church, this is God’s house and you have to be quiet,’” Rea said, “because Merle was not a quiet person.
“So as she walked up to the church door the next Sunday, he looked up the pastor, who always met his parishioners, and said, ‘Hello, God.’”
Merle’s early music education did not go well, mostly because his teachers had no patience for cut-ups and apparently were not terribly astute at spotting talent.
His mother signed him up for violin classes but when Merle experimented with secular music, he was booted.
Standard School expelled him for taking over the class after the teacher stepped out of the room. His sister still fumes at the memory of how Standard handled the situation. His mother moved him to a school out in the country.
“I want you to know they have his picture on the wall out there,” Rea said.
The family plot
The service Tuesday will feature local singers performing a number of Haggard’s spiritual songs, like “What Will It Be Like” and Rea’s favorite, “Cabin in the Hills.”
“He’s telling God he doesn’t deserve a mansion in heaven; just build me a cabin.”
When the service is behind her, Rea will look into getting a gravestone or plaque to honor her brother at the Haggard family section of Greenlawn Cemetery. Rea had hoped he would be buried there, resting beside their father, mother and brother. One day, Rea will be buried there alongside her first husband.
But the decision was made to cremate her brother’s remains. She didn’t agree, but it wasn’t up to her, she said.
“He’ll be there, but in print only,” Rea said, referring to the stone she intends to place there.
The siblings occasionally visited their relatives’ graves over the years, usually on Mother’s Day to honor the woman who started their spiritual journey.
“One of Merle’s best sacred songs was ‘My Mother’s Prayers Worked Again.’ He was driving at night in Colorado on a mountainous road. The bus swerved a bit and could have gone off the road. Merle said, ‘My mother’s prayers.’ He believed my mother’s prayers were pure and worked.”