The idea came to Darren Williams last year as plans were being made to move country music legend Merle Haggard’s childhood home from an old neighborhood in Oildale to the Kern County Museum.
“Honestly, I just kind of blurted it out,” Williams recalled.
The local guitarist, who also works at Front Porch Music in downtown Bakersfield, was in the store with owner Artie Niesen chatting with Glenda Rankin and Di Sharman, two sisters who helped spearhead the fundraising effort to move the converted boxcar.
The idea? Williams wanted to build an electric guitar from wood salvaged from the century-old train car, which was Haggard’s humble home during his childhood.
The wood, Williams thought, contained stories and history and years of music.
He figured the idea, like most ideas, would be lost like grains of sand in the wind. But the sisters were fascinated by the idea.
“They showed up one day with some wood in the back of a truck,” he remembered. “We picked out some pieces. And that’s how it started.”
The original idea was to auction off the guitar as a way to help defray the cost of moving the converted boxcar to the museum. But the project was delayed and the timing just wasn’t right.
The boxcar home was successfully relocated last summer, although donations are still needed to make the interior of the structure safe and suitable for viewing by museum visitors.
As Williams continued working on it, Haggard learned of the project and expressed an interest in obtaining the boxcar guitar. Williams hoped one day to be able to present the guitar to Haggard as a gift — a unique musical instrument made from the singer’s childhood home.
“It’s beautiful,” Sharman said of the guitar. “Darren spent lots of hours of love on this project.”
But handing over the instrument to Haggard was not in the cards. Tuesday night, Williams and Niesen got word that the beloved singer-songwriter’s life was waning, that he was likely in his final hours.
Haggard’s older sister Lillian Haggard Rea was heading north to be with her brother, and she wanted to take the guitar with her.
“Lillian thought it might bring a smile to Merle’s face,” Sharman said.
So Williams rushed down to the store and began feverishly putting finishing touches on the guitar.
“It’s still only 90 percent finished,” he said. “The plan is for it to come back so I can finish it.”
The guitar — with a Telecaster-shaped body, but unique headstock — really does look like it came from an old boxcar, with slatted lines and fragments of black stenciling showing on the body.
Williams, who worked for a time in quality control at the Fender guitar factory in Southern California, said he won’t cover the guitar’s flaws and imperfections, as they are integral to its identity. It will see no paint, only a clear-coat finish.
“That wood has life in it,” he said. “That wood had music running through it for years.”
While the guitar did arrive at Haggard’s ranch near Shasta Lake, no one was sure Haggard ever saw it. Either way, Williams said, it was worth the effort.
“I’m not disappointed I didn’t get to present it to Merle,” he said. The opportunity to be involved in the project is reward enough.
He and Niesen hope that the guitar, made with love and filled with history, will end up in the musical tool box of Ben Haggard, Merle’s guitarist son who has been sharing the stage with his famous father on recent tours.
“It would be an honor to Darren’s hard work if Ben played it,“ said Niesen.
They just don’t want it to end up hanging on someone’s wall as a conversation piece or hidden away as a collector’s item.
“I made it to be played,” Williams said. “It will be a fully functioning guitar. That’s what it was meant to be. That’s what it should be.”