Fifty-seven days before he died, Merle Haggard recorded a new song in his home studio. His family says it was his final recording.
On "Kern River Blues,” which was unveiled Thursday on SiriusXM's Willie's Roadhouse channel, Haggard sings ostensibly about his last night in Oildale and his plan to hop a flight early the next morning and leave his home town “forever.” After all, this wasn’t the Bakersfield he’d known his whole life. “They’ve done moved the city limits / out by the county line,” Haggard sings. The honky-tonks had all closed and someone had “stole the water” out of his beloved Kern River.
The song, characteristically spare and plain-spoken, is, in part, an homage to one of Haggard’s greatest influences: “Kern River Blues” is something of an echo of “Blue Yodel No. 9,” recorded in 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, one of Haggard’s first heroes.
Haggard basically tells us as much, singing “The blues back in the ’30s / just like the blues today.”
Featuring his son Ben on guitar and longtime bandmate Norm Hamlet on steel, "Kern River Blues" was recorded Feb. 9 during a break in what proved to be his final tour. Haggard had been working on the song in the hospital.
Two nights later, he returned to the stage, having canceled several of his shows due to illness. Haggard performed with Kris Kristofferson at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills and two nights later made his final public appearance at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. His pneumonia worsened the next day and he canceled his other scheduled dates.
Haggard reportedly left behind a vault of unrecorded songs, but it’s appropriate "Kern River Blues" was the last one he put on tape: The song’s final verse suggests that something more than a jet plane out of Bakersfield was on his mind. "Well, I'm leaving town forever / Kiss an old boxcar goodbye / Well, I'm leaving town forever / Kiss an old boxcar goodbye / I dug my blues down in the river / But the old Kern River is dry.“
Haggard passed away April 6, his 79th birthday. Guests at his May 10 memorial service at Bakersfield’s Valley Baptist Church got an early sampling of the song when Haggard’s sister, Lillian Haggard Rea, read the lyrics on videotape.
Kristofferson says he will resume the tour, backed by Haggard’s longtime band, the Strangers, fulfilling commitments for shows he and Haggard had been set to play. Among the scheduled shows: Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Ben Haggard, Noel Haggard and The Strangers will perform four dates this month in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
Hear “Kern River Blues” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwVRIrBqI7A