BUDDY ALAN OWENS, stepson through Haggard’s marriage to Bonnie Owens

How they met: “My brother (Michael Owens) and I and my mom and my grandmother lived together there in Oildale and one day my brother and I walked into the house in and my mom said, ‘Boys, I’d like to introduce you to Merle.’ She had another boyfriend who was a sweet, sweet man, Fuzzy Owen. And I’m like, whoa, what's going on? Mike and I found out Merle had gotten out of prison a couple of years before, and we're like, oh my God, what is this? ... I met Merle my freshman year of high school. Michael and I fell in love with him right away. Such a gentleman and guy’s guy. My dad (Buck Owens) was not able to be around a lot unfortunately, but he made up for that later on.”

What Merle taught him: “When they got married, it was like, oh my goodness, this is so strange because we really didn't have a dad for a long time. Merle started showing us things we'd never seen before. How to fish, how to punch another guy when he punched you. Merle taught me how to start a car without a key. He really was a joy. I vividly remember my brother and I were young teenagers, in that stage when we're not having lot of fun with each other, so Mike and I would be at home a lot without a lot of parental guidance, other than my grandmother, and we were bossing her around, unfortunately. Mike and I got into argument. Merle said, ‘I think you ought to just go out back and fight.’ So we went out back and swung at each for 10 or 15 minutes and got exhausted. We were laying on the ground and looked up at Mom and Merle and they were looking out the window laughing like crazy at us. ... We learned a lot of things about life from Merle.”


 

MARTY STUART, recording artist, frequent collaborator and close friend

On Merle’s legacy: “I always thought there was Merle and then there was everybody else. He was certainly part of country music royalty. But to me Merle was more in line with Woody Guthrie. When he wrote ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’ and ‘Are the Good Times Really Over for Good,’ he spoke in the same terms Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams did and in some cases Johnny Cash.”

Favorite songs: “I was called up on by Library of Congress last fall and asked for my recommendation for country songs for National Recording Registry. I got the announcement a week ago that the one song I suggested, ‘Mama Tried,’ was added. ’Sing Me Back Home’ and ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’ — that’s as close to Steinbeck literature as it gets. And tomorrow I’ll have three other favorites.”

On Merle’s career: “I think it kind of turned out how he designed it. I saw people try to push him off on the pop pantheon like Johnny Cash, but that’s not how Merle designed it. He was a country guy and stuck closely to his roots. I don’t think Merle cared about being a rock star. He wanted to stay with his Okie people and that was his heart. I believe it worked out from the first day of his life to the last day. And he passed away on his birthday, in great showman fashion.”

Legacy of the Bakersfield Sound: “I'm a disciple of the Bakersfield Sound. The first song I ever learned to play on guitar was ‘Tiger by the Tail.’ Every time you hear a Telecaster guitar, you’re hearing the Bakersfield Sound. When you hear a two-part clear harmony, you’re hearing the Bakersfield Sound. Somewhere tonight Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and Joe and Rose Lee Maphis and Red Simpson songs are going to be sung. I think the Bakersfield Sound will roll on. The charge goes back to the musicians of Bakersfield. It’s a big responsibility of the home turf to keep it alive.”


 

TOMMY HAYS longtime local guitarist, performer

How they met: “Merle was a wannabe. We were playing the Edison Highway clubs, the Lucky Spot and the Clover Club, and every chance he got Merle would get up and sing.”

The secret to Merle’s greatness: “I would say talent. He’s just got a voice everyone likes. He plays guitar, too, but he made his success singing. Like anything, you gotta sell it, and he knew how to sell it. he would make you feel like you’re part of the show.”

Favorite song: “’Old Man from the Mountain’ coming home. It’s a song that tells a story.”

One of many memories: ”Merle was at the 100th birthday celebration of Oildale and this ol’ gal walks up to him ... well, she kind of lost it. She tells him she’s been a big fan all her life. She tries to kiss him but he turned his cheek. So she tries to turn his head and kiss him on the lips. Merle’s wife is standing right there. Merle was having none of it. He walked off. I’m surprised his wife didn’t clobber the ol’ gal.“


 

DONNY YOUNGBLOOD, Kern County sheriff, longtime Haggard friend.

How did you meet? “(Around the time Youngblood was first elected sheriff, his friends, the actor Charlie Napier and longtime Haggard friend Ray McDonald, suggested Youngblood invite Haggard to his inauguration.) I said, ’I don’t know Merle Haggard.’ We’re in a parking lot somewhere and one of them called Merle and handed me the phone. I explained who I was and invited him to my inauguration. He said, ’Well, I don’t much like cops. But he said he was going to check with his sister, Lillian, who I knew, and he would get back to me. He called back about two minutes later and said, ’I’ll be there.’ After that, we just clicked as friends.”

Fondest memory: “I guess it was when I went to the Ryman Auditorium (in Nashville) with Merle. He stopped in the middle of his show and said, ”Folks, I want you to know that I was escorted here by the sheriff. It’s the first time that’s happened since I was on probation.’ He had me stand up and he introduced me to the crowd. It was quite an honor.”

Another great memory: “I have a quirk. I hate to be late. I’m not late for anything. But Merle is always late. There’s a section in Robert Price’s new book ("The Bakersfield Sound: How A Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music") that describes Merle being late for a show at the Fox Theater. That’s because he was standing outside talking to me. I was going crazy because I knew he was running late, but it didn’t bother him a bit.”

The secret to Merle’s greatness: “Most people don’t know how shy this man was, how humble this man was. He has a camp trailer down by the river. He told me, ’I spend most nights down here.’ He was a humble man who knew his roots. He always regretted selling that house on the (Kern) river. He loved this community ... and he loved the fact that his (childhood) house was moved to the museum.”


 

GERALD HASLAM, award-winning writer who grew up in Oildale and attended Standard School with Haggard. One of the titles of Haslam’s books is taken from a Haggard tune: “Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California.”

Do you have a favorite Merle song? “Probably not. But if I had to pick, it would probably be ’Workin’ Man Blues.’ It’s lively and it makes me think of a world I came from.”

The secret to Merle’s greatness: “I think it was his openness to new modes of expression. A great artist is open to stylistic variations. There are a lot of good singers ... but they don’t take you to a new realm of experience. He was a really good argument for not wasting your time with formal education. He might sing a blues tune in a formal jazz style. He had extraordinary physical talent, but there was also this creative genius.”

Musings: “He was a musician. When talking about him, you don’t have to use restrictive terms like ’country musician.’”


RAY MCDONALD, employed by Merle Haggard as a bus driver, aide, musical collaborator and friend for more than 40 years

The day he first saw Haggard: “In 1964, my family lived across the street from Merle Haggard's mother, Flossie Haggard, who live at 1303 Yosemite Drive in Oildale. My mom and Merle's mom were acquainted. One day we were watching ’Cousin Herb’s Trading Post’ and a new singer came on, and he was really good! That show ended at 5:30 p.m. every day, Monday through Friday. About 15 minutes after the show ended, a car would pull up across the street, a guy got out and the car pulled away. I noticed who it was. ’Mom, come look, it's the new singer on ‘Trading Post,’ I yelled. She replied, ’No it's not !’ Then she leaned over my shoulder and sputtered, ’Yes it is! I know his mother.’ That was the beginning of it.”

How they met: ”Bonnie Owens, the former wife of Buck Owens, had two boys about my age, Buddy and Mike, and we became good friends. About that time, Merle and Bonnie cut a duet album, so he came over to Bonnie's house frequently. It was at that house just a couple of blocks from my house that I actually met Merle. I was 14. My mom and dad moved to L.A. in June 1965. I went with them, of course, but we wound up in Southgate, not far from Watts. That summer the Watts riots began, bringing curfews, rioting, looting and murder. It was horrible. I called Mike and Buddy, knowing that Merle and Bonnie had married in June and that the boys would be moving into a new house in Oildale with them. I asked if I could move back and live with them. They obliged, so my sophomore year at North High, I lived with them and Bonnie's mother. It was one happy year! This man took us in as his own. He taught us to fish and took us to concerts and recording sessions at Capitol. But just staying home and watching TV was a highlight.“

Favorite memory: “I wound up driving his bus from 2009 to 2016. The most poignant moment was at a concert he did at Bakersfield Fox Theater. It was intermission and I went to the lobby to hang out with friends. I noticed two dignified black gentlemen and we exchanged greetings. The older gentleman, upon learning of my connection to Merle, went right into the story of how he and Merle had been in the Kern County jail 60 years ago. He said he hadn't seen him in that long and would love to see him again. He told me to call him Frisco. ’That’s your name?’ I said. He said, ’That's my nickname, and Merle would know it.’ We said our goodbyes. I told Merle about Frisco the next day while I was driving the bus down Highway 99 to LA. Merle nearly jumped out of his seat. ’Did you see him?’ he said. ’Yeah, man, he was at your concert last night,’ I answered. Merle was astonished. He and Frisco met in jail and had become immediate friends. He said that Frisco was the self-appointed mayor of the cell and that Merle was sheriff of the jail cell. Frisco informed all of the other inmates these facts — and told them they had best not mess with his new friend Merle or they would get a thumping from Mayor Frisco. Merle laughed so hard at this memory. Merle called him soon and they spoke for hours. Turns out Frisco had turned his life around — he was a pastor with his own church. It's on Haley Street. Merle was so proud of Frisco. They finally met up at CSUB when Merle received his honorary doctorate. They visited on the back of Merle's bus for a long time with Merle's wife, Theresa, myself and members of Frisco’s family. It was a magical reunion. We all went to Hodel’s for lunch following the reunion and Frisco got up to speak about his friend Merle. This man spoke about the Lord so eloquently and of course his long-lost friend Merle. We were family and friends united now. Six months later, Frisco saw that Haggard was playing a concert in Texas on Frisco’s birthday. He called me: Could he come and invite some friends and celebrate his birthday with Merle at the concert ? I said I'll ask. “How many tickets do you need, man?” He said 50. I was thinking four — that's was a typical number request. Merle told me to do it — and make sure they are in the first three rows. It was set: Frisco, his family and friends were treated to a great concert on what was Frisco’s 80th birthday. We had cake and ice cream and Merle sang “Happy Birthday” from the stage. I saw hundreds of Merle Haggard shows but I'd never seen him do anything like that. Frisco passed away about a month later. Merle spent $5,000 feeding 500 members of Frisco’s church after the funeral.

“I was not worthy of even knowing Merle but he kept me around and I drove him, his family and his band for many years without so much as scratch on any of them. I'm not saying I didn't scratch the bus. He was my idol, friend, father figure and brother and I loved him very much.”


FUZZY OWEN, longtime manager and close friend

How they met: “It was 1962 and I was playing in the band at the Lucky Spot and it was on a Sunday. We had two shifts and I played the first shift and then Merle come in with Jelly Sanders and bunch of ’em and played the last shift and I just happened to be hanging around and heard him sing. I told Merle, ‘That was the best damn singin’ I ever heard,’ and he said, ‘Why don't you sign me?’ And I said OK. And that’s a true story.”

Last conversation: “The last conversation I had with Merle was on the phone. He was telling me about a song he just wrote. He wanted to record it and he said he wanted me to come up there, and I said, ‘I'll come up Thursday when the guys come up,’ and he said, ‘I'll see you next week.”

Saying goodbye: “I saw him. I don't know if he saw me. He was pretty well-sedated. I lost my wife here about three years ago, and it’s a very similar thing. They just kind of slowly fade away. I came up because he knew he was going.”


 

JOE SAUNDERS, grandson of Haggard contemporary Billy Mize. Saunders worked with Haggard on the documentary, “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound.”

Thoughts on Merle: ”I’m still not a big country fan, but I’m a big fan of the music that came out of Bakersfield. ’Mama Tried’ is probably my favorite song of his. Some people you quickly understand why they’re so successful. He’s so genuine, always in the moment. He’s kind, but real. His heart seems to be in the right place. He never forgot the people who helped him. Billy was one of those guys.“


 

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