If the scenario sounds like a country song, maybe it's because it actually became one: Singer returns to the hometown he loved/loathed/ultimately escaped to make peace, relive his earliest memories of home and family, and say goodbye.
It's easy to say so now, looking back, but Merle Haggard must have known on that hot July day in 2015 that his time was near. There was a look in his eye. A soulfulness that went beyond the everyday Merle soulfulness. A tenderness toward those who had gathered to see the Kern County Museum welcome his childhood home.
As a coda of sorts to the day, the singer wrote one of his last songs, "Kern River Blues," about leaving Oildale forever, proving with his pen, once again, that the best writer to tell Merle's story was Merle himself. For nine months later, on April 6 — his 79th birthday — Haggard died on his bus outside his home in Northern California.
I don't know about you, but I'm still in mourning.
This column ostensibly is about the biggest entertainment stories of 2016, but nothing in my memory eclipses the death of the valley's finest poet and country music's greatest songwriter.
With the outpouring of tributes this year, the point of Haggard's greatness couldn't have been missed even by Bakersfield newcomers or non-fans (speaking of non-fans, one guy actually told me he couldn't name a favorite Haggard song because he "didn't like country music," as if liking country music were essential to understanding the humanity and power of songs like "Mama's Hungry Eyes" or "Silver Wings").
But the non-fan's comprehension is strictly cerebral anyway: Famous man from Bakersfield dies.
There's a gut connection for those of us of Okie/Arkie/Texan descent, a pride that we can't put into words because we're not Merle Haggard. We're just us, the thankful fans who still can't believe our fortune in having a songwriter of such towering gifts tell our stories of poverty, alienation, faith, the Kern River, mama, the fields — both cotton and oil.
There will never be another Merle Haggard, just as there will never be another Buck Owens. But while they were here, we were lucky enough to call them our own.
It was a brutal year for the Bakersfield Sound. We also lost Jean Shepard, known mostly as a member of the Grand Ole Opry but a Bakersfield girl early on, credited with duetting on the first Bakersfield Sound hit, "A Dear John Letter."
And Oildale lost so many: a guy with a wicked gift for one-liners, a caring friend, a songwriter both prolific and profound, and the town's most colorful ambassador.
They all were named Red Simpson.
A regular performer until the end of his life at Rasmussen Senior Center and Trout's, Simpson probably could have been a bigger name, but he chose to stick close to home, which limited his prospects for national fame.
Their loss, our gain.
Outside of Haggard and Owens, Simpson was the best songwriter to emerge from the Bakersfield Sound, and in him, the Bakersfield Sound was a living, breathing thing, on display for all to hear every time he performed.
Giving Bakersfield the business
You had to feel sorry for George Martin. He'd spent so much time and who knows how much money preparing for the Bakersfield Business Conference, which has become such a mammoth undertaking that the lawyer stages it only every few years nowadays. This year, he booked such luminaries as Magic Johnson, Diane Keaton, Lou Holtz and Ben Carson.
So he and his army of volunteers were all ready to go when news broke the night before of a tape that captured then-presidential candidate Donald Trump describing a peculiar way of greeting attractive women, among other lowlights.
What would all those speakers say? Already, most of the top Republicans had abandoned and denounced Trump. Surely conference attendees — 99.9 percent of whom were dyed-in-the-red-wool Republicans — would be too demoralized to get into the spirit of the proceedings.
Not on your build-that-wall!, lock-her-up!, drain-the-swamp! life.
Whipped up by conservative firebrands like Ann Coulter, Herman Cain, Laura Ingraham and the Politichicks (yeah, we never heard of them until that day either), local attendees were even more supportive of Trump than before. How dare the Hillary campaign and the liberal media dredge up such embarrassing tabloid fodder!
Of course all those stiff upper lips broadened into smiles on Nov. 8. Iowa as a predictor of presidential elections? So last February. Bakersfield, the new bellwether.
But back to Martin and his conference. Still a first-class affair, so many decades in. Just be careful about stating your political leanings unless you're to the right of Joe Arpaio.
You're forgiven if you needed an occasional reminder that the year was 2016. We spent so much time looking back, it was easy to get lost in nostalgia.
The County of Kern, the Kern County Sheriff's Office and The Bakersfield Californian (going back to our forbear, the Havilah Courier) all turned 150. The Kern County Fair turned 100, and the Bakersfield Museum of Art hit the big 6-0.
Celebrations ensued, and history lovers rejoiced.
The group that did it up the best was the Kern County Museum, celebrating its 75th birthday.
Lori Wear, the museum's wonderful curator, offered and coordinated a series of lectures on the county's history, and the board that runs the museum had a couple of charming get-togethers.
And what smarter way to look back than by calling attention to the future? The museum rebranded itself Kern Pioneer Village, got a new logo (after some misguided rough drafts) and welcomed a new top guy, Zoot Velasco, who promises a slate of ambitious events and programming starting next year — including the opening of Haggard's boyhood home.
Under the steady direction of chairman Bob Lerude, who retired from the county at the end of the year, the museum opened a spectacular new research facility and orientation center.
Kern Pioneer Village is a shining example of how to grow, prosper and engage the community, even in tough economic times (and here's hoping Lerude stays involved in some fashion).
Bar none? Bar lots is more like it!
In the 20th anniversary year of Buck Owens' Crystal Palace (still my favorite spot for live music), several new places gave local and touring performers some stage time, contributing to the richness of the city's nightlife in the process.
Temblor Brewing Company, which opened in late 2015, is serving up more than beer at its huge location, just north of the Palace. Comedy, music, trivia, cornhole: It's all there. The guys who opened Temblor said they aspired to become Bakersfield's living room, but I don't know of many living rooms this cool.
Meanwhile, in a super-industrial part of Rosedale, even for Rosedale, 1933, the sprawling restaurant/club with two or three unnecessary sub-names — Speakeasy! Prohibition! Hooch House? — continues to pack them in, also with live music and comedy. It's a fun atmosphere but did we mention how sprawling it is? I hope they continue to draw enough to pay for the gin and juice.
Not a huge change, but I noticed in recent weeks that Ethel's out off Alfred Harrell Highway has a flashy new neon sign. Neon is always an improvement.
Never heard of Ethel's? It's a rustic little bar and grill smack dab in the middle of scrubby horse trails, with the oil fields and the Kern River nearby, that makes you feel like you're in some old frontier saloon. Very friendly, both staff and patrons. My daughter and I stumbled in after the California Hot Rod Reunion in October and were promptly invited to join the party occurring on the patio, though we had never laid eyes on the guest of honor. After "entertaining" our new friends with a karaoke duet, they sent us home with birthday cake.
Though it doesn't have live music or comedy — at least not the kind for which they can charge a cover — I'm raising my ceramic parrot glass to a new bar downtown. Tiko-Ko has atmosphere, festive island drinks like the zombie and mai-tai and the aforementioned fun cups that make anything taste better, though these drinks don't need the help. I had no idea we needed a tiki bar in town, but we did, and now we have one.
Blade stunner: Ice skating outside
As of this writing, it's a little early to tell what the verdict will be when the last of the Zamboni snow melts, but Winterfest, put on by the Bakersfield Condors at BC, is like nothing this city has ever seen. (Outdoor ice-skating in 60-degree weather? Ah. That's why Winterfest is like nothing this city has ever seen.)
The Condors are hosting the Stadium Outdoor Classic against the Ontario Reign on Jan. 7 and the NHL Alumni & Celebrity game featuring Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille the day before.
That would be enough of a thrill for Bakersfield — this is the Wayne Gretzky — but the team decided while it had to turn Memorial Stadium into an ice rink anyway, it might as well make the proceedings as festive for the community as possible, so they added bounce houses, a zip line, Elsa and Anna, kettle corn, etc.
A helpful note on the rink's ice skates: They only come in men's sizes. A helpful note on the zip line: It's higher up on the platform than it looks from the ground. A helpful note on the bounce houses: Your kids' socks are going to get wet.
But did we mention you get to ice skate outdoors in Bakersfield?