Don Markham was the guy who most literally embodied the name of Merle Haggard’s legendary band, the Strangers: Always looking a little ill at ease, he kept a low profile on stage, blending into the background curtains and sticking close to one of Merle’s backup-singer wives — Bonnie or Theresa, depending on the era — for moral support.
But then he’d let loose with one of his sax solos, on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” or “It’s All in the Movies,” and everybody, Merle included, would blur into soft focus for a few jazzy seconds while all eyes turned to Markham.
Markham, a versatile musician, Bakersfield Sound pioneer and one of Haggard’s closest friends, died Friday of undisclosed causes. He was 85. A resident of Oildale, Markham lived in the same mobile home on State Road for half a century.
“He could play anything,” said longtime friend and fellow horn player Digger Helm. “He could play country, he could play jazz, he could play Dixieland, he could play rock. He played it all and could play saxophone, trumpet, bass, keyboards, probably guitar. He’d come in, pick up a horn and he was off and running, doing a brilliant solo. Then he’d put the horn down and walk off the stage like it was nothing, while we were still playing.”
Markham outlasted many of his fellow players in the red-hot Strangers, widely regarded as one of the finest bands in the history of country music. He joined in 1974 and, with a hiatus or two in between, played with Haggard until declining health forced him off the road for good in 2013. Even after Markham retreated home to Oildale, his old boss made a point of visiting regularly until Haggard’s death last April.
“I remember one time about 3 in the morning we were driving in from a show, headed to Bakersfield, and we were about two or three hours out,” said Ray McDonald, Haggard’s longtime bus driver and friend. “Merle told me, ‘Call Don Markham and have him meet me at Milt’s (Coffee Shop) in three hours.’ So I did and Don said, ‘OK, I’ll be there.’ I told Merle and he looked at me with sad eyes and said, ‘Don is my last buddy.’”
Markham joined the Strangers under odd circumstances. The band was heading back to Bakersfield at the conclusion of a long 1972 tour when the bus pulled into a truck stop somewhere in New Mexico. Within minutes, another tour bus pulled into the same truck stop. It was Johnny Paycheck’s bus, heading out to begin a tour — and Markham was behind the wheel.
“I don’t know why Don was driving because I think the regular driver was on there somewhere,” said Norm Hamlet, the Strangers’ steel guitar player. “Anyway, Don gets off the bus and walks over to Merle and he says, ‘These guys are fighting all the time and it’s driving me crazy.’ I guess a couple of Paycheck’s brothers were in the band and they liked to mix it up. Anyway, he says, ‘I can’t stand it anymore. Can I work for you?’ And Merle says, ‘Sure, get on the bus,’ and Don joined us right then and there. We didn’t have horns at the time, didn’t even have a piano, I don’t think — it was just guitars — so he was a good addition.”
A disciple of the great Bob Wills, Haggard saw in Markham the opportunity to emulate his hero, who always featured horns in his band, the Texas Playboys.
“Don has played on every recording I’ve made since 1974, every single release,” Haggard said in a 2012 interview conducted in Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which had just unveiled an exhibit on the Bakersfield Sound.
“I’ve had different guitar players, and different musicians change around, but he’s been on every one of them. ... It just was a little different and I liked it that way. I think Don was glad I liked it that way.”
Markham, in the same interview, heartily concurred.
“I’m the luckiest man in Oildale.”
Unlike so many of his peers, Markham didn’t begin his music career at the legendary Blackboard Cafe but he managed to slide into a gig there that lasted years and formed helpful connections with Bakersfield Sound stalwarts like Bill Woods, Fuzzy Owen and Buck Owens, for whom he would eventually work in a horn group called the Bakersfield Brass.
“I was starting to move around and thinking about going to work in country music,” Markham said in the Hall of Fame interview.
“It seemed like in Bakersfield not a lot was going on with what I played in pop and jazz. ... The country people were so much nicer and appreciative of you playing for them than other kinds of music that I just fell in love with it.”
He also fell in love with a cocktail waitress named Wanda, the husky-voiced belle of the Bakersfield barrooms, where she slung drinks and words of hard-won wisdom for decades. Wanda died a couple of years ago, and Markham was destroyed, friends say. Helm offered an anecdote to explain Wanda’s calming effect on her husband, who could be quarrelsome when in his cups.
“We were at his trailer and had way too many adult beverages. Don and I ended up in the front yard nose to nose and we almost ended up in a fistfight over who was better, Buck Owens or Merle Haggard. At the time he was playing with Bakersfield Brass for Buck Owens. He was bragging on Buck and I said that next to Merle, Buck can’t sing a lick. Wanda came out and said, ‘If you boys don’t behave, you’ll have to go home.’ It pretty much ended before it started.”
“Him and Wanda were a great love story,” McDonald said.
Friends like McDonald and Gene Thome said Markham was a genius who could work up a solo or finish the New York Times crossword in an hour, as well as a renowned jokester who liked a gin and tonic and a Pall Mall or Camel when he was feeling flush, or a pack from an Indian reservation when he wasn’t. He was crazy about the San Francisco 49ers, a holdover from when he lived in the city while in the Navy in the 1950s. He rode his bike, walked a lot and lifted weights until the end.
“Even in his late 70s, you didn’t want to mess with him,” McDonald said. “He called out some young guys once and they backed down. He was passionate.”
Markham saw his career decline when he began to lose his teeth, a misfortune for anyone but a real liability for a horn player.
“The dentures messed up his sound,” McDonald recalled. “He had a hard time being on the road, starting to be forgetful.
“When he left, I’ll never forget, we stopped somewhere, I was in my bunk — you can’t hide what’s going on on that bus — and Merle, (his wife) Theresa and Don were up front. Merle said, ‘Don, I think it’s time for you to go home.’ And so Don said, ‘Good. Now I can draw unemployment.’ Theresa cried.”
Markham was preceded in death by his wife, Wanda, daughter Kathleen and grandson Anthony. He is survived by daughters Marilyn and Carla, a son, Wayne Markham, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at 6:30 p.m. March 7 at Kern River Family Mortuary, 1900 N. Chester Ave.