The Merle Haggard legend comes with its own iconography. The maple-topped Fender Telecaster. The chocolate brown Fedora. The gnarled, patchy beard. And the most readily identifiable symbol of them all, at least to locals: the boxcar.
The converted railcar, fashioned into a modest home by the father he lost too soon, speaks to so much of what Haggard was and what he was to become.
Appropriately, the restored boxcar now resides at the Kern County Museum alongside other historic buildings, both grandiose and humble. And appropriately, it is the symbol and namesake of the annual festival that honors the music Haggard helped bring to prominence.
Year three of the Haggard Boxcar Music Festival returns Saturday, more ambitious than ever.
Yes, Ben and Noel Haggard, two of Merle's three sons, are still the headliners, and fittingly so. (Marty, if you're out there, answer your phone.) And, yes, some of the city's best talent will play throughout the seven-hour, three-stage, 20-act show.
"It's an honor to play out there," Noel Haggard said. "It's always cool to see the boxcar."
But Mike McCoy, the museum's executive director who's embarking on his third festival — the inaugural event as a fan and now two as director — has made a couple of thoughtful tweaks.
April 6 was a natural target date for the festival because it's Haggard's birthday, but early April is as unpredictable as Haggard was himself, so McCoy moved it back five weeks. Good call: Saturday's expected high will be 77.
The festival's concert grounds those first two years was the Bandstand Green. Now it's the Log Cabin Green, the next big open space over, which can accommodate perhaps 1,500 attendees, or roughly two to three times larger. "It has more elbow room and fewer trees, so better views," he said.
With several other high-profile shows in the city the same night — Monty Byrom and Big House at the Fox, Mavericks frontman Raul Malo at the Crystal Palace, the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra season finale at Rabobank Theater and the Lightning in a Bottle Festival at Buena Vista Lake, to name four — this will be a test of the Boxcar's staying power.
"Everybody has kind of a unique audience," said McCoy, who appeared on Wednesday's TBC Media webcast, "One on One." "Our ticket sales are solid and we're offering more of a festival experience (than the Malo and Byrom shows). It's a different animal."
Acts include Nashville up-and-comer Mo Pitney, Bakersfield rock-Americana act Truxton Mile and singer-songwriter Almeda Bradshaw, a Montana-bred singer-songwriter who looks a little like a young Rose Maddox, right down to her flowered, Western snap-button shirt.
Then there's Susan Raye Wiggins, Buck Owens' vocal partner throughout much of the 1970s.
"I just enjoy being part of the Bakersfield Sound," she said. "I was on the road so much when I performed years ago and I didn't really have much to do with everybody here, so it's nice to be part of it now. I just really enjoy the feel of it."
The musical acts will be featured on one main festival stage and two smaller side stages — called “porches" — and performances will be staggered between stages to minimize any dead air.
"It's very relaxing; it's not stressful," McCoy said. "You're going to come, sit, hear some country music, go home and feel better about yourself."
Along with a stellar music lineup, the day will include tours of the historic Haggard family boxcar home, which was moved to the museum in 2015 and restored, opening to the public in April 2017 for the first Boxcar Festival.
Vendors will be on site selling food, drinks and merchandise. Seating will be limited seating so attendees are encouraged to bring lawn chairs (as well as sunscreen). No pets, ice chests, pop-up tents, umbrellas, blankets, smoking or outside food or drink will be permitted. Also, this is an adult-oriented event, so it might be a good idea to consider leaving the children with a sitter.