In 1964, my family lived across the street from Merle Haggard's mother, Flossie Haggard, on 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 the show. He was really good. That show ended at 5:30 p.m. every day, Monday through Friday. About 15 minutes after each show, a car would pull up across the street, a guy would get out and the car would pull away. I noticed who it was.
“Mom, come look, it's the new singer on ’Trading Post,’” I yelled. She said, “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.
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 Merle 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 Los Angeles in June 1965. I went with them, of course, but we wound up in Southgate, not far from Watts. It was the summer of the Watts Riots and we had to deal with curfews, rioting, looting and murder. It was horrible.
I called Mike and Buddy and told them about it. I knew that Merle and Bonnie had married in June and that the boys would be moving with them into a new house in Oildale. I asked if I could move back and live with them. They obliged, and I spent my sophomore year at North High, 1965-66, living with Merle, Bonnie, Buddy, Mike and Bonnie's mother.
It was one happy year. Merle took us in as his own. He taught us how to fish, took us to concerts, and brought us to recording sessions at Capitol Records. Of course just staying home and watching TV was a highlight.
I drove Merle’s bus from 2009 to 2016, an experience that has provided me with thousands of memories.
This is one of the most poignant.
I was at one of Merle’s concerts at Bakersfield’s Fox Theatre. It was intermission and I went to the lobby to hang out with a group of friends. At one point two dignified-looking black gentlemen walked up and we started to chat. 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 before. He said he hadn't seen him in that long and would love to see him again.
I asked him his name. “Frisco,” he said. I said, “That's your name?” He said “That's my nickname, and Merle would know it.” I wrote down his number and we said our goodbyes.
The next day, as I was driving the bus down Highway 99 to L.A., I turned to Merle and mentioned this man Frisco. He nearly jumped out of his seat.
He and Frisco had become immediate friends in jail, Merle told me. He said that Frisco had made himself the self appointed Mayor of the Jail Cell and he had decreed that Merle was the Sheriff of the Jail Cell. He told all the other inmates that these were the facts and they had best not mess with his new friend Merle or they would get a thumping from Mayor Frisco. Merle laughed hard at the memory.
Merle called him soon and they spoke for hours. Turns out Frisco had turned his life around and become a pastor. He had a church on Haley Street. Merle was so proud.
They finally met up at CSU Bakersfield when Merle received his honorary doctorate. They visited in 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. Frisco got up to speak about his friend Merle. He spoke eloquently about the Lord and of course his long-lost friend, Merle. We were family and friends united now.
Frisco called me about six months later. He’d noticed that Haggard was playing a concert in Texas on Frisco’s birthday. Could he 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, since that was the typical request. So I called Merle and told him. He said, “Give them 50 tickets and make sure they are in the first three rows.”
That night Merle fed them and, oh yes, we had cake and ice cream. Then they were treated to a great concert. Merle sang him “Happy Birthday” from the stage with 4,000 fans joining in. I saw hundreds of Merle Haggard shows and I'd never seen him sing that to anyone, ever.
Frisco passed away about a month after that concert. Merle chipped in $5,000 to feed the members of Frisco’s church at his wake.
I was not worthy of even knowing Merle Haggard, but he kept me around. 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.
Merle Haggard was my idol, my father figure, my brother. I loved him very much.
Ray McDonald was employed by Merle Haggard as a bus driver, aide, musical collaborator and friend for more than 40 years.