“Happy birthday Merle.”
Bakersfield native Sharon Lindsey almost whispered the words as she bent down to lay flowers at the base of a converted boxcar that seven decades ago was the childhood home of country music legend Merle Haggard.
Now housed at the Kern County Museum, the boxcar was converted again into something of a shrine after news broke that the Bakersfield Sound pioneer died Wednesday on his 79th birthday.
“I came because he’s family,” Lindsey said. “If you’re from Kern County, you’re part of Merle’s family.”
Ray McDonald, who began a lifelong friendship with Haggard in 1964 and has driven the singer-songwriter’s tour bus for the past seven years, said Haggard’s son, Ben Haggard, called him Wednesday morning with the news of his father’s passing.
“I had to come over here,” McDonald said of the makeshift shrine.
“Today, this house became even more historically significant.”
Glenda Rankin and her sister, Di Sharman, helped organize the effort to move the boxcar last summer from Oildale to the museum. Like McDonald, they felt they needed to be there Wednesday, especially after museum officials decided to provide free admission for those bringing flowers to the site.
The sisters recalled the day in late July that Haggard and his 94-year-old sister, Lillian Haggard Rea, came to the museum to acknowledge the relocation of their one-time home.
“Father and mother would certainly be surprised to see what happened to the old boxcar,” Haggard told the crowd gathered at the museum ceremony that day.
“The boxcar,” he said, “was inspiration for more than one song.”
The sisters recalled Rea telling them that she couldn’t listen to her brother’s music because she knew intimately of the trials and pain behind the lyrics and beautiful baritone voice of her famous brother.
Keyboard player Mark Yeary, who grew up in Bakersfield and was just 18 when Haggard asked him to join the country star’s band, the Strangers, said Wednesday he was heartbroken upon learning of his former mentor's passing.
The nearly two decades the pianist played and recorded with Haggard was one of the most memorable periods of his life.
The Hag first sought the blessing of Yeary's mother before hiring the teenager and taking him on the road to countless concert halls, recording studios, the Grand Ole' Opry and even Carnegie Hall and the White House.
“My mom told Merle, ‘You keep an eye on my son. Make sure he's OK,'” Yeary recalled.
“Merle really took me under his wing.”
Yeary, who said he now lives in Arizona, “seven miles from nowhere,” has lots of stories from those years, but he still marvels at how Haggard at the top of his game could be inspired by the germ of an idea, turn his attention to an internal creative force inside his own head, and then re-enter the world with a No. 1 song.
He was the kind of artist who might find a quiet spot at a party — or on a rumbling tour bus, Yeary said. You might see him scribbling on a napkin, only to emerge an hour later with the makings of a new hit tune.
For longtime Bakersfield drummer William Malouf, Haggard was an outsized presence, even in his youth. Malouf’s dad owned Chet’s Club, right next door to The Lucky Spot, a club on Edison Highway where many country players of Hag’s generation cut their musical teeth.
Malouf, who now lives in the Inland Empire, said Wednesday started off on a sweet note as he enjoyed reading the many posts and comments on Facebook wishing Haggard a happy birthday.
Then, suddenly, the tone changed.
“When I saw the first R.I.P., I thought that the poster must have been confused,” Malouf said on Facebook.
But it quickly became clear that the news was true. The Hag was gone.
“I remember my dad talking about the quiet, young Merle who used to sit by himself at the counter in Chet’s Club, eating chili while on breaks from The Lucky Spot in the early 1960s,” Malouf said.
Asked about what he considers to be Haggard’s best songs, Malouf was philosophical.
“As far as lists go, I never pay much attention to them, as it is subjective,” he said. “I see all of his songs as one amazing body of work. Irreplaceable!”
As the shrine of flowers and handwritten notes grew larger at the Kern County Museum, Haggard’s friend McDonald recalled Haggard telling him about a dream.
“He came in and said, ‘Ray, I don’t dream much, but I had a dream. I dreamed that I died.’”
Haggard told his friend that in the dream he was in an empty room lying on a stone slab.
A woman dressed as a nurse appears, and he sees his long-dead father in the doorway.
“I believe I’ve died,” he tells the nurse, who apparently confirmed his diagnosis.
According to McDonald, Merle’s father then tells his son, “You’re late!”
“Late for what?” Merle asks.
“A concert,” his father explains.
“Who’s playing?” Merle asks.
His father pauses. And probably smiles.
“Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell ... and YOU.”
McDonald said he believes his old friend is now enjoying just such a musical jam with the musical heroes of his youth.
Said McDonald, “He’s got that going on right now.”
And it sounds heavenly.