If Merle Haggard ever wants to sing himself back home, he may have to aim a couple of miles south after a decision by the Kern County Museum Foundation on Monday to accept, with conditions, the boyhood residence of the country music superstar.
After a lengthy and spirited discussion, the board, on a 7-to-1 vote, approved a letter spelling out the stipulations required before the museum can become the permanent location of the 1935 Oildale boxcar house built by Haggard's father. The letter gives Glenda Rankin and Dianne Sharman, the primary leaders of the effort, proof of the board's intent, a necessity before fundraising can begin.
"The Merle Haggard house would be an international draw (for the museum)," said foundation board chairman Bob Lerude, director of the Parks and Recreation Department for the county, which owns the museum.
Though the foundation board has stipulated a minimum of $50,000 must be raised for restoration before the house is moved, the group has set a goal of $102,000, which also would cover building a replacement home for the current owner.
Nearly a dozen members of the public, most in support of the plan, attended the meeting and addressed the board. Arguments in favor of the move focused on the importance of Haggard's contribution to the Bakersfield Sound, a hard-driving brand of honky-tonk music that has enjoyed commercial and critical success around the world.
"The Merle Haggard house has larger appeal than just the Bakersfield Sound," said audience member Roy Hall.
One concern that emerged among board members was the question of the Haggard house's significance apart from any connection to a larger, expanded Bakersfield Sound exhibit, which is on the foundation's wish list but years away from being realized. Board members Sheryl Barbich and Barbara Patrick floated the idea of using the Haggard home, when it is moved, as a temporary sitefor the museum's current music memorabilia in the hopes that momentum from the project could benefit the Bakersfield Sound exhibit.
"I think we would consider that if we have the board's word and a time frame that it would go back to the Merle Haggard home (eventually)," said Rankin, referring to the group's goal of replicating, with furnishings and other family artifacts, the interior as it looked when Haggard lived there.
Lerude joined Rankin in expressing misgivings over how the house will be used in the future, citing one provision in the letter that he called overly broad: "Restoration and presentation of the Haggard House will be at the sole discretion of the Foundation."
"As a board member, my concern would be that we need to follow that line with something to the effect that the house has to include Merle Haggard memorabilia and can't include other stuff."
But Beth Pandol, vice chairwoman of the board, said that to be too specific with the language would "hamstring future foundations and staff."
The most impassioned criticism came from board secretary Catherine Merlo -- the sole "no" vote -- who is leading the foundation's ambitious effort to build a $1.5 million orientation center. The museum simply doesn't have the money or staffing to become distracted by another project, she said.
"It's a pie-in-the-sky idea -- a great idea -- but the pragmatic point of view is we don't have the resources for the orientation center, to run the museum and do this too."
After the meeting, Sharman said she was happy the letter provides a "jumping off point" for fundraising.
One person, however, will not be on the list of potential donors.
"We're not asking Merle Haggard for money," Sharman said. "We want to honor him and raise all the money.
"He's such an important part of Kern County history."