For a Bakersfield girl, trying to remember the first time you heard Merle Haggard’s voice is like trying to remember the first time you heard your mother’s.
It was always there.
But I do remember the day I found out Merle was part of our family. I couldn’t have been more than 5. Mom and I were listening to the living room stereo — the-only-in-the-’70s models made to look like furniture, the hi-fi incased in an oak cabinet with crushed-velvet accents visible between the scroll work. I’m thinking Merle was talking about his poor mama or throwing his bills out the window or if you don’t love it, leave it. They were all on the 8-track of hits we would eventually wear out.
“Merle Haggard is from Bakersfield,” Mom told me, the pride obvious in her voice.
My little-girl brain somehow conflated being from Bakersfield with being related. At some point, I realized my mistake.
But as I process my grief — yes, grief — at his passing, I wonder now if I was wrong.
Isn’t this what a death in the family feels like?
If Merle felt like an honorary uncle, it’s because he seemed to know us so well. He chronicled the crowded labor camps, the treacherous seductions of the Kern River, the feel of the strap of a cotton sack, the otherness of being in a place but not being part of it.
Merle might have been the poet of the common man, but he was the unofficial poet laureate of the valley. We look at old family photographs to see our people, but we listen to his lyrics to know our people.
How fortunate are we that Merle Haggard was born in Bakersfield, California? Had he been born in Pittsburgh, he’d have written about the steel mills; in Detroit, he’d have lamented the dying auto industry; in South Bend, Wash., he’d have had us worrying about the plight of oyster shuckers. Because surely an artist so gifted would have been compelled to write about the struggles whatever they were, wherever he was.
But he was here.
His was the point of view of an entire generation of people who left Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Kansas only in the most literal sense. What they really did was bring those places to California with them: the values, the food, the religion, the accents, the music.
The result was a clash of two very different tribes: Californians, with their big smiles and outsized sense of themselves, and the modest, striving newcomers, who weren’t at all sure of themselves in this strange place where people got sun tans on purpose.
Merle Haggard was a hybrid of those cultures. He had the cocksure pose that was his birthright as a native Californian but he was raised by decent, hardworking people whose teachings shaped his world view, even though he rarely seemed to follow their example during his reckless youth.
Generations later, the Central Valley is still only part-California. We’re in the same state, but we rarely are in the same state of mind. Up and down the valley, we stand together in our apart-ness, and Bakersfield is different still.
Country music would end up cementing that sense of us and them.
When Merle, Buck Owens, Billy Mize, Bill Woods and the rest were tearing up the honky-tonks and recording studios back in the ’60s, Nashville didn’t seem to notice. Eventually the success of Buck and Merle would be impossible to ignore, but the snub — real or perceived — had been felt, and felt deeply.
(Pshaw, says Nashville: Recording artist Marty Stuart calls the rivalry “a good gag. But you couldn’t find anybody in this world more loved and accepted in this town than Merle Haggard was.”)
But don’t take it personally, Nashville. At times, Merle didn’t seem to like Bakersfield any better. He had a complicated relationship with his hometown, which makes him no different from most of us. But like most of us, he seemed to reconcile whatever issues he had.
And he always loved the people.
When I called Merle in 2010 after he’d won a big award, he stopped me before I could ask the first question.
“I heard a boulder is blocking off the canyon. How are people in Lake Isabella supposed to get through?”
When the home of a longtime Oildale resident was burned to the ground by a faulty PG&E line, the settlement was insufficient to replace her scorched refrigerator. She planned to repaint it, saying — bless her Oildale heart — “It still runs!”
Haggard bought her a new fridge.
The singer and his wife signed a 2010 Californian petition demanding that any unclaimed Kern River water be run down the riverbed through town. We’re still waiting for that water, but the thought counted.
So our regard for him seems to have been reciprocated.
No matter how many miles he put between himself and Bakersfield, he was never that far away.