It wasn’t until I was 27 years old that I started to love Merle Haggard.
For someone who, like Haggard, was born in Bakersfield and came of age in Kern County, that revelation is hard to fathom. In Bakersfield, country music’s influence is as deeply felt as those delightful summers that stretch from April through October.
Growing up, I knew of Haggard. I heard the name Buck Owens (whom I also grew to love but sadly not until after his death in 2006, when I was 20). I was always familiar with those two strongest pillars of the Bakersfield Sound, the most recognizable force in country music west of Nashville.
But it took time for me to listen to, and eventually digest, Haggard’s words in order to console myself with their meanings. It wasn’t until I encountered my own strife and regrets that whiskey-soaked tunes such as “Swinging Doors” and “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” found homes in my music library.
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Better late than never, eh, Merle?
Haggard died Wednesday morning on his 79th birthday. He leaves behind one of the most influential legacies in music history. His song catalog is a cavalcade of iconic tunes too many to mention, though I think “Mama Tried” was his best and arguably the greatest country song ever written. (The Grateful Dead, among others, thought it was hip enough to cover.)
Minutes after Haggard’s passing was announced, social media sites were inundated with photos, anecdotes and condolences directed at the “Poet of the Common Man.” By 5 p.m., there were more than 160,000 Haggard-related tweets, and he was the No. 1 trending topic in the United States.
Country artist Dierks Bentley tweeted, “literally just fell to the floor. can’t believe we lost the hag,” in reference to the nickname some Haggard fans gave him.
Iconic fiddler Charlie Daniels wrote, “Country music has suffered one of the greatest losses it will ever experience.”
Across the board, the mourning was palpable — as was the unconditional respect. Some of it hit deeply.
Writer Kaleb Horton tweeted that Haggard “made it alright to be from Bakersfield when a lot of people weren’t alright with it.”
For me, being all right with being from Bakersfield was the gateway to loving Haggard.
Before I came to The Tribune last June, I worked for two years as an editor and reporter at The Bakersfield Californian. I was honored to work for my hometown paper, although swallowing my pride and cruising back home from San Jose (a place I lived off and on after college) wasn’t something I was excited to do.
But in between critiquing letters to the editor and drumming up ideas for columns, my editor, Robert Price, asked me for a favor. He was writing a book about the unique history of Bakersfield country music, and he asked me to read manuscripts of a few chapters.
I happily obliged. Yes, as someone who constantly fantasized about escaping Kern County, and as someone who thought reading about country was as appetizing as a mouthful of dirt, I dove right in. My cynicism quickly proved to be unsustainable.
For several days, I pored over the manuscripts, which became regular companions of mine on breaks at the much-visited Dagny’s coffee shop downtown. It was then that Haggard’s story struck me.
While so many country artists sang of going to jail, Haggard actually did go to jail. San Quentin, no less.
When other singers crooned about riding the rails, it was Haggard who was literally raised in a boxcar in Oildale, the Bakersfield area’s most rustic and blue-collar locale. In January 2015, he told The Bakersfield Californian, “I grew up here with intentions of escaping.”
You better believe that spoke to me.
Haggard showed me that you can go home again. And while your relationship with your hometown won’t always be perfect, there’s still plenty to celebrate.
Before I was done leafing through the drafts for what would become Robert Price’s “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music,” I had perused the depths of Haggard’s musical history. I would soon find myself sitting on the sweltering back porch of my friend’s home, shooting Jim Beam and playing “Mama Tried” on loop. Call me simple, but that made me happy.
When I first moved to San Luis Obispo County, I was quickly advised to never tell people I was from Bakersfield.
“Say you’re from San Jose,” one woman told me.
I didn’t take her advice. After all, doesn’t she know Merle Haggard is from Bakersfield?
Mark Powell is a copy editor at The Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.