Ask Bakersfield Sound fans to name their favorite Merle Haggard song, and they’ll likely name you masterpieces like “Working Man Blues,” “If We Make it Through December,” “Silver Wings,” or “Mama Tried.” “.
But Phil Neighbours, co-author of the 2019 book Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens & Me, told a crowd of fans at the Beale Memorial Library on Wednesday that the Haggard song that introduced the future country music legend to the world was “Sing a Sad Song”, an early cut from 1963.
“It’s perfection,” Neighbors told more than 100 people who gathered at the downtown Bakersfield library branch for “Merle Haggard: The Inside Stories,” a television special that also featured Raymond H. McDonald, Haggard’s longtime friend and tour bus driver, who wrote the 2021 book, “Merle Haggard was a friend of mine.”
“Happy birthday, Merle Haggard,” Neighbors said at the start of the more than two hour show. Neighbors noted that April 6 was not only the calendar day Merle was born, it was also the day he died.
Neighbours, who co-wrote the book with longtime Haggard manager the late Fuzzy Owen, is a pastor at Valley Baptist Church. McDonald, who now lives in Pismo Beach, lived in Haggard’s home as a teenager before working for “The Hag” in the country singer’s final years.
The presentation also included a live musical tribute to the male singer-songwriter known as the “ordinary man poet”.
In a pre-event interview on Tuesday, McDonald explained why he asked fellow musicians Chuck Seaton and Tanner Byrom to join him at the event to perform some signature Haggard songs.
“Music is the reason we do this,” he said. “Merle’s music is what’s really important.”
Neighbors read aloud the foreword to his and Owen’s book at Wednesday’s event, a preview written by veteran singer-songwriter and instrumentalist Marty Stuart.
Stuart recalls in his own words a phone call he received from Haggard in March 2016. Stuart wrote that he always treasured those calls, especially when Merle wanted to pitch a new song over the phone.
But this call was decidedly different.
“I just wrote one that you might want to hear,” Haggard told his old friend.
“How do you call this?” Stuart asked.
“‘My last escape,'” Haggard said, his voice low.
As Neighbors read from the front, the room fell silent.
“It was hard to bear,” Stuart wrote, “because I somehow knew that one of my dearest friends in this world was calling to say goodbye. Goodbye in the language of a song, a song that said what needed to be said.
“When he finished telling me the words to ‘My Last Escape,’ I was leveled,” Neighbors read.
Stuart told his old friend that the song was a masterpiece, straight from the heart, like so many of Haggard’s best songs.
Neighbors continued to read Stuart’s words: “Merle then said, ‘When I get out of here, maybe you and your band can come here to my studio, and we can record it.'”
“Just tell me when,” Stuart told Haggard.
The men said their goodbyes.
“I love you were said and then the call was over,” Stuart wrote.
“In just a few days, Merle was gone.”
It was the end of an era. Haggard, whom some have called the greatest country singer in history and one of the greatest singers of any musical genre, was gone.
Originally from Oildale, Haggard was born on April 6, 1937 and died on his birthday in 2016 at the age of 79. Despite the death of his father, James Francis Haggard, when Merle was only 9 years old, despite struggles with poverty and problems with the law in his youth, Haggard was able to focus his considerable talents as a singer, musician and author -composer to eventually become an international legend.
McDonald was a troubled 15-year-old when he moved into Haggard’s Oildale home in 1965, where he shared a room with two of Buck Owens’ sons. Five decades later, that same teenager drove Hag’s tour bus, nicknamed Santa Fe Chief, across America.
McDonald’s book contains 52 original stories and hundreds of anecdotes surrounding the iconic Haggard, remembered by his friend of over 50 years.
“Merle was a great friend,” McDonald said.
Over the years and miles, McDonald’s befriended Tony Sizemore, who drove Willy Nelson’s tour bus for over 40 years.
McDonald gave a copy of his book to Sizemore, who told McDonald he liked it, McDonald said.
“I said, ‘If I send you one, would you put it on Willy’s desk on his bus? “”
Sizemore agreed, so McDonald sent a copy for Willy, and the book was indeed placed on Willy’s desk.
“He said we were getting ready to go on tour,” McDonald said, and the driver went in the back and there was McDonald’s book right in front of Willy Nelson.
“And Tony says, ‘Ray wanted you to have this. You remember Ray.
“The driver said, ‘It’s a very positive book, Willy.’
“Willy said, ‘Well, that’s good.’
“And he looked at it and said, ‘If you ever write a book about me, I’ll kill you. “”
Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.