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Haggard was no stranger to Stanislaus County
Merle Haggard during his July 31, 1986 performance at the Stanislaus County Fair. - photo by Photo courtesy of Jeff Benziger

Merle Ronald Haggard was one of a kind country music icon.

The loss of his life on Wednesday last week was felt in an especially personal way in the Central Valley, of which he was a product. Haggard seemed like a friend because of his music and Valley native status, so his death had a jarring effect, like a phonograph needle being raked across the grooves of one of his records.

Haggard, who recorded more than 40 number #1 country hits over six decades, was no stranger to Stanislaus County.

Haggard was born and raised in Bakersfield on April 6, 1937 and he died, ironically, on his 79th birthday. His mom was Flossie Mae Harp Haggard and his father, James Francis Haggard, died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945 when Merle was nine and his life changed forever. Like many boys growing up without a father, Merle's life suffered. He went sideways. Merle could not pay attention in class for his mind was on scribbling music. He told Dan Rather that the education he needed "was not in that classroom." The perpetual truant ran away from home at age nine or 10 by jumping a freight train to Fresno. He was back and forth from home but something great happened when he was 12 and his brother handed him a used guitar. He was obsessed with the guitar.

From age 9 to 21 Haggard had been in about a dozen juvenile and adult institutions, including Preston Institute in Ione north of us.

In his biography, Haggard wrote about being sent to visit his aunt and uncle in Hughson during boyhood summers, riding in on the rails and seeing migrant worker tents along the tracks.

He was always running to and from Bakersfield where in the summer of 1951 he crashed Lefty Frizzell's concert at the Rainbow Gardens. When he heard the music legend sing "Always Late (with Your Kisses)," Haggard was spellbound and inspired.

In 1951 14-year-old Haggard drifted up to Stanislaus County with 18-year-old friend Bob Teague and found work in manual labor, was a short-order cook, drove a truck. While in Modesto Haggard found work bucking hay when he took a break at a cinder block dive bar on Crows Landing Road called the Fun Center. The bartender saw a guitar slung on Haggard's back and asked if he could sing. Merle strummed and sang, what else, "Always Late." He offered Haggard $5 and all the beer he could drink to keep singing. Merle told friend Peggy Russell: "The Fun Center was the kind of place where they didn't give you a glass when you ordered a beer. Just slapped the bottle down on the bar. You got the distinct feeling that it would not be in your best interest to ask for a glass either."

Thus, Modesto made history as being the first professional gig of Merle Haggard. He later said he "felt like we hit the jackpot."

While in Stanislaus County Haggard befriended local recording artist and future KTRB radio station owner Chester Smith. The story is that 14-year-old Haggard dropped into the Riverbank Club House where he saw Smith sing ... with the same awe that he exhibited at the Frizzell concert. The building, which was located on Sierra Street between Second and Third streets and hosted Hank Williams Sr., Ernest Tubb and Rose Maddox, was razed in 1984.

I interviewed Smith in 2000 and Haggard shared a memory from the Riverbank show. Haggard told Smith: "Boy, this guitar you had just blew me away. I stood there and watched it all night. But I left that night, saying to myself, ‘That's what I'm gonna do the rest of my life.'" Smith added that Haggard wasn't thinking about singing, just playing the guitar.

Masterful at prisoner escapes, Haggard once broke out of Preston Institute and escaped into Ione. His whereabouts under a porch was discovered by a curious kid who heard him. Over the years exposure to hardened criminals caused him to glamorize crime and he was soon committing more serious crimes like robberies and burglaries.

At age 19 Haggard found his way to San Quentin Prison where in 1958 he heard Johnny Cash and suddenly country music was cool in the prison and Haggard was teaching other inmates how to play guitar.

He eventually made his crooked paths straight and became a recording artist. His music was born of the Dust Bowl refugees who inhabited the Valley in the 1930s. When I hear his early music I am reminded of my own grandparents who fled Oklahoma in search for a better life in the 1940s.

I was fortunate to see Haggard perform twice at the Stanislaus County Fair, the last time on July 31, 1986. In its coverage of that concert, the Modesto Bee noted how my month-old baby son Brandon was awakened when Haggard's band struck up. The article mentioned how Brandon responded lively to the music on his mama's knee. I have snapshots from that concert and I recall how, between songs, Haggard would grab a bottle of hard liquor that was perched atop one of the speakers. Merle looked, well, inebriated but it probably just enhanced the smooth mellow tone of his pipes. If memory serves me correct, that night in Turlock he joked that he honeymooned somewhere in Ceres or Keyes - which was a joke, no doubt, for the benefit of the local audience.

Unable to get backstage (as I had at other Fair performances for interviews with the likes of Glen Campbell, Charlie Pride and Waylon Jennings), I handed my ticket to Sheriff's candidate Burl Condit, who was headed back, to get Haggard's autograph. Within a couple of days the Haggard ticket was in my mailbox, with his signature on the back. I treasure it.

The day after his death I learned on Facebook that Keyes played a part in Haggard music history. Haggard came to Keyes on Feb. 21, 1971 to cut a recording of the actual Sunday church service and some original Christian music. It's unknown why he picked Keyes but it's possible that he dropped in for worship at a younger time in his life. Haggard recorded the "religious experience" album called "Land of Many Churches" at different churches, including the Keyes Assembly of God Tabernacle, the Big Creek Baptist Church in Millington, Tenn., the San Quentin Garden Chapel, and the Nashville Union Rescue Mission.

The Keyes recordings may be heard on by searching for "Land of Many Churches" and searching the tracks. Keyes doesn't come in until the "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" segment and includes some preaching of the pastor at that time, J.D. Smith. You can hear women chanting "Hallelujah Jesus," and "Glory to you Jesus" as children's coughs echo within the walls. The congregation sings a hymn and Smith preaches a bit and then announces "the big surprise that I'm sure that all of you have been waiting for." He mentions that the normal worship is being pre-empted for music with Merle Haggard, wife Bonnie Owens and his band, the Strangers.

Haggard says: "Thank you very much and be seated. The date is Feb. 21 and we're located at the Keyes Assembly of God Tabernacle in Keyes, California, a small church in a little town but typical of many in our great land. In Proverbs 3:5-6, the Bible says ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all the ways, acknowledge him and He shall direct thy paths. And these words inspired this song. This song was written by Johnny Gimble." He then sings "Guide Me, Lord." Then Haggard sings "The Family Bible," "I'll Be List'ning," and "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" followed up by a closing prayer by Rev. J.D. Smith.

According to Ray Yarbrough, Pastor Smith nearly was kicked out of the church for allowing Haggard to come and sing "although the church received royalties."

Anita Marlene Tackett-Martins elaborated on Facebook about the Haggard visit: "It was very controversial at the time, because he was in adultery with Bonnie Owens. A lot of the old timers objected to hosting them in the church. Plus all of the church staff and board were sworn to secrecy because if it got out that Merle was coming it would turn into a side show. My dad didn't tell us until we were in the car on the way to church so we wouldn't be able to tell anyone. LOL"

About a year after the Keyes visit, Gov. Ronald Reagan expunged Haggard of his criminal record with a pardon. It may have been the most justifiable pardon in the history of executive leniency for Haggard was indeed a reformed man.
In the mid-1950's he was singing at the Blackboard saloon in Bakersfield. Haggard said in a 2012 interview that Bakersfield had clubs and beer joints "on every corner" that paid $10 a night to him while the Blackboard paid $16.50. "Bakersfield was kind of the pattern for everybody," said Haggard. "Fresno did kind of like what Bakersfield did and then Modesto did it and pretty soon the whole Valley was a breeding ground for country music."

Only one Haggard song mentions Modesto, which he played worldwide. He inserted the name in the lyrics of his hit song, "Makeup and Faded Blue Jeans." ("In downtown Modesto I was working the Holiday Inn.") I doubt if it's a true story as I don't believe downtown Modesto ever had a Holiday Inn.

Ceres' own Jim Delhart, a good friend of Chester Smith's, got to meet Haggard when he and Smith recorded music for their 2002 album California Blend. Delhart was amused when Haggard became irritated that high-priced musicians he hired for the project were unable to get the tempo Smith needed.

The only known time that Haggard was in Ceres - other than flying through on the freeway - was the time or times his bus stopped for dinner at the Stone Pony Saloon in Ceres where wife Bonnie Owen performed while the Durossettes owned it. Doug Durossette even posed with Merle. Delhart later purchased the building and opened Delhart's Family Dining. Haggard must have had additional dealings with Ceres that didn't make their way into documentation.

To understand Haggard's appeal you must listen to his lyrics. It is then you realize his popularity was owing to not just his smooth voice and catchy tunes but because his lyrics sung of time-honored traditions of paying respect to your parents, love of country, taking responsibilities for your failures in life and facing one's demons.

The story of Merle Haggard is one of redemption and forgiveness of yourself and others.

I think what made Haggard a special soul was that he was transparent with his own struggles and he weaved them into the tapestry of homespun music of great quality. We all have struggles and Haggard had his. Crime, drugs, alcohol and broken marriages dogged him most of his life. (Around the time I saw Haggard in Turlock he was addicted to cocaine.) The older he seemed more and more remorseful about what he put his mother through. But he found himself in reconciling things with his Christian faith.

Merle Haggard mentioned how our Valley "could be awfully pretty and it could look awfully ugly at different times of the year." I suppose it's a metaphor for his life.

Yes, indeed, for our lives too.