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On his 86th birthday, we salute the Hag

When country music legend Merle Haggard died on his 79th birthday on April 6, 2016, he left behind chart-topping singles like "Okie from Muskogee" and the hugely influential Bakersfield Sound.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — When I read that the late country music legend Merle Haggard grew up in a boxcar house, I perhaps took it a little too literally. As I wandered the grounds of the Kern County Museum on an early spring morning looking for Merle's childhood home, I expected to see an actual boxcar, maybe with some furniture inside. Instead, I found a little white wood paneled house across the way from a massive Southern Pacific train engine and Santa Fe caboose.

At first glance, the house looks like any other, so perfectly is the boxcar worked into the design. It's a testament to the carpentry skills of Haggard's father James, who added a front bedroom and a screened-in back porch that was later converted to another bedroom and breakfast nook. The boxcar comprises the bulk of the little house, including the kitchen, living room and bathroom.

This quaint little white house may not look like much, but it was the childhood home of country music legend and Bakersfield Sound pioneer Merle Haggard. The long section in the back is the original boxcar, a 1911 Santa Fe ice boxcar Haggard's father purchased in 1935 for $500. (Rebekah Kearn/Courthouse News)

A railroad man himself, James Haggard and his wife Flossie bought the old wooden Santa Fe ice boxcar in 1935 for $500 after relocating their family of four to Bakersfield from Oklahoma. They intended the boxcar to be a temporary home until they could build a larger one on their lot in Oildale, then a small, unincorporated town just north of Bakersfield, according to a 2017 article about the boxcar by The Bakersfield Californian.

Two years later, Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937. He grew up in the boxcar house with his parents, older brother James Lowell, and older sister Lillian, who caught young Merle keeping time to the radio while he was still in his bassinet.

When James Haggard died of a stroke in 1945, Merle's happy childhood came crashing down around him and his troubled youth began. At the tender age of 11, he hopped his first freight train and was escorted home by police. Undeterred, he kept skipping school to ride the trains, so his brother gave him his first guitar at age 12 as a distraction. Immediately entranced, young Merle taught himself to play the old Sears, Roebuck & Co. model by listening to records — and came to idolize Bob Wills.

His budding obsession with music didn't keep him on the right side of the law, though. After a stint in juvenile hall intended to straighten him out, he made a habit of running away from home with buddy Bob Teague, mixing up honest blue-collar work with petty crime and, on a notable occasion in 1953, singing on stage with another of his idols, Lefty Frizzell.

Even as he started making a name for himself in Bakersfield playing at clubs like The Blackboard and The Lucky Spot (which he sneaked into since he was underage), Haggard kept up his double-life of country music and crime until things came to a head in 1957. After a failed attempt at robbing a local café, Haggard was sentenced to 15 years in prison and shipped off to San Quentin, where he turned 21 in solitary confinement as prisoner A45200.

Losing his freedom forced him to take a long, hard look at his life, and he decided to turn it around. He got a job at the prison textile plant, played in a country music band and even got the equivalent of a high school diploma. After he was released on parole in 1960 he got a job working at The Lucky Spot, where he met his future manager Charles "Fuzzy" Owen.

Haggard saw moderate success with his initial releases on Tally Records, but got his first break in 1963 covering Wynn Stewart's "Sing A Sad Song," which climbed to #19 on the country charts. His breakthrough song "All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers" came a year later, not only hitting the Top 10 but convincing Capitol Records' Ken Nelson to sign him to the label.

A letter written to Johnny Cuviello by Bill Woods about Merle Haggard, who's name and address are on the back. (Rebekah Kearn/Courthouse News)

He got his first #1 hit in 1966 with "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," and they kept pouring in from there. Johnny Cash, the Man in Black himself, convinced Haggard to face his past in verse, and many of his songs from the 1960s and early 1970s drew on his experiences in prison, including hits "Sing Me Back Home" and "Momma Tried."

Between 1966 and 1987, Haggard and his band The Strangers recorded 38 #1 singles and another 33 that hit the Top 10 on the country charts. His biggest hits would be his political songs, particularly "Okie from Muskogee" and "Fightin' Side of Me." Released during the ripe climate of the late 1960s culture wars, "Fightin' Side" snagged the Hag the Academy of Country Music's Entertainer of the Year award in 1971 and went gold — a distinction few country albums had at that time, according to Robert Price's book "The Bakersfield Sound."

Though a talented musician in his own right, Haggard truly shined as a songwriter. Country star Dwight Yoakum (who famously convinced Buck Owens, another Bakersfield Sound pioneer, to come out of his self-imposed retirement), said of Haggard: "Merle was the guiding light to my adult writing. Buck kept the dancefloor full. But Merle Made you sit down [and feel]."

Both Haggard and Owens were known for playing Fender Telecaster electric guitars. But in contrast to Buck's signature "freight train" sound, Merle's was more laid back and leisurely, with what Price describes as a "jazzy sensibility." He loved both styles of music, and referred to his own sound as "country jazz."

A display featuring one of Merle Haggard's stage suits, as well as a pair of boots by Nudie's Rodeo Tailors with "HAG" emblazoned on the sides. The suit was designed by Los Angeles tailor Nathan Turk. (Rebekah Kearn/Courthouse News)

After Merle and third wife Leona Williams divorced in 1983, he spent the next decade mired in drug and alcohol problems, as well as financial woes due to steep competition from rising stars like George Strait and Randy Travis. In 2000 he bounced back with "If I Could Only Fly," released on independent label Anti, and the album "Roots" in 2001, a tribute album featuring covers of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams as well as three new original songs.

The accolades started stacking up in the late 2000s, including a lifetime achievement award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2010 and CMT’s Artist of a Lifetime award in 2014.

But perhaps the one that meant the most was the push by Bakersfield sisters Glenda Rankin and Di Sharman to commemorate his childhood home by moving it onto the grounds of the Pioneer Village at the Kern County Museum.

In July 2015, the boxcar house was loaded onto a flatbed truck and taken from the plot in Oildale to the museum while Merle followed in his tour bus. That spot across from the train engine? Merle chose it himself.

That summer day marked his final appearance in his hometown. It also inspired his final song, "The Kern River Blues," a ditty about leaving Bakersfield in the 1970s that contains the line "kiss an old boxcar goodbye."

He recorded the song on Feb. 9, 2016, with his son Ben on guitar. Less than two months later, he died on his 79th birthday at his home in Palo Cedro in Shasta County due to complications from pneumonia.

The boxcar home officially opened for tours on April 9, 2017, almost a year to the day after his passing.

Los Angeles architect George Taylor Louden headed the project, using old black and white photos and as much of the original construction material as possible to faithfully recreate the home. Philanthropist Cynthia Lake funded the project.

This guitar belonged to Norman Hamlet, band leader for Merle Haggard and the Strangers. Hamlet originally played with The Maddox Brothers and Rose as well as Johnny Cash before playing with The Strangers from 1965 to 1987. (Rebekah Kearn/Courthouse News)

A 12-by-23 walkway runs through the center of the home, with the rooms protected by and visible through glass partitions. Visitors are able to see the living room, front bedroom and kitchen. Only the back bedroom isn't visible from the walkway, but nosy visitors can pop around the back of the house and peek in through the window.

"Jim and Flossie did a Herculean effort to build this boxcar into a family residence and live there for decades," Louden told the Californian. "That's the real success story here, is what Jim and Flossie were able to do as a family with very limited means, and the boxcar itself."

Founded in 1941, the Kern County Museum preserves and presents historical objects from the county's history as well the region's unique importance in the history of California. Pioneer Village, a 16-acre outdoor complex, contains over 50 historical structures from different eras of the county's history, including the Havilah courthouse and jail, a joss house, a 100-year-old schoolhouse and worker housing units from 1930s farm laborer camps in nearby Shafter during the Dust Bowl.

The Bakersfield Sound exhibit is one of the newest additions to the museum, and was made possible by financial support from several donors, including The California Department of Natural Resources, The Bakersfield Country Music Museum, Citizens Preserving History and The Ellen Baker Tracy Guild.

The Bakersfield Sound exhibit at the Kern County Museum. Its grand opening was held in March 2022. The 1,600-square-foot exhibit displays hundreds of artifacts from the glory days of the Bakersfield Sound, including the artists' guitars, fiddles, suits and more. The red, white, and blue guitar is a nod to the same guitar famously played by Buck Owens. (Rebekah Kearn/Courthouse News)
Categories / Entertainment, Regional

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