April 12, 2012
Merle Haggard, at age twelve, attended a Maddox Brothers & Rose concert with his older brother Lowell. During the show, Haggard fixated on Roy Nichols, a young guitarist who coaxed a distinct, piercing sound from his Fender Telecaster guitar, the likes of which Haggard previously had never heard.
“On the way out there, Lowell said, ‘They’ve got a little guitar player from Fresno, and he’s only fifteen years old, and he doesn’t have to pick cotton or go to school,’” Haggard said, opening his eyes wide to mimic his reaction as a kid. “I said, ‘Boy, that’s a job I want!’ I watched Rosie a little that night, but Roy really got my attention. He became a real hero of mine.”
That night, Nichols planted the seed that eventually led Haggard, after a few missteps, to pursue music as his profession-and eventually rise to become one of the most admired and emulated singer-songwriters of any age.
Haggard spoke of Nichols and other band members during a ninety-minute Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum program, My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers: A Conversation with Norm Hamlet, Don Markham, and Fuzzy Owen. The program celebrated a new museum exhibit, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country. Before the program, Owen decided he would feel more comfortable sitting in the audience listening, and he helped recruit Haggard to take his place in the discussion.
It was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that Haggard had made a surprise appearance at a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum event. The previous evening-Tuesday, April 10, 2012-the legend surprised a sold-out crowd at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena by closing out an all-star concert benefitting the museum. The event, We’re All for the Hall, featured hosts Keith Urban and Vince Gill as well as a lineup that included Alabama, the Band Perry, the Blue Sky Riders (Gary Burr, Kenny Loggins, and Georgia Middleman), Diamond Rio, Lady Antebellum, Oak Ridge Boys, Pistol Annies (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley), and Thompson Square. Besides Haggard, another Country Music Hall of Fame member, Don Williams, also made a surprise appearance.
While in town for a sold-out concert at the Ryman Auditorium, Haggard took a private tour of the museum’s Bakersfield exhibit. The exhibit, and the program’s focus on Bakersfield and on the Strangers, Haggard’s longtime band, brought out a reflective, storytelling mood in the Country Music Hall of Fame member. His story about the first time he saw Nichols play was one of many that illustrated how Bakersfield helped shape Haggard’s musical style.
“It’s an oil town,” Haggard said of Bakersfield. “It had been a desert forever, I guess, but then they discovered oil in 1910 or 1909. The oil was nearly on top of the ground, the wells were like ten feet deep. It set up this situation where there were clubs and beer joints on every corner; there must have been ten or fifteen beer joints that had bands in them-good bands. There were four or five classy cocktail lounges, and they sold hard liquor, and they paid a little more than the beer joints. The whole San Joaquin Valley became a breeding ground for country music.”
Norm Hamlet, a renowned steel guitarist, expanded on the city’s history, saying the bulk of its population consisted of migrants who’d moved west during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in search of work from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and other states. “A lot of those people brought their music with them,” Hamlet said. “They brought their guitars-of course, they weren’t electric back then. But they had a certain way they played them, and that was a big part of how Bakersfield music sounded.”
Hamlet joined the Strangers in 1967; Don Markham, a saxophonist and trumpet player, joined in 1974. Both of them had been a part of the Bakersfield music scene since the 1950s, just as Haggard had been. All three panelists talked about the tight-knit Bakersfield scene, mentioning key figures Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Bill Woods, Herb Henson, and many others. Haggard spoke at length about the immeasurable roles played in his career by Nichols, his longtime guitarist, and by Bonnie Owens, his ex-wife, duet partner, and longtime harmony singer.
Haggard also mentioned the important role of Southern California-based instrument makers, especially Leo Fender and his company, Fender Guitars, the first to mass produce an affordable, lightweight electric guitar. “That company really has been, in country music, almost like a person, because they’ve done so much for this business,” Haggard said. He pointed out that Fender supplied electric and steel guitars to members of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys-“the hottest band around”-as well as to Hank Thompson’s band, thereby helping popularize electric instruments among country bands in the West.
Program host Michael Gray, a co-curator of the museum’s Bakersfield Sound exhibit, introduced each panel member, starting with Markham. A multi-instrumentalist best known for his work on saxophone and trumpet, Markham has played with the Bakersfield Brass, the Ventures, and Sly & the Family Stone. Haggard noted that Markham has played on nearly every song he’s recorded since 1974.
Hamlet, who started performing in the 1950s, played steel guitar with the Farmer Boys, Joe & Rose Lee Maphis, and Skeets McDonald, and he was a mainstay on musical variety programs broadcast regionally on Bakersfield TV stations. He joined the Strangers in 1967 and, shortly afterward, became its bandleader. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a cross word in all that time,” Haggard said.
The program began with a discussion of cousins Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owen, central figures in the early days of the Bakersfield music scene. “Some people call them the Bakersfield twins,” Haggard said. Hag told of a meeting with President Richard Nixon, and how when he went to introduce Talley to the president, Nixon jumped up and excitedly shook Talley’s hand. “You don’t have to tell me who Lewis Talley is!” Nixon exclaimed, explaining that he’d become a big fan of Talley’s from seeing him on Bakersfield TV shows.
On Owen, Hag’s lifetime friend and business partner, the singer pointed out that Owen at first hesitated to sign him to Tally Records, the label co-owned by Owen and Talley. Back then, Owen thought Haggard sounded too much like Wynn Stewart, one of Hag’s acknowledged heroes and influences.
But Owen, an accomplished steel guitarist, eventually became Haggard’s biggest supporter, and today remains Haggard’s road manager and confidant. “We just knew we weren’t going to lie to each other,” Haggard said. “We started our relationship like that. We have a friendship based on honesty. Sometimes it wasn’t easy to tell the truth, but we managed to do it. We’ve been friends and partners ever since I started.”
Hamlet stepped into Haggard’s band when Owen decided to concentrate on his role as road manager (a job that, early on, included being bus driver and mechanic). Owen already had championed Hamlet as a steel guitarist, asking him to fill in for him whenever he couldn’t make a show, whether with Haggard or some other Bakersfield act. “He got me to take his place whenever he moved up a notch,” Hamlet said.
Markham, who had played jazz and pop, found he got more work in Bakersfield performing in country and western-swing bands. “The country people were so much nicer, and appreciated you playing for them so much more, that I fell in love with it,” said Markham, who spent six years as the trumpet player at the Blackboard, one of Bakersfield’s central clubs in the 1950s.
In talking about Nichols, Haggard said he worked with the guitarist to come up with a distinctive sound for the Strangers. “A lot of guitarists push their strings up,” Haggard said, mimicking the sound of an electric guitar string when it’s bent upward. “Roy would pull the string down before he hit it, and it was different.”
Hamlet agreed, mentioning how “innovative” Nichols was as a guitarist. “Every night, he’d play at least one lick that would just knock my head in the creek,” Hamlet said.
As Gray pointed out, Hamlet has had to adapt to all the different styles of music Haggard has recorded and performed over the decades. Six months after Hamlet joined the Strangers in 1967, Haggard asked him to become bandleader. Hamlet has held the job ever since. “All these years, I haven’t had the nerve to fire myself,” Hamlet joked. “That’s why I’m still around. Of course, we get along well, or else I wouldn’t be here.”
Markham and Haggard both told a colorful tale about how the singer eventually hired Markham after being friends for many years. Haggard was on a bus on Interstate Highway 40 when he pulled up next to another bus and noticed Markham driving. Haggard motioned for Markham to pull off at the next exit so they could say hello.
Markham, it turned out, was on the road with Johnny Paycheck. Markham was driving because two notorious brothers, also members of Paycheck’s band, had beaten the previous bus driver so badly that he couldn’t see through swollen black eyes. “Can I just ride back to Bakersfield with you?” Markham pleaded. Haggard agreed, and at the next show, invited Markham to play with the Strangers. “He’s been in the band ever since,” Haggard said.
Haggard grew most emotional when talking about ex-wife Bonnie Owens and how their relationship evolved over the years. Owens had her own solo recording career and had been married and divorced from Buck Owens before becoming Haggard’s wife and harmony singer.
“After she got married to Merle, she decided she was going to be his backup singer,” Hamlet said. “She didn’t have to do that. But she loved Merle so much, she gave up her career for him.” Calling her ‘the queen of Bakersfield,” Haggard explained how Owens helped raise their kids and each other’s stepchildren. She also wrote down Haggard’s songs as he composed them-many of the manuscripts are part of the Bakersfield Sound exhibit. And she helped him keep the business side of his career in line.
“We realized we weren’t supposed to be married, but after we divorced, we built a friendship that lasted all the way to her death,” Haggard said. “I went to see her for the last time, she was several years into the Alzheimer’s thing. She grabbed me by the arm and said she had to take me down to her room. I followed her down, and she had this big slick photo of me and her behind her bed. She looked at me and said, ‘He’s my favorite.’ She didn’t identify me as the man in the picture.”
The standing-room-only crowd gave the panelists several rowdy ovations through the interview, saving the loudest and longest for last. As he’s done so many times before, Haggard tipped his hat to the cheering crowd and sauntered from the stage alongside friends and colleagues he’s known for most of his life.