Oildale’s favorite son Merle Haggard, country’s only true believer and a man who made something out of dirt, died on his birthday April 6. He was 79.
I recall with relative clarity one languid spring Friday afternoon scene at Robert’s Western World in Nashville listening to third-tier honky-tonk acts reverb off of our half-empty cans of Coors heavy. The college roommates were reunited temporarily for a wedding: Me. My buddy Sam, Nashville by way of San Francisco and the groom-to-be. Dan, is, was and will always be from Bakersfield. John, a beaming San Diego transplant from the Pacific Northwest. And Joe, a Fayetteville-based Army Ranger.
Dan yelled out his request for Streets of Bakersfield, his national anthem.
“Merle,” the troubadour said. “Best guitar player I never met.”
He thanked Dan for calling out something that wasn’t country pop and proceeded to bellow out a life-changing version of the song about how life never really changes in relation to where you are, but always changes according to who you are. It ends with the final verse: How many of you that sit and judge ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
And, as was his custom, a shot of Wild Turkey was pushed under my nose by Dan on the final note. I obliged.
Those who know country know that a man named Homer Joy wrote Streets of Bakersfield and it was recorded by Buck Owens and then later charted at no. 1 for Dwight Yoakam. The reason why it is most commonly associated with Merle, is the song is the greatest living and titular example of the Bakersfield Sound—which Haggard helped invent.
If Nashville is a custom King Ranch Ford F-150 with wifi, a spray-in bedliner and a remote tailgate release, Merle’s Bakersfield Sound is a ‘79 Chevy Cheyenne longbed with a roll bar, rusted-out tire wells, a half-rack of hand-crushed Schlitz pop tops your grandpa threw under the bench seat and weeds growing up underneath the gear box.
It is smelly like the inside of work gloves, sweaty and dirty like the ring your cowboy hat leaves on your forehead and unassuming but haunting like a kick in the butt out of bed when that 6 a.m. alarm goes. To say Merle and the Bakersfield movement is working man’s music is too easy. They are the songs of the thinking laborer. The man who knows that men’s lives start off boundless, fenceless. Time, ability, birthright and his own poor decisions conspire against him and continue wrap his boundless view in a bundle of barbed wire until one day he’s gone.
Sam’s a father of two now and was recently diagnosed with MS. He plans to fight it without fanfare or exception. Dan is always in and of Bakersfield and three kids later armed to the eyetooth with Wild Turkey (or something stronger) should you happen by. John still lives in San Diego and now has something resembling a tan. His two children were born with one. And Joe, who became a Green Beret, was blown to bits when his Humvee ran over a plastic bag filled with explosives in the Wardak province of Afghanistan. We now have to drop his beer off in Arlington.
So that’s it. That’s us 10 years later. All a little sadder in the eyes as men become. All knowing better what it’s like to walk the Streets of Bakersfield.