BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Fifty years ago, Bakersfield was a musical hotbed, having produced an incredible succession of national hit records. One might think there’d still be a few physical landmarks around to help us remember the glory days of the Bakersfield Sound — but, fact is, there are precious few. So this qualifies as exciting news — we’ve found one, long forgotten.
Architecturally, it’s nothing to celebrate. The green building is pretty nondescript but it plays an important role in the history of the Bakersfield Sound because it looks directly down on the grave of Merle Haggard’s father — and that’s by design.
The office building on River Boulevard, near the corner of Panorama Drive, today is a day care operated by the Community Action Partnership of Kern, but in the late 1960s and ‘70s is was the headquarters of Hag Inc. — country music star Merle Haggard’s place of business, where he managed his song royalties, negotiated concert appearances and stuffed envelopes with his records to send out to country music deejays all over the country.
Why did Haggard choose this location for his office? Well, it was close to his home in the Bakersfield Country Club area — but there was this too. It looked directly out on the northeast corner of Greenlawn Cemetery — and the final resting place of his father, James Haggard, who died — most likely of a stroke — in 1946 — only 47 years old.
Pastor Phil Neighbors of Valley Baptist Church heard the story from the man who discovered Haggard and signed him to his first contract, Merle’s manager and lifelong friend Fuzzy Owen. 3811 River Blvd. was more than just a plain-Jane office building to Merle Haggard.
“Merle Haggard lost his dad when he was 10 years old,” said Rev. Phil Neighbors of Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield. “He was very close to him. And he never really ever got over it. And so when he had his office here, I think he could take comfort in the fact that his dad’s earthly remains were just 150 steps away.”
Yes, 150 steps from the door of his River Boulevard office building to his father’s grave one short jaywalk across the street and through the northeast gate of Greenlawn Cemetery. We know because Merle counted those steps — and mentioned it in his second autobiography, “My House of Memories.”
Of course the green day care center would be a musical landmark of sorts even without the significance of its proximity to the cemetery. Fuzzy Owen’s daughter Cindy Blackhawk worked there, at Hag Inc., with Haggard and his then-wife Bonnie Owens for several years from the time she was 16.
“This building is the last building that Merle had an office here in Bakersfield,” she said. “This is where he, Fuzzy, and Bonnie — all three had an office until he left Bakersfield and went up to the Shasta area. I didn’t realize at the time that his dad was so close. I knew he was over here but I didn’t realize he was right out a window-shot of it.”
Haggard’s mother Flossie Haggard, the mama who tried so hard to keep her wayward son on the straight and narrow, died in 1984 and she’s there now, too, next to her husband.
Then there’s Roy Nichols, Merle Haggard’s longtime friend and guitar player, a member of his band, the Strangers. He died in 2001.
And Merle honored his friend with a bench next to his grave. But it’s not just a bench, it’s a directional marker — straight to his father’s grave.
Did Merle Haggard really, intentionally buy a concrete bench honoring Roy Nichols placed just inside the cemetery’s wrought iron fence pointing to the graves of his father, mother and older brother James Lowell Haggard? Merle himself died in 2016 so we can’t ask, but the office building, the concrete bench and Daddy’s grave form a straight line.
The gracious folks at CAP-K’s Martha J. Morgan Child Development Center were nice enough to give Cindy Blackhawk a brief tour of her old workplace and much of those days came back to her.
“I was a receptionist and then after that I did royalties for Owen Publications,” she said. “And then this would have been Merle’s office right in here” as she walked through the building.
As Merle told the story, one open room was the area where Haggard allowed singer Glen Campbell to stuff copies of his recording of “Gentle on My Mind” in the same envelope as one of Merle’s new records, and the vinyl 45s went out together to deejays everywhere. It was Glen Campbell’s first national hit — of many to come. And Haggard helped lay the foundation right there at 3811 River Blvd.
As significant as that memory might have been for Merle Haggard, it couldn’t have been as important as the one that lay 150 steps out his office door.
An ordinary building on an ordinary street in Bakersfield, but the setting for an remarkable story about a boy’s love for his father that lasted his entire life.
In between the Greenlawn Cemetery grave of Merle’s older brother James L. Haggard — who went by his middle name, Lowell — and the graves of Merle’s parents, there’s a place in reserve for his 100-year-old sister Lillian Rae Haggard. Merle himself is buried near Redding.