Merle Haggard has been called the most influential singer-songwriter in country music history. But he’s never been called doctor -- at least until now.
Cal State University at Bakersfield recently awarded him its first honorary doctorate of fine arts in recognition of his contribution to the Bakersfield Sound. The university also honored Buck Owens, another architect of the raw, tinny style.
“On behalf of all the songwriters and entertainers that’s come up through the Bakersfield Sound, I’d like to say we appreciate this and it’s nice to be noticed,” Haggard told the graduation audience.
Merle Haggard has won 15 Academy of Country Music awards. But he says a doctorate is unlike anything else he’s received.
“The award kind of represents a recognition by -- an underwriting of -- the Bakersfield Sound, really,” he says. “I mean I sort of represent that.”
The Bakersfield Sound defied the slick, polished style of Nashville in the 1950s and ‘60s. Steel guitars, loud drums, a lot of treble, Haggard says. It’s the kind of music that pulls you out of your chair and onto the dance floor.
It’s “a mixture of church music and barroom music that started here because of the agriculture and the oil and the invitation from all the people that was migrating,” he says. “It was a good place to come, a lot of music came out of that.”
Haggard grew up just outside Bakersfield in Oildale. His parents were Okies who came West during the Depression.
He says he was drawn to music early. “I started very young. I guess it was meant to be,” he says. “I started when I was about 9 years old. I took a few lessons on violin and went to what I do now. It’s been a long, long road but it’s been worth it. It kept me out of the cotton patch.”
That long road included the loss of his father when Haggard was 9 -- and a rebellious period that followed. He left home at 15 and was in and out of trouble for petty crime and truancy. He even had a stint at San Quentin in his early 20s. His hit song, Mama Tried, tells the story of his early years when he hitched rides on trains and made some bad choices.
The first thing I remember knowing,
Was a lonesome whistle blowing,
And a young un's dream of growing up to ride;
On a freight train leaving town,
Not knowing where I'm bound,
No one could change my mind but Mama tried.
One and only rebel child,
From a family, meek and mild:
My Mama seemed to know what lay in store.
Despite all my Sunday learning,
Towards the bad, I kept on turning.
'Til Mama couldn't hold me anymore.
Early in his musical career, Haggard played bass with Bakersfield legend Buck Owens. He even came up with the band’s name, says Buck Owens’ son, Buddy Owens. “They were all sitting around one day, and right out of the blue Merle said, ‘Well that’s easy,’ and my dad said, ‘What?’ ‘It’s Buck Owens and the Buckaroos!’”
Buddy Owens accepted the Presidential Medal of Honor from CSU Bakersfield last week on behalf of his father, who died in 2006.
Buddy Owens is a musician in his own right. He has several albums, including one with his father called “Too Old to Cut the Mustard?” He plays twice a month at the Crystal Palace, his father’s music hall in Bakersfield.
“It’s really cool to walk around in here,” says Buddy Owens, as he looks at glass display cases filled with Buck Owens’ memorabilia at the Crystal Palace. There are rhinestone suits, his signature red, white and blue guitars, and overalls from “Hee Haw,” the TV show he starred in. Although “Hee Haw” was filmed in Nashville, Buck Owens considered himself anti-Nashville.
“That was part of his appeal, part of what his music was all about,” says Buddy Owens. “The Nashville sound was always so smooth, had big background singers and violins and you know the whole orchestra sound. He just said, ‘That’s not me, I can’t do that.’”
Buddy says his parents divorced when he was young. When he was a teenager, another man showed up in singer Bonnie Owens’ arms.
“We walk into the living room and there’s my mom and there’s Merle standing there,” he says. “And she says, ‘Boys, I want you to meet your new stepfather.’ And that was the first time we had met him.”
Buddy Owens and Merle Haggard are still close, and now with Buck and Bonnie gone, they represent this interconnected legendary California group.
Owens says his father quit school after eighth grade because he had to go to work for his sharecropper family – a fact that makes the university award even sweeter. Before Owens gets up to leave the Crystal Palace, he strums on an old Martin guitar and sings one of his father’s most famous tunes, “Streets of Bakersfield.”
I came here looking for something I couldn't find anywhere else
Hey, I'm not tryin' to be nobody I just want a chance to be myself
I've spent a thousand miles of thumbin'
Yes, I've worn blisters on my heels
Tryin' to find me something better
Here on the streets of Bakersfield
Hey, you don't know me but you don't like me
Say you care less how I feel
'Cause how many of you that sit and judge me ever walked The streets of Bakersfield.