I photographed Merle Haggard a lot during my 28-year career as a Bakersfield Californian photographer. One of Bakersfield’s native sons and arguably the greatest country musician and song writer of his generation, Haggard performed in Bakersfield often, and also visited frequently from Redding, California, where he lived, for social functions, to visit friends and even for medical treatment.
Haggard died today, on his 79th birthday, and even though he was in failing health, his loss has hit this town and the entertainment industry hard. A cause has not been listed, but he had been battling with double pneumonia since late last year.
Oddly enough, despite the number of times I photographed Haggard, I never really got to know him, unlike Bakersfield’s other giant of country music, Buck Owens, whom I became quite friendly with. I’m sure we said “hello” to each other a time or two, but the circumstances of the various shoots – usually his very busy schedule and the fact that he did not live in Bakersfield – never gave us an opportunity to talk. But he was a great photo subject, friendly and polite, and best of all for a photographer, completely at ease and even oblivious to the camera.
And, of course, I loved his music. I was a fan long before I was a photojournalist, and remember many a night as a teenager in Taft, California, cruising around in my friend Bill Wheeler’s Datsun pickup, listening to Merle Haggard songs for hours.
Some of the Haggard assignments were routine, mostly a few shots of his many concerts he performed at local venues, big and small. But some took on more importance. One, which I wrote about last year on this blog, was “Together Again: Buck and Merle and the Great Country Music Summit of 1995,” a high profile reunion of Owens and Haggard, along with Dwight Yoakam. Another would be the final time I would photograph Haggard as a staff photographer for The Bakersfield Californian. It was Haggard’s first concert after he underwent lung cancer surgery two months earlier. It was Friday, January 2, 2009, two months before I would leave the newspaper, and it was a busy afternoon and evening. It started with Haggard being given a star in front of Bakersfield’s historic Fox Theater, where he played a few times, and concluded with a concert at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, before a packed house, of course. It was not easy for him, and he had to stop a few times, freely talking to the audience about the surgery and his challenging recovery.
These are the pictures I shot for The Californian that day.