Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Merle Haggard and This Girls Kern County Radio

I didn't want to like Merle Haggard. Just like I hadn't wanted to like the other messed up, some dying young, iconic music artists (i.e. Janis Joplin), as a kid they scared me. I knew he'd, Merle, done something bad. I didn't know what, but why would I want to like some one that did something bad to someone and went to jail.
When I was 4 years old we moved from Los Angeles to Delano, CA about 30 miles north of Bakersfield. My memories are of wide open fields of dirt, grapes, cotton, big sunflowers growing wild. Endless acres of poppies and purple lupines. 
Sometimes we'd go into Bakersfield and my dad would rent us horses and ponies and we'd ride along the Kern River. At night the Bakersfield sign and the old downtown hotel with its walkway over the main drag, was a magical place, somehow it, with its neon green light, was as mystical and promising of fun, as anything at Disneyland.
In 1999 I was working at Joe Tabler Book in San Diego, and I came across Merle Haggard's autobiography Sing Me Back Home (originally published in 1981), it was a buck ninety five and I thought 'what the heck, lets see what Merle has to say'. I found deeply moving. I saw a bit of my childhood in it, my days in Delano. A little. 
And I remembered the kinds of music the local radio stations in Delano and Bakersfield would play. While Bakersfield KCHJ (letters confusing like LA's 93 KHJ, but oh so different) would play country western sounds and present an evening program called "Freeway 99", the Delano station- on in my bedroom- so I wouldn't be so afraid of the dark--was what I knew best. My dad would put it on each night after tucking me in. It was just he and I at that point and he did a good job of comforting a scared little kid. 
Delano's local station was the last standing Voice of America in the country, and it was shrouded in some mystery. I've put a link at the bottom of this post to a article about what all that little station was up to over the years. Delano's station even played an accidental role in the Manhattan Project. Apparently at a most inappropriate time the Trinity Project countdown and the Delano frequency crossed wires:

“The final countdown began at 5:10 a.m. with a crashing rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ Just as Bainbridge (a Manhattan Project scientist) gave the signal to Allison (another Manhattan Project scientist and the countdown announcer) in the control center, radio station KCBA in Delano, California, crossed wave lengths with the Trinity frequency."
....The National Anthem, (opening of Delano's morning show) provided stirring accompaniment for Allison as he intoned the announcement: ‘It is now zero minus twenty minutes.’"

Mostly I went to sleep to old crackly sounding WWII hits like, "Over There", "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", The Marine Corp theme song or big symphonic musical escapades like Tchaikovsky's Serenade For Strings. I must have had a lot of marching dreams back then.

Merle Haggard thank you for the music that could cut to the core, the attitude, the book (!), and the remembrances of growing up in Kern County. Here is a song you inspired. While reading your biography i was struck by the caption on the photo above and your "Look at that grin...." After reading the book I had a wild dream and your phrase made so much sense..Here's that song. Thank you Merle, turns out I liked you after all.

Article on Delano VOA radio station