BY ROBERT PRICE email@example.com
PALO CEDRO — Kings aren’t typically laid to rest this humbly.
Neither gilded carriages nor bolt-upright sentries were anywhere in sight at Merle Haggard’s funeral Saturday at his ranch in Shasta County.
There was just a stage fronted with huge bouquets, a clover pasture lined with 15 rows of plastic folding chairs and a gray overcast. Haggard’s beloved tour bus, the Silver Chief, served as a windbreak against an intermittent westerly breeze.
It all seemed right.
With Haggard’s friend Marty Stuart acting as officiant/emcee, friends and kin of the Bakersfield-born legend sang him back home in a parting cascade of affection.
Haggard, who died Wednesday at age 79, leaves behind a vault of resilient pride and tender poetry.
The original, surviving Strangers, the band that helped Haggard achieve a remarkable succession of chart-topping records, were well represented: manager/bus driver/steel guitarist Fuzzy Owen, in his ever-present trucker’s ball cap, trumpet/saxophone player Don Markham, drummer Biff Adam, and, on stage with more current Strangers, steel player Norm Hamlet. Guitarist Roy Nichols and singer Bonnie Owens, years gone, were acknowledged as well.
A recording of Lefty Frizzell’s “I Love You a Thousands Ways” called the modest proceedings to order.
Among the performances: Stuart's wife, Connie Smith, sang “Precious Memories,” former Stranger Ronnie Reno sang “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” and Stuart and Smith paired for Haggard’s “Silver Wings.”
Songwriter Kris Kristofferson sang three songs, including what was perhaps the afternoon’s most poignant moment, his first song, “For a Moment of Forever.”
His scratchy, almost guttural voice sang of love’s lasting power, even after loss.
“Sometimes when you’re crying, you’re happy.
Sometimes you’re just crying. I know, I know.
Come whatever happens now, ain’t it nice to know that dreams still come true.
I’m so glad I was close to you...for a moment of forever.”
Kristofferson followed that with Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” and its melancholy was shattered when wind swept away the papers with Merle’s lyrics. Kristofferson smiled broadly, a somber moment set free.
Merle’d done that on purpose, Stuart joked afterward.
Kristofferson was then joined by Willie Nelson’s son Micah for “Pancho and Lefty."
Haggard’s three sons, Marty, Noel (on vocals) and Ben (on Telecaster), closed the service with a playful rendition of “Today I Started Loving You Again.”
It was hard to see how anyone at Haggard’s service Saturday could possibly have ever stopped.