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By Photo courtesy of Citizens Preserving History
BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor email@example.com
Don't expect a visit from the birthday boy -- he'll be in Las Vegas preparing to be fawned over by the biggest stars in country music -- but Merle Haggard's fans in Bakersfield and Oildale will hold a marathon celebration in his honor just the same.
On Sunday, the icon's 77th birthday, a plaque will be unveiled that commemorates the 2008 renaming of a stretch of road in his honor, at Bakersfield Harley-Davidson -- on Merle Haggard Drive, naturally.
Merle Haggard birthday celebrations on Sunday:
1 p.m.: Plaque unveiling dedicating Merle Haggard Drive, Bakersfield Harley Davidson, 35089 Merle Haggard Drive. Free.
3 to 6 p.m.: Cake, ice cream and music by the Bluetooth Cowboys and some of the original Bakersfield Sound musicians, the Kern County Museum, 3801 Chester Ave. Free.
8 p.m.: The 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, featuring country performers George Strait, Miranda Lambert and Garth Brooks honoring Haggard with the Crystal Milestone Award. CBS.
Information: CitizensPreservingHistory.org or 867-2511.
"(The plaque) is on a rock that came from out by the mouth of the canyon where Merle's old home was," said Glenda Rankin, who, with her sister, is spearheading an effort to move an even older Haggard home to the Kern County Museum.
"The rock was on his property, but now it's on Jim Nickel's ranch, so Jim donated the rock."
Haggard family members are expected to attend, including his sister, Lillian Haggard Rea, who has kept the plaque at her home for years, since the death of Tom Clark, the man who came up with the idea for the honor and helped raise money for its creation.
"After the 2008 dedication of the street, he took the plaque to Lillian's house and said she'd have to finish the project -- he had cancer," Rankin said. "She's had the plaque in her home all this time waiting."
The ceremony is free to attend, though Rankin and her sister, Dianne Sharman, are hoping to raise money for their effort to move Haggard's boyhood home to the museum.
In addition to selling hats emblazoned with the rallying cry "Save Hag's Boxcar" -- $20 at the event, or $25 at citizenspreservinghistory.com -- the sisters will offer raffle tickets for a guitar autographed by Haggard and a two-night stay for a family of four at the Rankin family's guest ranch.
Tickets are $20 each.
After the dedication, the public is invited to the Kern County Museum for part two of the party, complete with cake, ice cream and music, courtesy of the Bluetooth Cowboys and a Bakersfield Sound musician or two.
Fans who still haven't had their fill of Haggard can tune in to CBS at 8 p.m. Sunday for the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, which will honor Haggard with the Crystal Milestone Award, presented by Garth Brooks. George Strait and Miranda Lambert have signed on to perform Haggard hits like "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive."
The Kern County Museum Foundation agreed in October to accept the Haggard home, but not before $50,000 is raised for its restoration.
Rankin and Sharman hope to have enough money by June to move the structure, which currently consists of a converted boxcar and additional rooms built by Haggard's father, James, in the 1930s.
A dance in March raised $10,000, and there are plans for at least one other event -- a private fundraiser -- in May.
"We have another guitar that Merle signed that's pretty amazing," Rankin said. "It's a Fender guitar that has the Merle Haggard insignia Tuff Dog. It's in a nice case. Someone told us that with the signature, it should be worth $15,000 to $20,000."
The sisters met with Haggard -- for the first time -- before a March concert in Hanford, where he signed the guitars.
"We were apprehensive and were told that if we got five minutes with him, we'd be lucky. We were on the bus for close to 45 minutes. He talked and we gave him one of our hats. He kind of looked at it and said, 'Ooh, quality hat.' He put it on and he said, 'You girls want a job?'"
As it turns out, things ended up the other way around. Haggard's crew sold several of the boxcar hats on the women's behalf at the singer's Bakersfield concert last month. But more than the boost the hat sales provided, the sisters finally have acknowledgment that the man they're trying so hard to celebrate is on board with the plan.
"I said, 'Merle, we just want to honor you for all the recognition you've brought to our county,'" Rankin said. "And he said, 'Girls, this is not honoring me. This is honoring my father, who built the boxcar.' We thought that was pretty touching."