Local News

Saturday, Jul 15 2006 11:44 PM

Haggard's ex-wife dies

BY STEVE E. SWENSON, Californian staff writere-mail: sswenson@bakersfield.com

She was not Merle Haggard's favorite wife, but she was his first and the mother of four of his six children.

Billie Leona Hobbs Witherspoon, 66, of Bakersfield, died on July 9 and had a funeral service on Friday at Valley Baptist Church.

She was a waitress in 1956 when she married Merle Haggard, an unknown singer who was more into crime than becoming a country legend.

The couple were married until 1964, the year before Haggard married Bonnie Owens, the ex-wife of Buck Owens, and a singing partner for Haggard.

Haggard would have six wives, biographies say.

In that eight-year stretch of the first marriage, Leona Hobbs as she was known at that time had four of Haggard's children -- Dana, Marty, Kelli and Noel.

Haggard spent more than three years in prison on a burglary conviction in 1957, according to several biographies.

He was drunk and was with two drunken friends when they tried to break into a restaurant they thought was closed -- because they thought it was 3 a.m. when it was actually 10:30 p.m. -- and although they ran away, he was caught the next day.

Haggard's relationship with his first wife was not always cordial.

In a recent interview, Haggard was quoted as saying about the woman who had disdain for his singing, "Any listing of famous battlefields should include my marriage to Leona Hobbs."

He had troubles with a couple of the children, including one who he said spread lies about him to get $25,000 from a tabloid, but he said in a recent interview that there appears to be mutual respect now.

Haggard has two other children from his current wife, Theresa Lane.

No one in Witherspoon's family could be reached for comment Saturday, but an obituary says she was the mother of six children, 15 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

She was described in the obituary as having a "giving and kind heart along with her contagious laughter and sense of humor that always left you wondering what would come next."

The obituary said she was born in McFarland.

Haggard, 69, rose to fame in the early 1960s and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

Among his famous songs were "Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskokee" and "My Favorite Memory."

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