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Before Merle Haggard hit it big, he followed his heart to Fairbanks

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published April 9, 2016

FAIRBANKS -- A half-century ago, when pronouncements about the need to rehabilitate Second Avenue had started to appear, one bar in the busiest two-block section of downtown Fairbanks became an important site in the love life and career of the late Merle Haggard. It's a tale with more twists and broken relationships than any country song.

This happened to Haggard, who died last week at 79, five years after he left San Quentin and four years before "Okie from Muskogee" became the country music single of the year.

In the mid-1960s, Fairbanks had a string of pleasure palaces downtown in creaky buildings with sawdust insulation that would have been candidates for condemnation elsewhere in America.

"The trend seems to be that general merchandise and service businesses are moving from the core and are being replaced by bars," Jessen's Weekly editorialized in 1966. "Here and there, one finds a number of bars in a row."

Though it is now a sedate street on which only the lights of the Mecca remain, in 1965 there was a lot of competition on those two blocks: The Persian Room, the Crystal Room Tavern, the Fairbanks Bar, the Chena Bar, the Riverside Bar, the Cellar Bar, the Flame Lounge, the Cottage Bar, the Savoy Bar, the Elbow Room, the Redwood Bar, the Leprechaun Room and the Silver Dollar Bar.

Writing of the Silver Dollar as it existed in the 1950s, newspaperman Jack DeYonge said it seemed to him a "stinking, smoke-filled saloon where bartenders swung baseball bats to break up fights between patrons seeking a hooker's favor."

A decade later, the Silver Dollar, which occupied a spot now given over to the Springhill Suites Hotel, tried to lure "G.I. guys and gals" with live music and a mix of local and visiting players. Every Sunday afternoon there was a jam session and the first 100 military members with ID would get a free beer.

The headline act at the Silver Dollar in the late winter and spring of 1965 was Bonnie Owens, the 36-year-old ex-wife of country singer Buck Owens. Buck went by that instead of the one his parents gave him, "Alvis." Owens would reach his zenith on the TV show "Hee Haw" and, along with Haggard, he put Bakersfield on the country music map.

After she split up with Buck, Bonnie began going out with a steel guitar player named Fuzzy Owen, no relation to Buck. They played music together for years and he became a manager and mentor. It was Fuzzy who suggested that Bonnie record with Haggard in 1964, Deke Dickerson wrote in the liner notes for a boxed set of the recordings of Bonnie Owens.

"Merle Haggard and Bonnie hit it off right away. They weren't romantically interested in each other, at least not at first — Bonnie was still Fuzzy's girl, and Merle was still married to his first wife (the first of two named Leona). But there was no denying that when Merle and Bonnie sang together, the result was something magic," Dickerson wrote.

In early 1965, Bonnie decided she needed some time away from Fuzzy and Merle.

"She thought that I had the hots for her and she thought that Fuzzy was cheating on her" is the way Haggard summed it up in one of his "as-told-to" autobiographies. "So she took a job in Alaska and said good-bye to both of us. She was gone for months."

With Bonnie playing the Silver Dollar in Fairbanks, Haggard called to ask if she could get him a job playing with her, claiming he wanted to promote his records in Alaska. She didn't believe him.

"She told me not to bother coming at all," he wrote.

Dickerson said Haggard "went back to Fuzzy and borrowed money, not mentioning that he was going to use it to fly to Fairbanks and try to steal his girlfriend. When Merle called Bonnie a second time, she told him not to come to Alaska if he had romance on his mind, but Merle was already in Seattle waiting on a connecting flight."

She met him at the Fairbanks airport and arranged to add Haggard to the bill at the Silver Dollar. She told him that it was going to be a platonic relationship, but he had other ideas.

"After Merle came to her room at three in the morning and announced his undying love, Bonnie finally gave in and agreed that they had something special that couldn't be ignored," Dickerson said.

They agreed to get married, but not in Fairbanks. It fell to Haggard to call Fuzzy in Bakersfield and let him know.

"As I hung up the phone I knew it would take one hell of a big man to be able to go on working as a team with us. Fuzzy was one hell of a big man," Haggard wrote.

One of the songs they played at the Silver Dollar was "Just Between the Two of Us," their first recording together.

Bonnie and Haggard married that summer in Mexico.

"Merle's career took off this point, but Bonnie's didn't have a chance," David Cantwell writes in "Merle Haggard: The Running Kind." Her harmonies became a "defining and beloved part of Haggard's sound."

When he thought of a lyric, she would often be the one to write it down. She is listed as a co-author on "Today I Started Loving You Again" because she convinced him to cut four lines that didn't fit. In 1970, he was Entertainer of the Year.

"There was a time, probably about the first three years we were married, that I was number one in Merle's life. The rest of the time there may have been about 15 others who were ahead of me," she once said.

Bonnie and Haggard divorced in 1978 but she kept touring with him through the 1980s. She was a bridesmaid at his third marriage. She also remained friends with her other ex-husband, Buck Owens. She died in 2006 at 76, a month after Buck Owens.

"She was the queen of the barroom singers," Haggard once said of Bonnie. "She may never have made it to superstardom, or become a household name, but you put Bonnie in a smoky club and there was just nobody better."

Something Haggard told a New York Times reporter in 1993 seems apt here: "There's the guy I'd love to be and the guy I am. I'm somewhere in between, in deep water, you know, swimming to the other shore."

Dermot Cole is a Fairbanks columnist for the Alaska Dispatch News and the author of five books about Alaska. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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