McDonald's book recalls friendship with Merle Haggard

Raymond McDonald, a Kansas native and a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, is giving people a backstage pass into the life of country music legend Merle Haggard in his new book, “Merle Haggard Was A Friend Of Mine.” 

McDonald, who lived in Holton and on the PBPN reservation between 2017 and 2018, recalls a lifetime of music and friendship with Haggard as his bus driver, assistant and lifelong friend in his 52-chapter book that also serves as part memoir of McDonald’s life so far.

“Music can bring people together and help heal wounds,” McDonald, now 71, said. “It is a therapy for the soul and a language with the potential to connect people who may not even understand its meaning. Music is a lot like love. The world might do well to make more music.”

McDonald was born in Kansas, but his family moved to California when he was young. He became friends with Buddy and Mike Owens, whose mother, Bonnie, had recently married Haggard.

When McDonald’s family moved from Oildale to Los Angeles in 1965, he stayed behind for his sophomore year of high school and lived with Haggard and Bonnie and Buddy and Mike.

In his book, McDonald recounts the day Merle received a wooden plaque from Billboard magazine for his first number one song, “The Fugitive.”

“Merle immediately grabbed a hammer and nail and began walking around his house, looking for a place to display his new award. His mood was cheerful, so we followed him into the living room, the bedrooms and finally the hallway where he suddenly stopped, deciding he’d found the perfect spot to hang the award for his first Number One song,” McDonald writes.

It wasn’t long before Bonnie and Haggard left for their first music tour in Fuzzy Owen’s Chrysler.

“I helped them pack up the wagon, and by the time we loaded a few amplifiers, Fuzzy’s steel guitar, Merle’s guitar and all their suitcases, we had filled every inch of the space,” McDonald said. “The vivid memory of the three of them in the front seat is forever burned into my mind. They were so happy.”

McDonald also recalls Haggard’s love of fishing and when he heard him sing “Mama Tried” for the first time.

“I was standing next to Bonnie, listening intently. When he finished his new song, we all looked at one another, stunned by the storyline and the beauty of the melody,” McDonald said. 

McDonald returned to L.A. after his sophomore year of high school, and after graduating from high school, he worked as a disc jockey at several radio stations.

During his overnight “graveyard shift” at a radio station owned by Buck Owens, Haggard surprised McDonald at 2 a.m. one time to see if he wanted to be the first DJ in the world to play Haggard’s new album, “Same Train, A Different Time,” on the air. 

“Of course,” McDonald said. “We played every song on all four sides of the album – all 25. We talked about his arrangements and the musicians who played on each recording.”

Later, McDonald worked as Haggard’s personal assistant/office manager and then drove the musician’s “Super Chief” bus, which was 14-feet tall, 45-feet long and 48,000 pounds. He drove buses for Haggard from 2009 until Haggard’s death in 2016.

(For more on this story, log in to your account, click on “E-Editions” and select the March 24, 2021 edition.)

The Holton Recorder

109 W. Fourth St.
Holton, KS 66436
Phone: 785-364-3141

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