Newton County, Arkansas, has a seemingly unlikely connection with the country music genre known as the Bakersfield Sound — a style of country music that came from the California city from which it was named. At least three musicians (and the third we’ll get to in a future post) was either born in the northern Arkansas county of about 8,000 residents or had parents from there. It all appears to be coincidental.
One notable example, which made its rounds in Arkansas when Merle Haggard passed away in 2016, is the song “Grandma Harp,” which appeared on his 1973 album, Let Me Tell You About a Song. The song gives a shout out to Newton County as it pays tribute to
his maternal grandmother, whose full name was Martha Frances Arizona Bell Villines Harp, and was born in 1869 in Beechwood, located in Buffalo River Country near Ponca. (If you read the previous Echoes of the Ozarks’ blog post, then you’ll know this area was the same stomping grounds of Bob Morris, a songwriter and musician closely associated with Buck Owens, also famous for the Bakersfield Sound.)
Keeping it local, just a few miles up north in Harrison (Boone County) is the birthplace of Haggard’s grandfather, John Bohannon Harp, and years later, his mother, Flossie Mae Harp Haggard, among the immediate family members who migrated to California during the Great Depression and buried in the same cemetery in Bakersfield.
But what about the Haggard family line? There’s at least one Arkansas connection as well: Rose Etta Haggard, a Fort Smith native who is buried in Bluff Cemetery in Springdale. This is Merle’s grandmother — the mother of James Francis Haggard, husband to Flossie, who moved the family to California after living Checotah, Oklahoma, in the 1930s. Rose Etta was one of the family members who stayed behind, though her son is a prominent figure in Merle’s life story. James was the one who raised his family in a repurposed boxcar in Oildale, California and formed a close bond to young Merle. Sadly, James died June 19, 1946, following a stroke when Merle was only 9 years old.
One June 20, 1946, just a day after James died unexpectedly of a stroke, the Haggard family suffered a second loss when James’ mother, Rose Etta, died at the Fayetteville City Hospital. It’s not clear what she died from or if it was related to the news of James’ passing. Her obituary in the Northwest Arkansas Times noted she was brought to Fayetteville via ambulance from Ozark, presumably to be near two of her children — an uncle and aunt to Merle — living in Springdale. The Northwest Arkansas Times obituary doesn’t list James as a survivor but the Arkansas Gazette does. (For those really interested, an uncle of Merle’s, Walter Haggard, is buried in Friendship Cemetery in Springdale.)
It’s apparent that distance kept Merle and Grandma Rose (or “Rosie” as the obituaries list her) from a close relationship, probably wedged wider after the passing of James. It wasn’t long afterward that Merle began having brushes with the law, eventually going to San Quentin when he was a young man before turning his life around and becoming one of the stars of the Bakersfield Sound with songs like “Okie from Muskogee” and “Mama Tried.”
Did Haggard ever visit Newton County? There are accounts of him performing in Northwest Arkansas at least a couple of times in his career.
And given that Bob Morris toured with Merle in the late 1960s (as well as performed on some of his recordings), there’s a real possibility the two might have spun a yarn or two about Newton County over coffee and cigarettes.
Information for this article came from (in no particular order):
The Bakersfield Californian, June 21, 1946, James Francis Haggard obituary, p. 11; Lillian Haggard Rea: Out of Her Brother’s Shadow, January 24, 2015, accessed online July 29, 2018, at https://www.bakersfield.com/news/lillian-haggard-rea-out-of-her-brother-s-shadow/article_933fec54-24e9-5489-8b46-f1af7ac4b6a4.html
Arkansas Gazette, June 22, 1946, “Mrs. Rosie Etta Haggard dies at Fayetteville.”
Northwest Arkansas Times, June 24, 1946, “Mrs. Rosie Haggard” obituary.
Oklahoma Historical Society, Haggard, Merle Ronald (1937-2016), http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=HA059, accessed July 29, 2018.
Find a Grave website:
James Francis Haggard: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/39842658/james-francis-haggard, accessed July 29, 2018.
Rose Etta Hunger Haggard: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/27788641/rose-etta-haggard, accessed July 29, 2018.
Martha Francis Arizona Belle Villines Harp: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/39444165/martha-frances_arizona_belle-harp, accessed July 29, 2018.
Walter A. Haggard: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/6554655/walter-a-haggard, accessed July 29, 2018.
Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Newton County, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?search=1&entryID=364, accessed July 29, 2018.