The Holy Grail of Haggard Lore

BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor

Joe Saunders thought he was finished with production on his ambitious, years-in-the-making Bakersfield Sound documentary. But the documentary, it appears, was not finished with him.

For tucked away and long forgotten under a pile of memorabilia in the crowded garage of his pack-rat grandfather -- seminal Bakersfield Sound performer Billy Mize -- was an artifact of tremendous significance, not only to the music subgenre spawned in local barrooms decades ago but to the history of country music itself:

A rusted can containing a 16-millimeter film of what is believed to be the first television appearance by Merle Haggard.

"The can was rusted shut," said Saunders, 34, of Los Angeles. "I had to get a screwdriver to get it open. It was very exciting to find, but I had to step back into production. Very unexpected."

The black-and-white footage, from an early 1960s episode of a music show hosted by Mize, features a "young, nervous" Haggard and established country stars Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, as well as Al Brumley. Saunders believes the appearance was Haggard's first on television because of a reference Mize makes to that effect on the show.

"(Merle) looks like a hunk," Saunders said. "He looks great and sounds great. The beginning and end of it are a little weathered. It was not the best-kept film."

The documentary -- which features interviews with Haggard, Willie Nelson, Red Simpson and writer Gerald Haslam, among others -- is being edited now, and the filmmaker hopes it will be completed by the end of June.

The working title of the film is "Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound," and footage like the early Haggard performance should assure a broad audience among music lovers. But it is the part of the title that accounts for Saunders' commitment to the film, largely self-financed and made between his producing/directing jobs on feature films and commercials. Though Saunders grew up knowing his grandfather sang and played guitar, he had no idea how influential and successful Mize was.

"It seems so strange not having known that now. I kind of blame my mother," he joked.

But beyond its capacity for acquainting the filmmaker with his grandfather's legacy, the project has given a purpose and spark to Mize, who suffered a stroke years ago and has struggled to communicate since. In fact, Mize's quest to learn to sing again is chronicled in the film.

"I show him every cut," Saunders said. "He may be sick of watching it. I didn't anticipate what it would be like to watch it with him the first time. It wasn't all roses for him in his life.

"It was very emotional watching it with him. He said, 'It's good. It's sad but it's good.'"

As for when Bakersfield audiences can expect to see the film, Saunders said it's tough to pin down a timeline for small, independent films like his. He intends to submit it to festivals and is hoping a distributor takes an interest.

It is his wish that the film will have its premiere in Bakersfield, ideally at the Fox Theater, so that the surviving architects of the Bakersfield Sound can be celebrated, red-carpet style, as the VIPs they still are.

"One of the reasons I convinced myself I could do this is because I didn't grow up listening to country music or knowing this information about my grandfather," Saunders said. "But it allows me to come to this music with an outsider's perspective. I hope that perspective allows people from outside of country music to enjoy this documentary."