Multi-instrumentalist Don Markham, a longtime member of Merle Haggard's band the Strangers and good friend of the country icon, has died. The musician passed away on Friday (Feb. 24) in Oildale, Calif.; he was 85 years old.

Markham began his musical career as a pop and jazz musician. However, when Bakersfield, Calif. -- his home scene -- started becoming a popular spot for country music, Markham began working in the genre.

“It seemed like, in Bakersfield, not a lot was going on with what I played in pop and jazz," Markham recalled in 2012 (quote via "The country people were so much nicer and appreciative of you playing for them than other kinds of music that I just fell in love with it.”

Markham worked with a number of the big country names connected to the "Bakersfield sound," remaining a member of the Strangers from 1974 until 2013, when he retired. Markham first joined the Strangers, though, through luck: He was playing in Johnny Paycheck's band when, while out on the road, both Paycheck's bus and Haggard's bus wound up at the same New Mexico truck stop.

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Markham wasn't thrilled with his gig with Paycheck -- Norm Hamlet, the Strangers' steel guitarist, recalls Markham telling Haggard, "These guys are fighting all the time, and it’s driving me crazy," referring to Paycheck's brothers-turned-band members -- so he approached Haggard and asked him for a job. When Haggard agreed, Markham left the truck stop with the artist and his band.

"Don joined us right then and there," Hamlet remembers. "We didn’t have horns at the time, didn’t even have a piano, I don’t think — it was just guitars — so he was a good addition.”

Markham chose to retire in 2013 due to the loss of some of his teeth and his generally declining health. Still, he and Haggard kept in touch and remained close until Haggard's death in 2016.

“When he left, I’ll never forget, we stopped somewhere, I was in my bunk — you can’t hide what’s going on on that bus — and Merle, [his wife] Theresa and Don were up front," Haggard's longtime bus driver and friend Ray McDonald recounts. "Merle said, ‘Don, I think it’s time for you to go home.’ And so Don said, ‘Good. Now I can draw unemployment.’ Theresa cried.”

Markham was preceded in death by his wife Wanda, his daughter Kathleen and his grandson Anthony; his daughters Marilyn and Carla and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren survive him. No cause of death has been reported. His funeral is set to take place on March 7 in Bakersfield.

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