Don Markham, Longtime Merle Haggard Band Member, Dead at Age 85

With country legend's band since 1974, Markham played sax on "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" and other hits

Don Markham, longtime horn player in Merle Haggard's band, the Strangers, and one of the iconic entertainer's closest friends, died Friday, February 24th of undisclosed causes in Oildale, California. Markham's declining health led to his retirement in 2013, and he spent his remaining days in the same mobile home in which he had resided for some 50 years, with Haggard making regular visits until his death last April. Markham was 85.

Haggard's son Ben shared a candid photo and appreciation of Markham on Instagram, saying, "If you don't recognize him by his face, I guarantee you will recognize him by his sound."

Markham, who played on nearly every Haggard recording from 1974 on, played saxophone and trumpet. He had a jazz and pop background, previously performing with Sly & the Family Stone and the Ventures, as well as the Buck Owens-founded Bakersfield Brass. He spent six years as trumpet player at Bakersfield's legendary cub, the Blackboard. He first joined the Strangers while touring with Johnny Paycheck.

In a 2004 interview with Rolling Stone, the Country Music Hall of Famer recalled a conversation with Markham on the subject of their mortality, after the death of a mutual friend.

"Don said, 'You know, we're gonna be doing that in the next few years,'" Haggard recalled. "I thought about that all night, Don. I thought you could have said the next few hours and probably been right."

"Doin' what?" Markham replied. "I don't remember what I said."

"Dyin'!" Merle shouted. "Everybody's doin' it!"

Markham was preceded in death by his wife, Wanda, daughter Kathleen and grandson Anthony. He is survived by daughters Marilyn and Carla and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Funeral services are scheduled for March 7th at Kern River Family Mortuary in Bakersfield.