My sons, D. and Langdon, and I eat lunch together every Wednesday at a favorite haunt of ours. That’s where we were today when we got the word about Merle. We sat and talked another hour or more, relating stories, remembering favorite songs and paying homage to the most imitated voice the country music industry has ever known.
First time I met Merle – late ’65 or early ’66. We had been hearing this new guy from the west coast and everybody in Nashville was talking about what a terrific singer he was. He had had one hit, “Strangers” and so had we, “Flowers”. We all wound up on a package show at the Great Lakes Naval Base outside of Chicago. Johnny Cash, June Carter, Merle and Bonnie and the Statlers. That afternoon before the show, we all had dinner on the ship and as we were sitting at the table talking, Merle told us, the Statlers, that the first time he ever saw John perform was in San Quentin a few years earlier. One of us asked, “Were you there opening the show?” and he answered, “No. I was there sitting on the front row.” That’s how open and honest he was about his past. And he brought all that honesty and soul to his songwriting and his singing.
We bumped into one another constantly for the next nearly one half century. Countless awards shows that we did together. Dropping in on him when he was working Vegas and catching his stage show. He told us one night backstage after he had just knocked ‘em dead at a concert, that we made him nervous when we were in the audience. Can you imagine? What a nice compliment but Merle Haggard had no reason to be nervous with anyone when it came to singing.
We hosted a 90-minute Christmas TV special in 1985. Our guests were Roger Miller, Crystal Gale, Gene Autry and, of course, Merle. He sang “White Christmas” while holding his little Chihuahua on his lap. But the moment that is frozen in my memory is when we sat down to talk with him on camera and asked him to share with us one of his most memorable holiday memories and he started the story with, “In 1956 I woke up in a jail cell naked on Christmas Eve.”
That’s a story and a man you don’t easily forget. Everything he did, he made it real and straight-from-the-shoulder and straight-from-the-heart.
He was a guest on our TV variety show in the 90s. He was told we wanted him to do two songs and he asked which ones we wanted him to do. I sent back the message for him to do one of his choice and if he could, make the second one “Leonard”. That song, if you’ve never heard it, is Haggard writing at its best. It’s about Tommy Collins, an old country star from the 50s and every word of it is true. Add that to how well it is written and performed and you’ve got one of the best country records ever. Well, come the day of the show, he and his band worked on “Leonard” for over an hour and couldn’t make it come together. Most of his band had never played it before and Merle hadn’t sung it in 15 years and didn’t remember all the words. We told him to let it go, that it wasn’t that important and he said, “But that’s what you guys want and I want to do it for you.”
Sadly, “Leonard” never made it to the air on that show, but look it up and play it tonight. I just sat here at my desk and listened to it and it brought chills and tears like it always does.
The last time I saw Merle was just a few years ago. He played Charlottesville, which is less than an hour over the mountain from us. Harold and I went over and sat on the bus and visited with him a while. He went out and sang all the hits he could fit into an hour and a half and we stood and cheered with everyone else like the fans we have always been.
Just say to any country music fan, “George or Merle?” and you will get a quick answer. I don’t know who will win in the end, but there is no shame in coming in second to either one of them.
I wrote a song the Statlers recorded called “Same Way Everytime”. It was a commentary on modern country music and one of the lines in it is – “Half of them sound like George and the other half sound like Merle”.
Starting today, now I’m going to miss both halves.
DSR – 4/6/16 11:15 pm
Trackback from your site.