by Julian Spivey
If I were to ever carve out a Mount Rushmore of my all-time favorite musical artists Merle Haggard would definitely be one of the four faces to make the cut, along with Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash and then I’d probably have to spend a ton of money chiseling away and re-sculpting the fourth face depending on the day until I finally ran out of rock.
Haggard, this legendary figure who always seemed like he was just one of us, died on Wednesday, April 6 on what was his 79th birthday. His son, Ben, posted on social media that a week ago Haggard, who’d been fighting complications of pneumonia for months, predicted he would pass on his birthday.
Merle Haggard was recently voted the most influential artist among a panel of more than 100 living country artists and yet he still feels sorely underrated to me. I guess that’s because he was the “poet of the common man.” He’s the greatest country songwriter to ever live, in my opinion, but I believe his matter of fact, simplistic way of lyrical honesty has kept some from seeing his realistic perfection. If people were wanting their songwriters to be William Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald, Haggard was John Steinbeck. He wrote things the way they really were for most people, not just the upper class of society. Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce wrote on Wednesday (April 6) that “Merle Haggard never sang a dishonest syllable in his life.” He’s absolutely correct, but how many other artists can you truly say something that incredible about?
Haggard always wanted to be known as a writer, even more than as a singer, which I both really identify with and find amazing, because for my money nobody has ever had a greater country voice (not even George Jones, who many give that honor to).
I don’t know how to eulogize Haggard because he meant so much to me as a music fan that I wouldn’t quite know where to either begin or end, so what I’m going to do is just write and it may not come out as a succinct piece. It may become multiple pieces rolled into one, but hopefully you’ll understand and even enjoy.
Introduction to Hag
Johnny Cash was my first foray into classic country music around the beginning of the millennium when I was in my early teens, but Haggard was soon to follow. There was a local radio station DJ in Mountain Home, Ark. where I grew up that would play a lot of Haggard in the mornings while we drove into town to go to school from a small community a half hour away. I swear this DJ played a Haggard tune every morning. “Mama Tried” was the song I remember being played the most and it instantly became a favorite and is still and will likely always be my favorite Haggard song. I wish I remembered this DJ’s name because I really owe him a debt of gratitude for introducing me to one of my Mount Rushmore musical figures.
Being a Johnny Cash fan I had purchased and wore a shirt that was popular around the time of his death that was pitch black with ‘Cash’ written in white lettering. I decided I needed a ‘Haggard’ shirt and had one made at a local shirt shop that was modeled exactly like the ‘Cash’ shirt. I used to wear that shirt all the time in high school. At one point I was probably wearing it on a weekly basis. I’d also get questions about it all of the time from classmates and teachers. Some of the more misfit students at the school thought the shirt was really cool, because they assumed it was in reference to a film titled “Haggard” that was released around the time that starred some of the crew from the popular MTV series “Jackass.” I explained to them that the shirt was in reference to Merle Haggard, one of the greatest country singers that ever lived. They had never heard of him. I was the real misfit, after all.
The shirt was so important to me that I wore it in the first photo I ever took with my now wife, who was my high school sweetheart at the time 10 years ago. It’s a photo I cherish even more at the moment. I’m glad Merle will always be a little part of that.
Seeing Him Live
I’ve had the honor and true pleasure of seeing Merle Haggard perform live three times, each one of them something I’ll always remember and treasure.
The first performance was truly something unusual. I’ll never forget driving to my now wife, then girlfriend’s house in Mountain Home one day during summer break from college and hearing on the local radio station – probably the same one that had introduced to Haggard years before – that he was going to be playing a show in Melbourne, Ark. I couldn’t believe it because Melbourne is a town of fewer than 2,000 people and music legends don’t play towns of fewer than 2,000 people. Not just that, but Haggard wasn’t even going to be playing at a venue … no he was going to be performing in the middle of a cow pasture. It turns out he had a buddy who owned that farm and the buddy had suffered damage from a recent tornado and Haggard was doing the show as a benefit concert to help out. It had to be the hottest day of the summer and would’ve been a truly miserable experience if not for Haggard performing. I’ve been to a lot of outdoor concerts, but never one that uncomfortable. Haggard performed for about an hour, which seemed slightly unusual at the time, but we’d soon find out that he wasn’t doing so well health-wise and would be diagnosed soon with lung cancer. Haggard would beat the cancer and be back out on the road soon.
It would be about five years before I’d see Haggard again and damn if he wasn’t feeling the best this time too. My now wife, then girlfriend Aprille and I went to see Haggard at the Robinson Center in Little Rock on April 2, 2014, which happened to be Aprille’s 26th birthday. You know you’ve found the right one in life when she’s willing to see Haggard with you on her birthday. He was under the weather the entire night, which made it a little hard on him to perform, but he made it through in good humor performing his greatest hits for the packed audience including “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
The third time I saw Merle Haggard was probably his shortest set, as it was at last year’s Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July festival in Austin, Texas where around 20 terrific acts performed for a packed crowd under a sweltering Texas sun over the span of 14 hours, but it may have been my favorite time seeing him. I didn’t realize this at the time, but it’d be my last chance to see one of my heroes. It was probably my favorite time seeing Haggard, because not only did I get to see one hero, but he also performed with his good buddy and another hero of mine Willie Nelson. Seeing Haggard and Nelson perform their hit version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” was truly a bucket list musical moment for me that I’ll never forget.
Before Haggard’s set that night there was a massive delay of probably one hour, which seemed to annoy the bulk of the audience. Nobody ever knew the reason for this delay, but I’d like to think it was caused by buddies Haggard, Nelson and Kris Kristofferson somewhere back stage playing poker, smoking pot and completely losing track of the time and schedule.
Seeing Haggard perform live three times is something I’ll never forget and will treasure for the rest of my life. It’s country music royalty right before your eyes and something I’ll be able to rave about in front of friends and family and maybe future kids for as long as I live.
Sense of Humor
One of my favorite things about Haggard, even though he often seemed super-serious and was about his music, was he had a great sense of humor and this came through perfectly in one of his favorite jokes where he was set to introduce his supremely talented backing group The Strangers to the audience and then his band would shake hands with one another like that had never met before.
Haggard was also quite the talented impressionist when it came to his country music buddies, which he showed off to great laughs on “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” sometime in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s by mimicking Buck Owens and Johnny Cash right in front of them. It’s not just one of my favorite Haggard videos, but one of my all-time favorite videos period.
Sit & Watch The Train (Merle Haggard's Died)
by Julian Spivey
I'm gonna walk down through the rain
And sit and watch the train
Passing by in all its glory and remember a bygone day
Then I'll sit and cry because Merle Haggard's died
Singing fightin' side & mama tried and sing me back home again
I think I'll just sit here and drink
Because the world won't be the same
Troubadours are leaving, replaced by tired cliches
And country music's gone, I'll sing a sad song
Everybody has the blues cause
Merle's walked out those swinging doors
My favorite memory involves Pancho and Lefty
Singing songs in Austin, Texas that Fourth of July
Now I think I'll cry as this lonesome train passes by
But someday when things are good I'll see him sing again on high