By Chris Mosser
Wednesday, April 6, 2016 was one of those days when something almost imperceptible, but somehow unmistakably palpable, changed. A dramatic shift in … everything.
As shattering as it was, the news that Merle Haggard had passed at 79 — on his 79th birthday no less, as he himself had predicted — was not a surprise. Next weekend’s Willie Nelson shows at Whitewater Amphitheater had originally been booked with Haggard, and his cancellation of those dates (along with others this year, on top of his hospitalization back in December for double pneumonia) made it clear something was amiss with the legend’s health. But in the wake of his death, the thought of what could have been — one last chance to see Willie and Merle, literally the “Last of the Breed,” converge — now gapes like a crater as I write this. But it’s a crater which is already filling with a monumental outpouring of sadness, love, respect from all corners. And sooner rather than later, a flood of joyous celebrations of the man’s music and legacy will help fill that Haggard-sized hole in our hearts, too — wait and see.
Merle Haggard, for any lifelong fan or follower of the genre, was country music in as real a sense as any similar argument for Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, or any of the other towering greats of the golden age. For these fans, there’s always been Merle, and his passing feels like the loss of a beloved grandfather. For fans of Texas music who came to the party via folks like Robert Earl Keen, or maybe Pat Green, or maybe even Stevie Ray Vaughan, the impact might be a bit more indirect, personally — an enviable position in a way, much like that of someone who came across Townes Van Zandt when that giant’s surprising demise reverberated across the landscape in 1997. For the relative newcomer to his music, the breadth and depth of Haggard’s body of work will take many happy years to fully absorb.
Still, whether you realized it or not, the music of Merle Haggard is as vital a base influence for our music as Willie, or Waylon, or Townes, or anyone else in terms of both style and technicality. As such, I set about collecting the thoughts and impressions of as many of our keystone artists on the Texas Country and Red Dirt music scene as I could over a 48-hour period; I wanted to know, What Does Merle Mean to You? As a person who has always tried to maintain a certain journalistic detachment in my work — difficult, mind you, considering the wonderful people and music I deal in — I was unprepared for the degree of genuine grief I encountered in many of these brief conversations. I found myself a little embarrassed as I realized that some of my calls were intruding upon a scenario of true, profound, very personal loss. At the same time, as you’ll read, what Merle Haggard brought to life was of such beautiful magnitude that it manages to bring happiness and even laughter into its own ending. The impact of this man and his music upon our little corner of the world cannot be overstated, nor can the devastation of his passing. It’s now on us to refocus this heartbreak into inspiration — just as Merle would have himself.
My first show with Merle was right there at Stubb’s in Austin. He was such a bright shining light for all of us that are in the country music business. Fantastic songwriter, amazing guitar player, prettiest voice … it’s difficult to put your finger on one thing that he wasn’t the best at. He was the best at all of it. The first Merle record I had was Big City, and that’s also the first song of his I ever played. I literally just played it three days ago at a show with Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen there in Austin. I don’t know of anybody in country music that didn’t think of Merle as a true legend.
I don’t think I’ve ever been this devastated since … it’s been a long time. I lost Tom Skinner about a year ago. Poetic ending though; [Merle] went out the day he came in. He told his son he was gonna die on his birthday, and god dammit, he did it. Merle Haggard was the third voice that I heard in my life: my mom, my dad, and then Merle. My dad drug me around to his concerts, and I had several opportunities to open for him. One day I was invited to come and have a smoke with him on his bus, but I had my kids, and I didn’t want to drop ’em off at the babysitter’s. Later that night I got to hang out with him and he said, “You’re the boy who turned down smoking with me tonight.” And I said, “Yes sir.” And he slapped me on the stomach and said, “You’re a good Daddy.” And I said, “Well, I learned from a good dad, my dad, he taught me your music and I’m teaching it to my kids, and I’ll never forget you saying that.” And then he invited me to duck through the Gruene Hall “Willie door” with him as he went onstage. That’s where I’m at right now, at Gruene Hall with Randy Rogers and my wife and kids. He’s the reason I write, he’s the reason I started doing this. He’s the reason I realized as a young age that you could write songs just by being honest, just unzip your soul to people, and that’s it.
I had the opportunity to open for Merle several times, and he was nice enough to have me on the bus and sign my guitar. I’ve got a “Hag” tattoo on my arm, and I sent a picture to Willie’s road manager, and he showed it to Merle, and Merle’s quote was, “Kids these days.” You know, it’s a sad day obviously; he was one of my biggest heroes. I did have the opportunity to get to know him a little bit and spend time with him, so … I’m definitely mourning the loss of Merle. I’ve listened to the Hag since I was a kid. Every night on our tour bus, you’ll hear Merle songs after the show, and before the show, you can ask anybody who’s ever been on the bus or any of the guys in the band, I play Merle Haggard more than any other artist. His influence on me is wide-ranging.
RAY WYLIE HUBBARD
You know the thing about Merle, he was known as a “country artist,” but as far as songwriting, there’s kinda Merle, and then there’s everybody else. When you mention songwriting, he’s gonna be in the top five. Dylan, Gershwin, Willie, Townes … he’s there. His legacy is unblemished and unequaled as far as songwriting goes. And of course, being an entertainer … he wrote from a place that only the true poet knows. He wrote from a place that very few are aware of.
I opened for Merle up in Washington state, doing a solo thing; we were out there, Judy was doing merch, we were doing the family thing, Lucas was 5, sleepin’ in a t-shirt box. Judy and Merle’s old road guys hit it off, old school guys, and she told them, “Ray’s kind of nervous about playing solo in front of Merle’s crowd ….” You know, doing “Redneck Mother,” which was kind of an answer to “Okie From Muskogee,” so kind of weird to do that, especially solo. So the guy came back later and said, “I told Merle about that thing with Ray, and Merle said, ‘get out there and sing the hell out of it!'” You know, somebody was bound to write an answer to that song, and he was glad it was me. That was really cool. So I went out there, and his crowd was very, very gracious, it wasn’t wild and rowdy. They were very aware of the power of his lyrics. There was Merle, and there are very few other ones that you can mention who have that capacity to reach in and tear out your heart, and also make you believe. There isn’t gonna be another one like him.
The whole thing starts with Merle Haggard. When I picked up the guitar when I was near the end of college around 1998, I went and bought two books: Guitar for Dummies, and a Merle Haggard song book, with all the chords and everything in it. And I sat with blisters on my fingers and tried to learn and play every single Merle Haggard song that I could. You know, it goes back to the songwriter. The person. I’ve read his autobiography, and I’ve been able to open for him. One of my greatest memories was, my grandmother just thought the Hag was it. And her favorite song was “Silver Wings.” And I had a chance to open for Merle out in Lubbock, at the amphitheater out there, and I remember calling her from the side of the stage so she could hear him sing it. That’s part of what I’ve spent the day reflecting on really, since I got the news. So, it’s the things his songs remind me of and the people they remind me of. Today I’m thinking about Merle and his family and man, I bet there are thousands dustin’ off guitars right now and singing a song in tribute to Merle. There’ll never be another like him.
Well, the main influence he had on me and my life … I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing today if it wasn’t for Merle Haggard. Especially songwriting, especially the early days. I was a huge, huge Merle fan. I cut my teeth on it — my dad’s house, there wasn’t any of that long-haired hippie music allowed. It was Haggard and Jones, all the way. Buck Owens. Grew up watchin’ them on Hee Haw and all that stuff on TV, just grew up with ’em. It changed the path of my life. How could I even say where I’d be if I’d never heard “Mama Tried”? My favorite song on the planet is his version of “That’s The Way Love Goes.” I’ve been around him many, many times, and he was one of those people that I was in such awe of that … even just this last summer at Whitewater, he’s standing right there, and I didn’t have the balls to go up and talk to him. It’s like, that’s Merle Haggard right there! Many instances like that where … there are very few people in life that I’m around and I’m like, giddy. But Merle was one of ’em. Sad day. Everybody kinda saw it coming, the cancelled dates and stuff lately. All the heroes are dying. Buck Owens, George Jones, right there’s the final trifecta for me. Willie’s the last one standing.
The first time I played at the Ryman was opening for him, and it was solo, and so, I don’t even think I ever got to say hello. Maybe I did but I was so starstruck at that moment, it was really one of the magical nights of my career, and then to get to hear him at the Ryman … And whenever Kelly would open for him, Bonnie (Owens) was a big fan of Kelly’s, and she’d get Kelly out to sing harmony, you know, she had her own space back there. So those are really amazing memories, those kind of surreal, pinch-me kinda things.
I was thinking about what Merle means as a songwriter — I think there’s a short list of people who are the reason that so many of us care so much about country music. You know, I mean, there’s something that happens where you identify with it so much, and you love it so much, and I just think that’s a real short list of people like Loretta and Willie and Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard — there’s so many people that you like their songs, but those are those few people that just make you care so much about country music. So I think that Hag as a singer-songwriter within country music, I put him up there with Willie and Hank Williams Sr. And to me, it’s just kind of an argument between those three. And as far as a singer-songwriter, I can’t put anybody else in that group. And then you just have beers and argue. You can’t get any smaller company than that to me.
The news is a shock, but then you think about the music, and it just makes you happy! It’s almost like an excuse to go drink whiskey and listen to Hag on the turntable. I hope he would like that. I like to read about back when at the beginning of making country records, how people looked down on it. You know, they had opera records, and then this hillbilly music. And I think that Hag elevated it as an art form. I think he looked at it as poetry, and the way that the stuff that he left, all the rest of us look at it as poetry, and I’m just not sure how much you can say that before him — even the stuff that we all adore.
Watch Bruce Robison’s Merle Haggard tribute: “Today I Started Loving You Again” on Vimeo
Growing up where I did, in Bandera, with my grandparents and stuff, he was one of those guys who … let’s say, when I was younger, I didn’t get Willie as much. I loved him but … there was something a little different about Merle. One thing Haggard was, he was just so freakin’ good looking, you know? And these days, you can say “man crush” or whatever, but back then I didn’t realize I had a man crush on this guy. I’d watch him on Hee Haw or whatever, and I’d just be like, god damn! And you know, he did “Mama Tried,” where you knew he was poor, but then you get the whole convict thing. Everybody else would have covered that up. And I always thought it was totally cool that Merle was like, “I’m not only not gonna cover that up, but I’m gonna embrace that. And I’m going to write songs about these guys who are getting out right now, and tell the story of, hey man, I’m a convict too, so they’re not so bad.” It was almost protest stuff and I think a lot of people miss that. It goes over most people’s heads — embracing who he was, unapologetically and continuing with, “I’d like to settle down but they won’t let me, and I won’t leave these guys out in the cold.” It could’ve been, “I’m a fuckin’ star now, and that’s a chapter of my life I’d rather be closed,” but he totally wrote about it, and the guys who would be coming out — almost like the guys in Vietnam where hey, there’s veterans who would be coming home.
You knew everything about Willie — the pot, the bankruptcies — and the same about Waylon and Cash. But with Merle it was the Cool Hand Luke thing; I never knew that much about the guy. I played with him probably 20 times, hung out with him and stuff, but never really got inside that skull. Like, okay, is “Okie From Muskogee” making fun of those people? And one week, he’d be spouting the most liberal stuff in the world, and the next he’d be saying real conservative stuff. He was just this enigma to me. What I loved so much was that his music was so simple, but so beautiful and so intelligent. Merle was so enigmatic. You couldn’t necessarily tell by the things he’d say what he really thought. He somehow managed to keep that mystique that a lot of his peers just didn’t have. He was just very enigmatic to me, and I love that. (Note: Charlie also wrote a fantastic tribute to Merle on his Facebook page. It’s definitely worth seeking out.)
Obviously we’ve been huge fans of Merle Haggard since we were little kids, and every time I think of Merle I actually think about my mom. She was a huge Merle Haggard fan, and she’s not really a big fan of all kinds of music, but Merle was always her favorite. I’m sure my dad turned her on to Merle, and he always played a lot of Haggard songs in his set, so we grew up playing all kinds of Merle stuff with him, so out of our early influences, he was a big one — you know, through Dad and Mom. And so, to me, when anybody says “country music,” I kinda immediately get this picture in my head of Willie, Waylon, Merle, and Johnny Cash — kind of the Mount Rushmore of country music. When you’re talking about real, traditional, good stuff, Merle’s the top of the list. Just the best country music voice of all time, if you ask me: he just sounds like country. It’s a loss that will never be replaced. It’s a big moment for country music losing Merle Haggard. We got to open for him up in Missoula, Montana about 15 years ago, and I’ll never forget when he did “Big City” and the line, “Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana,” that was probably the biggest cheer I ever heard out of a crowd — other than maybe when Big Papi got that home run in the bottom of the 12th in Game 4.
So, when I was 5 or 6 is the first time I remember listening to Merle, from my step-dad’s records. And even not knowing the first thing about music back then, I remember hearing him sing and hearing the signature guitar licks that we all know now, and just being kind of confused, and excited, and all the emotions you can think of. And I especially remember specifically thinking, as a little kid: “He’s sad!” I remember hearing sad songs that I know now like the back of my hand, but hearing them with fresh ears and thinking, “Wow, he’s been through some shit!” That’s my impression of him as a fan, and I started and just kept adding to my Merle collection. People would bring me imports from overseas that we don’t have here, and so I’ve got so much music of his. And I really, only in the last couple of years have even branched out from pretty much just listening to classic country, and him mostly, so a lot of my iPod is Merle. He and Loretta Lynn write in the same style in my opinion — they write exactly what they know, and if you don’t like it you can kiss their ass. It’s the most believable. When you write something like they write, it’s just so believable; you know they’re not kidding. And I’m not comparing myself to them by any stretch, but one of the reasons that I choose to write a lot in the first person, and about situational things, and tell stories, is because that’s the kind of music I grew up on and that’s what they did. And oh God, his singing! I had a two and a half hour flight last night, and I listened from before we even took off until after we landed and I’m walking to my car. There’s just so many songs, and I was listening with different ears last night … it sucks. It really does.
I got to hang out with him multiple times; the first time is one of my favorite stories. Back around 2005 I was hosting on XM with Country Dan Dixon, and I had tickets to go see Merle that weekend. And Dan asked me, “Are you gonna meet him?” And I said, “Oh hell yeah I’m meeting him.” And he said, “Oh, you have it all planned out?” And I said, “No, I don’t have it planned out, but I’m meeting him, I don’t know how, but I’ll lay under the bus if I have to — I am meeting him.” I’m saying all of this on the air. Fast forward a few hours and we get a call from Frank (Mull, Merle’s assistant), who said, “Uh, that chick … let me just set something up, because I don’t need her laying under the bus and she sounds like the kind that actually might do that, so let’s just not have that happen! I’ll set up a meeting for her and Merle.” So I met Merle that weekend, and he told me that my guitar was too pretty to sign big, so he signed it about an inch, super tiny. And I just played with him last year, I opened for him at Floore’s. Everybody says don’t meet your heroes, but I was bound and determined and I’m so glad that I did, because he was always such a gentleman and treated me with respect, and actually asked me what I did and what I was about. And now, we have to write Merle Haggard in for president — just out of principle.
We played with Merle a couple of times, and one of those times I had a chance to go over and talk to him, and I didn’t, just didn’t want to bother him. I never really got to have any personal interaction with him. Got to watch him a couple of times as a ticket-buying fan. The first time we played with him I should have just went over and bothered him. But you know how it is: “Aw, I don’t want to mess with him.” But if I had it to do over again I’d probably go ahead and bother him.
You know, as a fan, when I weigh out everything, there’s that class of the greats, who had the voice, and the longevity, and the songwriting, and the musicianship, and the story, and when I weigh all of those out, Merle has to be my all time favorite. There’s still Jones, and Waylon Jennings, and Willie, and Johnny Cash — and right there you’re comparing apples and oranges, and they’re all at that level, but for me personally, Merle embodied everything. And for so many, he was more than just the most talented or enduring artist of all time or whatever; he was a folk hero. For what he talked about, and the life he lived, and where he came from. And as a songwriter, especially in country music, he did such a great job of singing about love without being cliché, and politics without being sanctimonious, and talking about love without being contrived about it. He found a way to talk about things that could just come off corny or hokey, but they weren’t. They were just honest, and believable, and related to you and spoke to you. I think anybody who’s a fan of American music should consider themselves lucky to have been on the planet at the same time as the Hag. He’ll always be alive — he never will be not in the world. He came at a time when mass media was really getting going, so he’ll always be this historical figure that you can tap into at any moment, just this insanely great body of work that he leaves behind. But, go see all those great artists while you can, don’t take it for granted.
I think Merle was … absolutely the best. The smoothest singer, incredibly emotional singer, made it look easy. One of the greatest songwriters of all time. Just a true legend; he lived the life, and did the work, and I don’t think there’ll ever be another … no, I know there’ll never be another one like him. I never had much interaction with him personally. About six months ago I played a show in Nashville that he was headlining, and I just watched from the side of the stage. He was still putting on an amazing show, it was just hit after hit after hit. And, some of the most timeless, all-time-great, most unforgettable songs ever written — it was really remarkable to sit there and watch him play. I don’t know at what point I got into Merle; I think it was in my late teens, when I also got into Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. I used to cover him a lot when I was back in my early bar days, doing cover gigs: “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink,” and shoot, we’ve actually been doing “That’s The Way Love Goes” lately. So yeah, I don’t remember how I first got turned on to Merle, but more and more the last couple of years I’ve certainly had an even stronger appreciation of just how incredibly good he was. To see writers come and go, and this voice just stands the test of time, and those songs stand the test of time … just frustratingly good.
I’ve really been having a hard time searching for words, since yesterday when I heard the news. It’s been really hard on me to come up with something that’s good enough to say about the loss of someone this big. To me it’s a huge hit for not just country, it’s a huge hit for music in general. I think he’s one of the greatest American songwriters, not just in country. Waylon hit me pretty hard, Cash hit me pretty hard, but for me Merle … it’s just really hard to find words for what he meant to me and what he meant to music in general. As far as influencing me and my music, I can’t imagine someone that’s not influenced by him. And every now and then I hear about people who say they aren’t, and to me that’s just a shock. It’s like saying you don’t know who the Beatles are. You know, I just can’t imagine that if you have anything to do with music at all, from a fan to anybody in the business; it’s hard to imagine how Merle could not have influenced you in some form or fashion. I think he’s that powerful.
It’s just a huge loss for us all, man, for sure. He was still great, up to the very last gig, and there’s not many people that you can say that about. We played a show with him about two years ago, Randy and I did on the Hold My Beer tour, got to open up for him, and that was the only time I got to meet him. I had heard stories about Merle not being very nice, and I was really nervous; his tour manager, because it was real crowded, told us he thought it might not happen. But we sat back there and waited by the bus anyway, like little kids. And the road manager finally came out and let us sit in the front lounge of the bus, and we waited for 45 minutes while Merle was visiting with this man that he’d gone to Kern jail with when he was 17, and the other guy was 21. He said the guy took him under his wing and helped protect him and keep him safe. So it wasn’t until about 2 o’clock in the morning when we finally get to go back to the back of the bus, and he just could not have been any nicer to us. It was just a dream come true for me, just to get a picture with him and shake his hand … and, uh, that’s it man. I mean, it’s Merle Haggard.