Guest blogger Otis Gibbs is a Nashville singer-songwriter, podcaster and host of Pandora’s Country Built station. Hear Otis’ segment on the legacy of Merle Haggard from the 2015 Outlaw Country Episode of Country Built.
The first time I remember hearing Merle Haggard was at my uncle’s house when I was a little kid. My uncle and father would get together once or twice a month to drink beer and listen to records. My dad would bring over a handful of his favorite albums and they’d take turns playing DJ. My uncle was a huge fan of The Hag and he made sure to play plenty of his albums on the turntable. I remember falling in love with Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimmie Rodgers. I knew some of the songs from hearing my grandfather play them with his bluegrass band, but this was a whole other animal. Merle’s voice was otherworldly and we were completely convinced he’d spent his life hopping trains. I soon dove headfirst into his discography and have never looked back.
He’s on a very short list of the all-time great songwriters. I’ve heard Loretta Lynn say her favorite song of all time is “Today I Started Loving You Again.” I think it’s safe to say Loretta knows a few things about great songs.
Haggard is one of those rare artists who appeal to people from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds. He’s loved by conservatives in the south, hippies in California, northeastern intellectuals, 22-year-old hipsters and punk rockers alike.
It’s rare for someone with as much mainstream success as Merle to remain so grounded. You could see it in his final days. His health was diminishing and he had no business being on the road, but his working class attitude kept kicking in. One of his last gigs was in Las Vegas on Super Bowl weekend. Merle was in bad shape, but he wanted to give the people what they paid for. His lungs were spent and his voice gave out about halfway through. He asked his friend, Toby Keith, to come out onstage and Toby was nice enough to sing the rest of the set for him. The audience got to witness something truly memorable, thanks to one tough old outlaw.
Upon hearing of Merle’s death my friend Barry Mazor, author of Meeting Jimmie Rodgers and Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, posted a recollection on Facebook. He says Haggard once told him, “I had a dream one time that I died and I got to the other side and my dad met me. It was a train station…and he said, ‘Now come on; we’ve got to hurry up.’ ‘Why do we have to hurry?’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re on a show with Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell – and you’re opening.’”