Merle Haggard’s death Wednesday on his 79th birthday sent me to the rolodex, to call up some folks to get their remembrances to go with a few of my own. Below are a few thoughts and memories from some of his many peers.
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“That makes me wanna just cry.”
-- Tift Merritt (who opened for Haggard in 2014 at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall)
“Two Dollar Pistols opened for him in 1998 in Greensboro, right after we released ‘Step Right Up,’ and I was pretty scared. Some friends had met him and gotten backstage to get a picture with him, and they said he was pretty brusque. So I was ready for that, but he could not have been more of a gentleman. I was probably 29 at that point and had played clubs for a long time. But he still taught me a lot about how to treat people.
“After we played, a guy with him came over with a copy of a Merle Haggard greatest-hits CD. ‘Hey, bud,’ he said, ‘sorry to bother you but Merle wanted to trade CDs.’ Man, he didn’t have to do that. I’ve played with so many groups who never would have bothered, and for him to do that just made me adore him even more. He was a godlike father figure in terms of how to do it.
“The other thing that completely changed my approach to live performance was, the man did not have a set list. Since then, I have only rarely because of that. It’s not the way he did things. He’d just read the crowd and go with the flow. That was a huge deal that changed the way I make music in a very real sense.”
-- John Howie, Jr., of Two Dollar Pistols and Rosewood Bluff
“It was great to get to know him and work with him. Merle was an extremely smart, talented man. Along with everything else, his huge talent for singing and writing and performing, he could anticipate trends and imaging. He knew all this stuff. They sure don’t make that model anymore.
“By about 1976, we’d met but never hung out until we opened for him. We did a soundcheck as a combination of bands and got to jam for an hour with Merle and his band. From then on, it was just a wonderful relationship and friendship. He was such an inspiration. I’m a lucky guy to have known him.”
-- Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, a frequent Haggard collaborator