(originally posted 03-11-07)
Isn’t it a good idea to talk about someone and what they mean to you before it becomes a memorial?
I don’t know where the years have gone. It seems like literally yesterday that I was in my best friend’s living room, watching her and her brother’s band practice playing Merle Haggard songs.
I’m not exactly sure when Merle Haggard first entered my consciousness, but I think it was most likely 1967. That’s around the time that my new best friend, Alice, reintroduced me to country music. I’d grown up on Buck Owens and Ray Price albums. That’s what my parents had. But as an adolescent, I’d drifted more toward the music of my time……that being The Monkees and some groups with strange names like Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Boxtops.
My new friend very patiently schooled me in the finer points of country music. Artists like Bobby Bare and Porter & Dolly, who just happened to be a very hot act at that time. I did some research of my own, of course, and found that I really liked a new guy named Waylon Jennings, and also another new guy, Charley Pride. I think the first country album I bought was “Love Of The Common People” by Waylon Jennings, and shortly thereafter, I bought Charley Pride’s album, although I can’t remember the name of it, and I can’t find it on Amazon, but I do remember that the color of the album was kind of orange.
But there was this guy who was always being played on the radio named Merle Haggard. He liked to sing a lot of songs about prison. It seemed edgy. And he had some real twanging lead guitar (later I learned that the lead guitar player’s name was Roy Nichols.) And this Merle character was really cute, which didn’t hurt. He sang songs like, “(I’m A Lonesome) Fugitive”, “Sing Me Back Home”, “Branded Man”. I sensed a theme here. Anyway, it was different. How was it different? Well, the production was very different from the stuff that was coming out of Nashville. The band members were upfront. There weren’t any strings. This was hardcore country. Reminded me a lot of Buck Owens’ stuff. And this guy could sing!
So, subliminally, this Merle guy seeped into my consciousness. I decided I REALLY REALLY liked him (as Sally Field would say.) I sort of became obsessed. I bought every album he put out. I even bought The Strangers’ instrumental album (featuring Roy Nichols and Norm Hamlet, among others). Man, I wish they’d reissue that instrumental album, because that holds a lot of fond memories for me.
How obsessed was I? Well, Merle put out an album called “Hag”, that was a simple white cover with a drawing of Merle. I used to try my hand at drawing, so I studied that album cover and drew that image in pencil. (Okay, maybe I was a dork, but so be it.)
When I decided that I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, my friend Alice offered to teach me some chords. The first songs I learned how to play were Merle Haggard songs. Alice even taught me how to play the lead part to “(I’m A Lonesome) Fugitive”. I can still play that, by the way.
Well, the topper was this………..In 1968, I believe, Merle was coming to town to put on a concert! Back in those days, it was all package shows, so you’d get your main act, and then you’d get some up-and-comers and some artists who were maybe a bit past their prime, but it was a “cavalcade of stars”, so to speak.
Well, Alice & I wasted no time buying our tickets for the Merle Haggard concert. Also featured was that new guy, Charley Pride (”The Easy Part’s Over” was his current hit single), Freddie Hart, who hadn’t quite hit yet with his career-defining record, “Easy Lovin’”, and I think some other folks whose names have escaped me.
So, innocently enough, on the day of the concert, Alice took the school bus home with me, because we’d planned to leave from my place to go to the show. We got home, and my mom said to me, “Guess who just checked in!” (Okay, by way of explanation, my folks owned a motel; the Modern Frontier Motel, to be exact). I could tell that she was trying to contain her excitement, so I figured it wasn’t one of the traveling salesmen who showed up every two weeks or so. She showed Alice and me the registration card, and damn! It was Merle Haggard! Merle Haggard was staying at my place!
Well, this was overwhelming to both Alice and me. What would we do? How could we make him notice us?
Being seventh-graders and in that awkward, stupid stage, the idea we hit upon was……….get out my portable, battery-operated record player and play “Mama Tried” over and over and over again, outdoors, 50 feet from Merle’s room. I just know that had to be supremely impressive to him.
Well, when that didn’t produce any results, we commenced to walk around and around and around the building, past Merle & Bonnie’s room. Eventually, we rounded the bend and saw Merle out walking his little dog! Excellent! We really saw him! But did he see us? Couldn’t tell.
Well, eventually Alice & I came down from our Hag High, long enough to get ready to go to the concert. I think the concert started at 8:00. We were there around 5:00. Had to get those front-row seats! No assigned seating back then, so it was first-come, first-served.
Got through the opening acts. Sort of remember seeing Charley Pride. Even though I liked him, I have little recollection of seeing him perform. There was one person we wanted to see, and that was HAG.
It was damn well worth the wait. Merle did all his hit songs, with Bonnie Owens singing backup. Merle did his impersonations of Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, Hank Snow, and Johnny Cash.
Merle gazed out upon the front row, and HE SMILED AT ME!
The rest is a blank.
Alice & I went around after the show to collect autographs. Back then, everyone would stick around to sign. I have that sheet of paper tacked up on my bulletin board, and smack-dab in the middle is the signature of MERLE HAGGARD!
There’s also signatures from Norman Hamlet, Eddie Burris and Jerry Wood (also from the Strangers), Freddie Hart, who wrote, “To Shelly, a little doll” (how sweet). Faye Hardin (and I’m sorry to say, I don’t know who that is). Oh, and Freddie Hart said to us, “Didn’t I see you walking around the motel?” ha ha ha - I guess somebody noticed.
Well, shortly after that night, Merle put out the album that he recorded live in Philadelphia. Merle put out a lot of albums; “Let Me Tell You About A Song”, for one. I have all of them. Well, at least I have all of them I could find on CD.
Merle wrote and recorded, “Today I Started Loving You Again”. I read once that when he was writing the song, Bonnie Owens told him to lose the second verse. For some reason, I picture him writing that song in a room at the Modern Frontier Motel. I’m pretty sure that’s not true, but that’s how the story goes in my mind.
Alice is gone now. But in my mind, Alice and Merle will always be intertwined. Man, that guy could sing! And man, could he write! And man, how Alice could sing! Alice and Merle are interchangeable in my memory.
So, you see why, taking everything into account, Merle means so much to me. He’s got a heavy burden, at least in my mind. He’s carrying not only the memory of those heady days of 1968, but unbeknownst to him, he’s keeping Alice’s memory alive.