You think of so many things at a time like this.
The tributes are pouring in from all over the world, people everywhere saddened by the passing of Merle Haggard.
He was the singer’s singer, the musician’s musician, and above all the songwriter’s songwriter. The songs he created will outlive everybody who is reading these words. He spoke to the common man. He spoke to the heart that beats inside us all.
Some people thought he had a gruff exterior, and I guess sometimes he did. But I remember the man who smiled and graciously allowed his drummer, Biff Adams, to become a Po’ Boy for an hour one Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma City when my regular drummer overslept and missed our matinee show.
I remember the guy who invited me to sit alongside him at the counter inside a truck stop up in New England one night and share a hillbilly t-bone….that is, a hamburger with fries. As we ate, he asked if I had heard the new song he had sung that afternoon at our show. I confessed that I was standing so far off to the side of the stage that I couldn’t make out the words, but I heard the tremendous ovation he received.
“It’s a new thing I’ve just written and recorded,” he said. “I’ve got high hopes for it. It’s called ‘Okie From Muskogee’.”
And I remember the day years later when he came to the studio to be my guest on Bill Anderson Visits With The Legends, the satellite radio show I hosted for seven years. I had interviewed nearly all the country greats by the time Merle sat down across from me, and the only one who had intimidated me in the least was Eddy Arnold.
But in the beginning, for some reason, I was a bit nervous talking to Merle. We were friends, of course, but I had heard tales of his sometimes being short and uncooperative in interview settings. I didn’t want to slip up and say the wrong thing.
But he couldn’t have been nicer….warm and gracious from the start, and I knew I had nothing to fear. Toward the end of our conversation I confessed something to him: “Merle,” I said, “I’ve never told you this…and I know thousands of other people have…but you are my favorite country singer.”
I don’t know what kind of a response I expected, but what I got was silence. Dead air….the curse of any radio host. I wondered if I had offended him in some way. I began to talk about two of my favorite Merle Haggard songs in an attempt to cut through the quiet.
Finally, I looked up just in time to see him remove his hat and wipe a tear from his eye. “To hear you say that means more to me than you know,” he finally said. “I didn’t respond…I was so blown away. It means so much when people you know understand what you’re trying to do.” The great Merle Haggard was crying.
I wouldn’t take anything for that moment….for being allowed to see the tender side of a tough man…the one who had given us “Branded Man” and “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” then and turned around and melted us with “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Today I Started Loving You Again.” He was a master.
Rest in peace, my friend. Our world is a better place because you kicked the footlights out….again and again and again.