Merle Haggard, And “The Way I Am”
April 7, 2016
Merle Haggard is the one. He’s responsible for turning me into an unlikely, casual fan of Country music, helping me fall in love with it, and ultimately convincing me to marry it as a format. Of course, George Strait played a part too; God only knows where I’d be right now if it weren’t for those guys. After playing Strait’s “Unwound” on the radio a ton in 1981, I expected to see a paunchy, middle-aged old fart on the cover of his “Strait Country” debut album. But no. Strait was young, strapping, and – I’m perfectly comfortable saying this as a dude – a damned good looking man. That cover made me listen to the entire album.
While ruggedly handsome in his younger days, by the early 80s Haggard’s name also perfectly described his look. Nonetheless, Merle was the real tipping point for me. On a single night early in 1983, during a show at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, he persuaded me this was a format I could – that I must – be a part of for as long as possible.
“The Roots Of My Raising”
In Country radio since 1980, I was actually a novice to the format. I didn’t grow up around Country music, and certainly never considered listening to an entire Country song from start to finish. That only occurred when a job demanded it – specifically, my on-air debut at KZLA/Los Angeles in October of that year. Two songs are indelibly etched in my mind from that night: The first one I ever played on Country radio – Don Williams’ “Good Ole Boys Like Me” – and one that quickly, inexplicably became a favorite: Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink.” It’s the prototypical Country song (hello! drinking?!?), the kind I would have punched the button on years before, after a major eye roll.
Instead, I couldn’t hear it enough. With a cold – okay, :01 – intro, it was a massively long song for its time at 4:31 total. And, radio edit? What was that? The last 2:17 is basically an extended, all-out, effing jam session, featuring two bad-ass guitar solos, a Merle heads-up on a keyboard fill at 1:30 (“here comes that piano”), pounding drums, another verbal cue from Haggard at 3:00 for Don Markham’s wailing sax, and a parting shot from the Hag to close it all out: “We’re gone.” By the way, listen to Alan Jackson’s “Gone Country” from 1994 sometime and hear a similar “We gone” from AJ at the very end. Coincidence, or tribute to the Hag?
In the weeks after KZLA’s October 1980 launch we were also playing “Bar Room Buddies,” a duet with Clint Eastwood from the “Bronco Billy” soundtrack; “Misery And Gin;” and “The Way I Am,” which became – and remains – one of my all-time favorite Haggard songs. I’d been to Country shows before the aforementioned 1983 Hag concert, of course. Hell, I’d introduced Alabama at the then-world-famous Palomino Club (capacity: maybe 500?) two years earlier. But my PD at the time, Tom Casey, invited me and my wife, Lori, to see Merle at Universal in early ‘83. By then, I was becoming fluent in all things Merle, drinking up his music by the gallon. There wasn’t one song I didn’t like. Even going prior to his first #1, 1966’s “Lonesome Fugitive,” and especially 1977’s “Ramblin' Fever,” with its :31 (:31!!) intro that – admit it – we all tried to talk up right to the post. Ask me for my favorite Merle song? Impossible. I dunno – all of them? He had 38 #1 songs, but some of my favorites aren’t among those. I’ve always found 1968’s “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am” and 1978’s “I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall” poignant, while “It’s Been A Great Afternoon” (’78) and “Livin’ With the Shades Pulled Down” (’76) were naughty, raucous, and pure fun.
Haggard absolutely blew me away at the show. He played guitar, which I expected, but broke out the fiddle, too, and seemed like a master. His voice was pitch perfect and rich in tone. His band, the Strangers, were fantastic. Haggard played just about all the songs I was familiar with and some others I’d never heard. I found myself instinctively drinking a lot of beer that night. We met him backstage after the show for a quick minute, and I was pretty star struck; at that point in my career – and all of 24 years old – I hadn’t been backstage or met artists a lot, so it was a big deal. I think I managed to mutter something semi-intelligible, but stupid, like “Man ... you’re ... uh ... great.”
There were more Haggard shows in LA after that, of course. He was part of a big tour called the Marlboro Country Concert Series – yes, the cigarette brand, if you can even imagine that today. In 1985 the show featured Haggard, the Judds, and headliner George Strait at LA’s Fabulous Forum. Keep in mind, that was a long time ago, and – full disclosure – I was drinking tequila that night (because: Merle). I do remember that the show was on or around Haggard’s birthday, and the Judds rolled out a large cake in Haggard’s honor. Merle proceeded to take off his hat and cut the cake with the front brim of it. That was equal parts bizarre and cool to me.
“My Favorite Memory”
When I moved on to KNIX/Phoenix in 1987, I drew closer to the Merle Haggard universe when I worked with Michael and Buddy Owens, our GM and Music Director, respectively. They were Buck Owens’ sons – which must have been awesome enough – but for a while growing up in the mid-60s, they were Haggard’s stepsons after their mom, the also famous country artist Bonnie Owens, divorced Buck and married Merle. They remained close to Merle, so whenever he came to Phoenix for a show, which was just about every year, he would stop by the studio. I was doing afternoons one of those times and was anointed as the one who would interview Haggard on the air.
Fully educated and completely versed in all things Haggard by now, I was still absolutely terrified, even though I’d done many artist interviews – just not any with Merle-Fucking-Haggard. And he was not an easy interview. Merle could be moody and sullen at times. He did the interview as a big favor to Buddy and Michael, but – while never rude – didn’t seem to love it. I don’t think I helped matters by more or less freezing up in front of an idol of mine and icon to all. In short: total fail. Years later, while writing for Radio & Records Magazine, I interviewed Haggard again, in advance of his 2009 CRS Artist Career Achievement Award. He took the call while moving from his bus to a sound check at a tour stop Lord only knows where. Though in a hurry, he was polite, engaging, patient, and – Merle being Merle – always candid and quote-worthy.
I went on to see many Merle Haggard concerts – dozens, at least – in three different states and all venue sizes spanning a 32-year period. Not one of them was like the other. He didn’t always break out the fiddle, and sometimes his shows were not joyful. One year at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, he was more than an hour late and played nothing but slow ballads. Buddy explained that Merle was having marital difficulties, and that made sense – after all, he was married five times during his life, which would clearly indicate long-term relationship issues. On a hot, humid summer night at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, TX just outside San Antonio, Merle played the outdoor patio while our entire family sat on a picnic table, a cold bucket of beer close by. His shows were always fulfilling to me, because I’m all-in on Merle music, whatever his mood and subsequent interpretation of his songs in that given two-hour-or-so window.
“I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am”
Because Haggard had so many influences musically, he introduced me to many other Country artists and styles, too. His 1970 album, “A Tribute To The Best Damned Fiddle Player In The World (Or, My Salute To Bob Wills),” gave me a love for Wills and Western Swing. His 1983 cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” made me seek out more of Frizzell’s music, and in doing so, helped me understand where Merle’s phrasing and singing style came from. If you want a comprehensive collection of Haggard music, which demonstrates his influences and evolution, you should find the box set, “Down Every Road,” which contains his Capitol Records catalog. He later recorded on MCA, so you won’t find “The Way I Am” on it, but it’s just terrific anyway. Haggard’s overall library of music is comprehensive and overwhelming – an estimated 200 or more albums, of which eight are live and 37 are compilations or collaborations covering every conceivable theme in Country music: Cheatin’, Hurtin’, Drinkin’, Prison, and Trains, among others.
I had tickets to see Merle at the legendary Ryman Auditorium here in Nashville last month, but his illness forced him to cancel it, and all other shows in 2016. A September date was set as a make-good; now it’s both surreal and sad knowing we won’t see him in concert ever again following his death – on his own birthday, no less – Wednesday, April 6th. Of course, I’ll always remember the last time I saw Haggard in concert, and it wasn’t long ago – in late 2014, also at the Ryman Auditorium. In his late 70s by then, Haggard lacked the energy from years past, but his music remained timeless. Having seen him play all those songs at different stages of his life (and mine) over a 32-year period, I was struck by how the stories remained effective, and how his interpretation of them has evolved. Sure, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” didn’t have the punch it used to, but he performed it a different way, and the song was no less satisfying. He did break out the fiddle that night. He bragged on his son, who was playing in the band. He was truly joyful. That night, Merle Haggard reaffirmed my love for Country music in general, and his in particular.
He also convinced me all over again that opting to marry this format in 1983 was one of the greatest, most fulfilling decisions I’ve ever made; one that made me, as he once sang, “The Way I Am.”