On a cold fall night in the year 2001 I saw one of my musical heroes in the flesh for the first and, what would end up being, the only time. In the rush of life post 9/11, full immersion in Texas Music, work, life and everything else, this concert certainly flew under the radar. KNBT didn’t promote it much and it fell during the middle of the week. But as soon as I found out about it, I drove to Gruene Hall immediately and purchased two GA tickets to see Merle Haggard on college plastic. I didn’t know who I was bringing with me and it really didn’t matter. Merle Haggard is easily on the Mount Rushmore of most influential artist of my lifetime. His songs a major part of my adolescence and beyond. My grandparents house, my dad’s truck, the family gas station. All eras of Merle were proudly and prominently played.
Haggard’s story is well-told and he lived the life of nine men. You can read all about that in other places. I’d suggest taking a trip through his memoir. To say it was enlightening, barely does it justice. Hard luck kid turned teenage criminal turned people’s songwriter turned country music champion. With apologies to Hank Williams, there has never been a finer country singer/songwriter. And he was a damn fine musician too. His tele twang and bawdy fiddle playing as much a part of his repertoire as his lyrics. His duets with Willie Nelson added a fuzzier dimension. His ability to say more with less is unrivaled. He was a poet. He was unafraid to speak his mind and unapologetic about his opinions. Merle was able to distill and showcase life better than just about anyone. Be it his life or people he met…or even imagined. His work will stand forever and will only grow in greater consequence as time marches on.
On that November night fifteen years ago, I ended up going with a buddy of mine from West. We scrambled up as close as we could. I stared in amazement at the set-up as two drumkits were onstage and enough amps for an army. An 8 piece band soon strode onstage including Merle’s ex-wife Bonnie Owens on harmony and Redd Volkaert on guitar. These cats were the most legit country pickers I’ve ever seen. I’d heard some not so flattering things about Haggard’s live show. Hit and miss would be a kind way to describe it. This night was a home run. Merle was in good spirits, good voice and good tune. He blared through a set of greatest hits that featured twin fiddles (sometimes with him on one), twin Telecasters and four vocals. It was one of those crisp nights where it was freezing outside the Hall walls…but just perfect when crammed in next to hundreds of other good time revelers. That show was one of the top 3 I’ve ever seen by anyone. It’s what I immediately think of when I hear Merle Haggard. Then I go to my grandparent’s house, my dad’s truck, the family gas station. Life. Merle Haggard was, and will remain, a significant portion of my life’s soundtrack. And he’s like that for other folks too. The salon. The grocery store. The honky-tonk. The wedding reception. The golf course. The deer blind. The fishing hole. Life. Merle Haggard was life and he made all of ours better. We will miss Merle Haggard’s physical presence, but the mark he left on our music, our culture and our nation is unrivaled.