He was one of those one-name guys – someone whose first name alone left no doubt who you were talking about. Like Waylon, Willie, Jerry Jeff, and maybe even Elvis, all you had to say was one name, and everyone knew.
I recall a brief conversation in the late 1990's, while driving a group of people on a lonely stretch of Texas highway. It was somewhere southeast of Lubbock, when I heard a voice from the back seat.
"Turn up the radio, please."
I wasn't even listening to it, and was only vaguely aware it was tuned to a country station. The radio was only on because we were on a long trip from Amarillo to Abilene, and the passengers wanted to hear music. I was fine with silence, and the radio seemed plenty loud.
"Why?" I said.
I looked at the guy sitting next to me, and he smiled.
"Merle," he said.
I know I'm a little thick some times, and even after such a conversation, it took me many years before 'Merle' stuck in my consciousness.
I had always been a rock, rockabilly, and folk rock guy. Then, as a guitar player and singer, it was some time in the mid-1990's when I discovered that some country music was similar to the music I was into. I started listening to Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Marty Stuart, and others. Not sure how I missed Merle Haggard during that time, but somehow he escaped my attention.
It didn't happen until sometime in 2013 – okay, so I'm really slow on the uptake sometimes – when I saw a series of videos filmed by a group from Kentucky called The Lexington Lab Band. The LLB is an association of musicians from around that area, who film what they call episodes, each concentrating on a particular recording artist. Their second such series focused on the songs of the guy named 'Merle'.
With Big River Band members Kevin Treadway on vocals, Jay Johnson on bass, and Dale Adams playing the Roy Nichols style lead guitar, the LLB did stunning versions of 'Workin' Man Blues', 'That's The Way Love Goes', 'Sing Me Back Home', and 'Ramblin' Fever.' Those videos captured the essence of Merle, in a way that made me pay attention to the music of a man I should have noticed long ago.
I was suddenly and finally aware of Merle Haggard. It was a, 'how could I have missed this fantastic stuff for so long?' kind of thing. Who knows? One day, you're oblivious, and then it hits you like a slap upside the head.
Oddly enough, long before I discovered the magic of Merle, I was familiar with the music of Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam, the Mavericks, and others with the well-known Bakersfield Sound. Yoakam, in a 1994 interview with Country Guitar's Isaiah Trost, also described Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Eagles as being extensions and byproducts of the Bakersfield Sound.
Even with all of that music already firmly on my radar, I'm still trying to figure out how in all those years, I skipped over Merle, one of the originators, along with Owens, of this popular form of country music.
Fortunately, the LLB's four videos led me to an enlightening and enjoyable exploration of the music of this giant of country music. 'Mama Tried', 'Okie From Muskogee', and a seemingly never-ending assortment of Merle's songs were like discovering buried treasure.
Haggard died on April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday, leaving a legacy equivalent to that of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and every seminal figure in music history. Fortunately for the rest of us, that music lives on. Although it took me far too long to discover Merle's music, at least I can play it, sing it, and enjoy it from here on out.
"All I wanna do is sing my song.
"Maybe I'll find somebody else to help me sing along."
Like I said, finally, after all these years, I'm singing along with Merle.
Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.
He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.
He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.