A Personal Tribute and Apology From Billings to the Legendary Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard passed away yesterday. And I'm sad.
I grew up with his music.The biggest star that I knew up 'til about the time I became a teenager was my dad. Dad emceed every concert in Great Falls that I went to. And because he was also a musician and leader of his own band, he starred on bandstands all over Cascade County.
The band rehearsed at our house, in our tiny little kitchen. It couldn't have been more than 150 square feet. And dad, on bass, along with a lead guitar player, a steel guitar player and a drummer practiced some legendary country classics. Two of their regular songs were Merle songs. I remember dad belting out "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" and "California Cottonfields."
Growing up where I did, when I did, sometime there would be a Sunday afternoon spent in some bar 100 miles out of Great Falls playing pool against my sister while some guy put $2 in the jukebox and played 20 Merle Haggard songs in a row. Of all of the grief I heard customers give each other over the songs they picked on the jukebox, I never heard anybody disagree about Merle. Merle Haggard was many people's soundtrack when they spent time in the bars back in the 70s and 80s.
I think that people liked Merle Haggard not only for his voice but because they believed everything he sang. Whether it was about turning 21 in prison or "Always Wanting You," he sang it like he had lived it.
I think that most people don't realize what a prolific songwriter he was. He wrote "Are The Good Times Really Over," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Big City," "Okie From Muskogee," and many, many more great songs that are considered classics.
And his song, "Today I started Loving You Again," with him singing it, is to me what country music should sound like.
I was a music director at a country station in Missoula in 1986 when the phone rang one day. It was Merle Haggard! I knew that it wasn't some prank call because he sounded just like Merle would. He thanked me for adding "Out Among The Stars."
It was a great story song, told by a great country singer and he was getting some resistance from country radio about playing it. Country radio would totally abandon him shortly thereafter. Turning their attention to whoever or whatever was going to be "the next big thing."
I got to meet him when I emceed a couple of his concerts at Alberta Bair over the past few years and he was so damn genuine. He was very appreciative that I would take time out of my schedule to come to his show.
Mr. Haggard, I am genuinely sorry that radio quit playing your new stuff, but I promise you that I will play a bunch of your songs over the next several months.
If you haven't heard these Merle Haggard songs, you should.
"Out Among The Stars"
"The Farmers Daughter"
"What Have you Got Planned Tonight, Diana"
"California Cotton Fields"
"My Own Kind Of Hat"
The song that is probably my favorite from him is, "The Last Boat Of The Day." If you've ever loved someone who was coming to visit, but it wasn't soon enough, then this song will resonate with you.