Personal Memories Of Merle Haggard – “Silver Wings” And Other Things

By Bill Oakey – April 7, 2016

After growing up as a rock and roll “child of the 60’s,” I suddenly found myself at a crossroads in 1969. The guitar sound in popular songs had morphed into a screeching, wailing siren. Whole sides of albums were devoted to single, stretched-out jam sessions of head-banging noise that I simply couldn’t relate to. Then I walked into my college dorm room on the first day of the school year. “Who is this roommate that they stick me with?” I wondered. “And what is that cowboy hat doing on the shelf?”

By the time I went home that Christmas to visit my family, they must have thought I had gone crazy. Merle Haggard had become one of my favorite singers. It may have started with the novelty of “Okie From Muskogee.” Even the few long-haired “hippie” students on our conservative campus loved it because they thought it was hilariously funny. Later I learned that Capitol Records tried to pigeonhole him as a strident “anti-hippie” conservative evangelist. Fortunately, he backed away after two more similar-themed singles, even publicly denouncing cultural divisiveness. His next direction sealed his legacy as one of the greatest voices in country music. If somebody had told me back then that I would later wind up on his bus chatting with him, I’m not sure I would have believed it.

It was in the dance halls of Central Texas that I got hooked on the mixture of cold beer and good country music. The Bob Wills style of Texas swing was all over the place, but the next best thing on the jukebox or the bandstand was anything by Merle Haggard. In those early days of the late 60’s and early 70’s, two slow numbers by Haggard absolutely had to be played – “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Silver Wings.” There were plenty of toe-tappers too, like “Mama Tried” and “Swinging Doors.” A few of my best honky-tonk buddies got used to the idea that any conversation we had was subject to periodic interruptions. If a Merle Haggard song came on the jukebox, I would pull back my chair and stand up briefly to acknowledge him.

His music catalog reaches across decades of country music history, as he released fabulous tribute albums to the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. And his song covers of classics by Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb and the pen of Bill Anderson will stand forever. Then of course, his own body of original music ranks at the top of the list for any serious traditional country music fan. Over the span of his career, Haggard racked up 38 number one country singles. Ensuring the endurance of his musical stature and influence is the wide-ranging spectrum of styles in his repertoire, including western swing, country, folk, gospel, blues, jazz, and even hints of rock.

His first album, released in 1965. The title song, "Strangers," written by Bill Anderson, inspired the name of Haggard's band.

His first album, “Strangers,” released in 1965. The title song, written by Bill Anderson, inspired the name of Haggard’s band.

Heck, even many of the album cuts he did that never became famous will easily pull you in. Check out “Montego Bay.” Or, how about this whale of a version of a lesser-known Bob Wills song, “Stingeree.” (misspelled on the record). When the horns start swinging in the knockout arrangements of a Merle Haggard tune, it’s just not easy to sit still. And by golly, who says that you have to? But if you find yourself without a dance partner and want to pretend you’re sitting in a famous New Orleans Bourbon Street nightclub, just take a trip there with Haggard’s live album, “I Love Dixie Blues.”

So, how was it that I wound up chatting with Merle on his tour bus? Well, to make a long story short, I went from being a subscriber to several country music magazines in the mid 1970’s to becoming a feature writer and record reviewer. Like any other pursuit, I had to get my feet wet first. Eventually, my interview request for Merle Haggard was granted. I met him backstage in Houston around 1980 and made it through without any major stumbles.

Once back home in Austin, I had just about finished the article. But before I mailed it in to the magazine, I went to the Austin City Limits studios on 26th Street (now Dean Keaton) to see a live Merle Haggard taping. After showing my guest pass, I walked over to the elevator and got a huge surprise. When the doors opened, the only person standing there was Merle Haggard. He greeted me by asking, “Did you get all of your questions answered in Houston, or would you like to talk some more later tonight?”

I didn’t try to write down any ideas while the show was going on. Instead I decided to just make it a conversation between two music collectors, discussing their favorite passion. He started off by telling me what it was like to be in the studio for Bob Wills’ last recording session before he died. That’s when I found out how a big star describes being a fan of another big star who came before him. Then he brought up the song called “Leonard” from his then-current album. Leonard Sipes recorded under the name Tommy Collins, and Merle’s song was a tribute to him, as the pioneer of the “Bakersfield sound.” That style took off big time in the mid 60’s, first with Buck Owens and later by Merle Haggard. In the heartfelt tribute song, Merle describes how Leonard “taught me how to write a country song” and “he even brought around a bag of groceries, back before Muskogee came along.”

To wrap up the interview, I had just one final question and I wasn’t quite sure how he might react. I asked him if he had a “wish list” of hard-to-find favorite old records. And could we perhaps swap a few of those record titles and scoop them up to send to each other if we found them? He rattled off his short list without hesitation. Those titles as well as mine have escaped my memory. And neither of us found those rare, elusive gems. But it’s still fun to thank about that long ago conversation between two music collectors.

RIP

Further Reading and References

  1. “My House of Memories” – His second autobiography, from 1999, following his earlier and now out-of-print “Sing Me Back Home” (1981)
  2. Official Merle Haggard Website
  3. CMT – Includes links to music videos, interviews, news items, etc.
  4. Album Discography (not including box sets) with full track listings
  5. AllMusic.com– Includes bio and extensive song listing with composer credits
  6. Billboard – Chronological list of 38 number one country hits
  7. iTunes
  8. Amazon.com
  9. Wikipedia
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