It’s a memory from my days working in country radio and I hesitate to tell it this soon after his transition….Okay, I’ll tell my Merle story, but I hope no one thinks I’m being disrespectful to him. I sure don’t mean to be; far from it. You could not be a bigger fan of his art than I am.
The radio station in Lakeland sponsored his concert there. As part of the promotion, the station ran a contest for one lucky fan to win a backstage pass and a chance to meet Merle Haggard. This was done in complete coordination with Hags office.
I’ll never know what happened to him that day before the concert, but it was something bad; perhaps an argument the wife or something worse, but he was in no mood to do a concert or meet people.
His manager entered backstage and looked around. He saw all the people from the station, some security folks and the very, very excited man who had won the contest. A man I am quite sure had never met a celebrity in his life. Hag’s manager was visibly nervous. He said that Merle was having a difficult day and then he added, “Just don’t close in around him when he walks in. Give him space…some breathing room, okay?” Everyone agreed. Now, remember that Hag was a man who had spent time in prison. He was not a person to approach unexpectedly…especially when he was in a bad mood.
A few minutes later Hag entered the room and the contest winner could not contain himself. He leaped to his feet and ran to Hag, grabbing him by his hand in an attempt to shake hands with him. That did it. Merle caught the poor guy with a vicious left hook and several other blows. I mean he put the guy out cold. Hag looked down at him and said, “Don’t grab at my hand, you son-of-a-bitch. Don’t you know I’m a guitar picker?”
The guy sued the station and Hag and was paid off. Now you might think that this means Hag was not a good guy, but wait. The Hag could have filed charges against the man for grabbing him that way…that was illegal. You can’t grab a person that way even if your motive is good. The guy is lucky that Merle felt really bad about it and let it go; and, as I said, even paid the guy. Likewise, the station did nothing wrong but paid the shut-up money anyway.
There’s only two other things I’ll say about this great poet: I loved his ex-wife Bonnie. She was a sweetheart. And I’ll tell you that I almost fell on the floor laughing the first time I heard the song, “Okie From Muskogee” because of the line, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. ” Truth: no one loved a good joint more than the Hag.