If you can possibly handle one more Merle Haggard story, I’ve got a good one. It occurred back in my broadcasting days in the late 1960s down in the Ozarks. Our street fair in Independence is called Santa-Cali-Gon; down there, those good ol’ boys held a four-day “Fox Hunt.” It was your typical street fair with amusement rides, booths and what have you, but it was held outside of town, down in a local holler.
Our radio station sponsored the event and we managed to book Merle Haggard for $845. They had played the night before in Shreveport, Louisiana, and were flying to Omaha for their next gig. We managed to secure just Merle, all by himself, for a three-hour show, and I was elected to go down and pick him up at the Springfield, Missouri, airport. His plane touched down on schedule, and just he and his guitar climbed into my little Mustang convertible, and we drove 70 miles up into the hills of the Ozarks and then dropped down into that holler.
Merle Haggard climbed up on the stage with his guitar and sang his songs for three hours. Then he shook hands and signed autographs for the next hour. The two of us then climbed back into my Mustang and drove back to Springfield just in time to catch his flight to Omaha.
Merle was as common and relaxed on that ride as if we had known each other forever. We talked about a lot of things during that 70-mile trip up the highway and the 70-mile ride back to the airport, but along the way he told me a little about his childhood.
He said his parents moved to California from their home in Checotah, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression after their barn burned in 1934. At Bakersfield, his dad landed a job with the Santa Fe Railroad. Merle was born in 1937 and grew up in a converted boxcar on a rail siding in nearby Oildale, California.
His father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945, an event that deeply affected Haggard and he became rebellious and was constantly in and out of trouble. At 12, his brother Lowell gave him a used guitar and Merle taught himself how to play by listening to the records they had around the boxcar of Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. When he was 14, he ran away to Texas by hitchhiking and hopping freight trains with his friend Bob Teague, who also played guitar.
After returning to California, Merle worked a series of jobs, such as driving a potato truck, a short-order cook, pitching hay and an oil well shooter. His debut performance as a singer was with Teague in a Modesto bar named Fun Center. “We were paid $5 a night, and all the beer we could drink.”
In 1962, he landed a gig singing on a Wynn Stewart show in Las Vegas. Stewart gave him permission to record one of his songs, “Sing a Sad Song,” which became Haggard’s first national hit in 1964.
The following year he had his first top 10 recording with “My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers,” written by Liz Anderson, and his career was off and running. Merle told me Stewart talked him into visiting Anderson (a woman he didn’t know) at her house to hear her sing some of the songs that she had written. Haggard said if there was anything he didn’t want to do, it was sit around some danged woman’s house and listen to her cute little songs. But, he went anyway. One of those songs she wrote with her husband Casey, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” became Merle Haggard’s first No. 1 single in 1966. He went on to record 37 more No. 1 hits.
Ted W. Stillwell will give a book review of Vicki Beck’s latest book, “Kate King,” before the Shepherd’s Center, this Friday at 10 a.m. at Christ United Methodist Church 14506 E. 39th St. in Independence.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 816-252-9909.