Keith Richards was facing seven years in prison in 1977 for a massive drug bust at his Toronto hotel room. The night before he was sentenced, he headed to Toronto's Interchange Studios and recorded several songs he'd learned from his late friend Gram Parsons. The highlight was "Sing Me Back Home," a ballad Merle Haggard wrote about his time at San Quentin. For our upcoming issue, Richards spoke with Rolling Stone about his appreciation for Haggard, who died earlier this month, who he calls "one of the great country singers of all time and a hell of a guitar player."
I first met Hag about 10 years ago, doing a TV special. We're at rehearsal, and I'm sitting on the drum riser. There's a cat sitting to my right, grizzled beard, straw Stetson. A nod and a wink. Then I take a second look, and I know it's Merle Haggard. I almost lost the bridge on that song! What a lovely picker. Sometimes you meet somebody and you know instantly that you're friends. He was one of those kind of cats to me. Merle was warm. A twinkle in the eye. You knew he'd been around, and he knew I had too. Hence the nod and the wink.
We talked about Gram Parsons. I still miss that bugger. Gram had hung with Merle for a while in Bakersfield, and Gram came back saying, "This cat’s really special." In the couple of years that I knew Gram, I got a severe education in country music. I was already a fan – I'd known Hank Williams for as long as I can remember, and I was quite familiar with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton when they were a duo. But Gram knew so much. Gram explained a lot about Merle and the difference between Bakersfield and Nashville country. Nashville was that over-the-top production with the Anita Kerr Singers, the orchestral stuff, the unnecessary violins (but then you have George Jones, and you can't deny that). Bakersfield – that was barroom music, hard music. Bakersfield's a hard town!
When Merle broke through, he was akin to Johnny Cash in the starkness of the sound. But it was more melodic. You felt like this guy knew shit. There was a wisdom in it. I still sing and play "Sing Me Back Home" on the piano. That's my party piece, baby. It's just so real, so touching. There's a guy on death row. You know when this song finishes, it's all over. That’s it, pal.
I love "Okie From Muskogee" too. The tongue was firmly in the cheek, and it kept the rednecks happy. Some American music is the most hokey in the world, but it doesn't mean it's not good.
Merle had a troubled past, but he was open about it. His message was, "Stuff happens, but you just have to be your own man, and have something to say." You can't put a good man down. It's sad to lose someone like that. I always expected we'd play again, but that was the only time, unfortunately. It's another goodbye to another good friend.
He was on the road right until the end, because it's just what you do. When you ain't doing it, something's wrong.
As told to Patrick Doyle