"He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him," writes Willie Nelson in a tweet, accompanied by a photo of himself sharing a laugh with the late Merle Haggard and a link to view their iconic "Pancho and Lefty" video. Nelson and Haggard were indeed as close as family, with their musical and personal bonds dating back to long before that first collaboration, and spanning through Haggard's death today at the age of 79.
Just last summer, the two country music treasures celebrated the Number One debut of their Django and Jimmie album. "It's a mutual-admiration society with us," Nelson said in an interview promoting their new music. "Merle's one of the best. There's not anyone out there that can beat him."
Haggard once admitted a big crush on Dolly Parton, with whom he toured in 1974 and 1975. Their many collaborations included a few songs on Parton's own television show. "We've lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time," says Parton. "His heart was as tender as his love ballads. I loved him like a brother. Rest easy, Merle."
Movie legend Clint Eastwood worked with Haggard on the 1980 Wild West film, Bronco Billy. The late singer contributed the song "Bar Room Buddies" to the movie's soundtrack. "We had a lot of fun in the recording studio," Eastwood tells Rolling Stone Country, "and the song even made it to Number One during that era. Merle will always be one of the greatest classic country artists of all time. He will be dearly missed."
Fellow Oscar winner Ron Howard acted alongside Haggard in the 1975 film, Huckleberry Finn. "He was a great communicator and a powerful performer," Howard tells Rolling Stone Country. "I remembered being very impressed with him. He was a huge star at that point. His controversies were known but behind him. He was very gracious. . . He was excited to be there since he didn’t consider himself an actor — he was learning as he went. There was a confidence and humility."
A proven disciple of Haggard, Sturgill Simpson just recently forged a friendship with the late legend. "We lost a true hero today and I am very, very sad to say a true friend. I will always be eternally grateful," Simpson writes.
Wynonna's very first concert as a fan was the double bill of Merle Haggard and George Jones, when she was just 15 years old. "Watching them, I knew that night that I wanted to be in country music," she says. "Years later, Mama and I would be opening for both legendary artists. Those experiences taught me the greatest lessons that I continue to draw strength from even today. Their example encouraged me to not just be a good singer but to strive for excellence, to be a stylist. . . Merle's passing is the end of an era. I am reminded once again that we must not ever forget where we have come from in country music."
Tanya Tucker famously dated Haggard many, many years ago, and the two remained friends until his death. "I just can't imagine a world without Merle," says Tucker. "We played a lot of gigs together through the years, but some of my fondest memories were hanging out in a natural setting, like the time we sat there by the river in his backyard and ate bologna sandwiches. Merle was a simple man with incredible talent like no other. And now he’s up there singing with George [Jones] and all the angels."
Hank Williams, Jr., another friend and collaborator of the late legend, deems Haggard "an original." The two recorded a remake of the Hag's "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" in 2013. "He was your common everyday working man," says Williams. "I remember when I was 15 years old on tour with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. They both were wondering which one of the two was going to make it. Well, they both made it. Today, ole Merle joined Waylon, George, and Daddy to sing in the Heavenly choir."
Toby Keith shared the stage with Haggard numerous times over the years and recruited the artist to sing the song "She Ain't Hooked On Me No More" for his 2005 album Honkytonk University. "The greatest singer songwriter of my lifetime is gone. Thanks for the music and friendship," he tweeted.
Jake Owen's appreciation of Haggard is so deep that he named one of his dogs Merle. He poetically connected today's stormy weather in Nashville to his hero's death. "Nobody ever sang a song with the heart and emotion that @merlehaggard did. No wonder it's raining today. Even God is crying," Owen tweeted.
Clint Black co-wrote two songs with Haggard, "Untanglin' My Mind" and "The Kid." "I was lucky to have him as a special guest on my first headline tour and got to know my biggest musical hero up close," says Black. "It was a magical. He and I had a lot of hang time on my bus, which was too big a deal to have even been imagined for a bucket list. He was generous with the stories from his life and I could've sat across from him and listened for hours. . . There are no words to describe what his music and the time I had with him meant to me."
Gretchen Wilson, who recorded the song "Politically Uncorrect" with Haggard for her 2005 album All Jacked Up, praised the singer's authenticity. "He was as real as they get. . . He sang about what he knew. And his rare but honest approach to music inspired everyone who heard him."
Jason Isbell, who had been scheduled to share the stage with Haggard in May, tweeted that he was "the best country songwriter there ever was."
Incoming Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Daniels cut a version of "Walkin' the Floor Over You" with Haggard on Ernest Tubb's 1979 album The Legend and the Legacy. "Country music has suffered one of the greatest losses it will ever experience," he tweeted.
Carrie Underwood grew up in the town of Checotah, Oklahoma, where Haggard's parents lived before they moved to California. She shared her appreciation for the legend: "Love and prayers for the Haggard family. Merle was a pioneer…a true entertainer…a legend. There will never be another like him," she wrote.
Dierks Bentley, who recorded "Pancho and Lefty" for the 2014 tribute album, Working Man's Poet, was devastated. "Literally just fell to the floor. Can't believe we lost the Hag," he tweeted.
Dustin Lynch recorded "That's the Way Love Goes" for that same tribute and recalled the encounters he had with the singer. "Hard to believe the news about Merle Haggard. Working with him is something I'll never forget & will cherish forever," he shared.
Haggard's fellow songwriting legend Bill Anderson remembers him as "a singer's singer, a musician's musician, and a songwriter's songwriter. He set the feelings of the everyday common man to music, creating songs that will outlive us all. I feel privileged to have toured with him and known him as both a great artist and as a friend. His passing leaves a big hole in country music and in the hearts of the millions who loved him and his artistry."
Lorrie Morgan toured with Haggard in the Nineties and counted him as a dear friend and mentor. "When Merle Haggard sang, you paid attention," she says. "He is about as close to perfection in country music as we will probably ever have."
"There will never be another artist like the Hag," Chris Young tweeted.
"We lost one of the best today," wrote Tyler Farr.
"My heart is absolutely broken in two at the news of the loss of Merle Haggard," tweeted Rascal Flatts' Jay DeMarcus. "We keep losing all of the good ones. What a sad, sad day…"
"She's in Love With the Boy" singer Trisha Yearwood, a longtime Haggard admirer, wrote, "Rest in peace, Hag. One of a kind, and the definition of legend."
Brad Paisley helped salute Haggard at the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, singing "Workin' Man Blues." "There are no words to describe the loss & sorrow felt within all of music with the passing of Merle Haggard. Thank God for his life & songs," he tweeted.
The Oak Ridge Boys recorded Haggard's "Sweet Jesus" and sang with the legend for their 2015 gospel album Rock of Ages. "His poetry, his voice and his pure country music style will live forever," writes the group's Joe Bonsall.
Fellow California Native Jon Pardi, whose hard-edged twang draws on the Bakersfield Sound Haggard helped invent, tweeted, "Sad day today @merlehaggard has passed. RIP to a true songwriter, a pioneer of California Country, and country music."
Singer Jason Aldean recorded Haggard's "Going Where the Lonely Go" for Working Man's Poet, and tweeted a photo of himself with the legend. "Extremely sad to hear of the passing of one of the greatest of all time Mr. Merle Haggard," he said.
Shooter Jennings, son of the late Waylon Jennings, is both a fan and disciple of Haggard's music. "Sad to hear the news about another legend dying," he tells Rolling Stone Country. "Thoughts and prayers go out to the whole Haggard clan."
In 2006, Eric Church recruited the very inspiration behind his "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag" to join him on the song. Today, Church sent an email to his fans, containing simply these poignant lyrics:
Rest In Peace.
One of these days when my time has come
You can take me back to where I'm from
Put me on a westbound train
And ship me off in the pourin' rain
Don't cry for me when I'm gone
Just put a quarter in the jukebox and sing me back home and
Tip your hats and raise your glasses of cold cold beer
They say country's fading
But just keep waving that flag around here
And I know it'll keep on coming back
As long as people pledge allegiance
Where folks still pledge allegiance
I pledge allegiance to the Hag