Classic country kingpins Ray Benson and Dale Watson were already deep into recording their first-ever duets album, Dale & Ray, when Merle Haggard died on April 6th, 2016. But Benson, the leader of venerable Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel, knew he had to make room on the LP to honor his late friend and collaborator. Inspired by Haggard's own song titles, he enlisted Watson, a Texas troubadour known for his truck-driving songs and Merle-like voice, to write the heartfelt tribute "Feelin' Haggard."
Benson and Watson also filmed a video for the song with the help of some famous fans of Haggard's. Premiering below on Rolling Stone Country, the clip for "Feelin' Haggard" features appearances by Willie Nelson, George Strait, Kris Kristofferson, Huey Lewis, Steve Earle, Margo Price, Johnny Gimble, Sam Outlaw, Joe Ely, Johnny Knoxville and Jesse Dayton. Each cameo honors Haggard in his or her own subtle way, while Benson and Watson reflect on the Country Music Hall of Famer and tool around in their classic cars, a Bel-Air for Benson and an Edsel of Watson's.
The highlight, however, is rare footage of Haggard in the studio. As Watson says, it's a "side of Merle that I've never seen. He's just happy and jumping around."
How did "Feelin' Haggard" come about?
Ray Benson: The song started the day after Merle died. I was doing a radio show for XM radio and I told the [SiriusXM producers] I'm calling it Feelin' Haggard. I went, 'Wow, I have to write this song.' I called George Strait and he was way too busy, so who do you call next after George Strait? Dale Watson.
Dale Watson: [Laughs]. I was very honored. We were already in the process of making our album and we never would hope to have to [record] a song about Merle Haggard passing, but when he brought this to me, I said, "Man, I feel the same way." And so many people do. He hit the nail on the head with the chorus.
Benson: If I would think about it, I would never have written a song using his song titles, but they worked so well and conveyed the feeling. So I went, "Hey, this song is working." And the combination of our voices is the magic in it. When you sing "Feelin' Haggard," you can tell we really mean it, because Merle meant so much to Dale and myself. He was an inspiration.
It's not as much a tribute to Haggard then as it is a cathartic song for you both?
Watson: It's about the effects of losing someone so important. But he is always here, as long as we're singing, he'll always be with us.
Benson: The song is about us, it's a tribute to Merle for sure, but it's about us. I got to play with Merle many times and was his band on the Last of the Breed Tour, backing him up. I did three records with him, and we were good friends.
One of the famous Haggard fans in the video is George Strait, who is seen playing a Haggard model Telecaster. What's the story behind that?
Benson: The day after [Haggard] passed away, George's son Bubba called me up and said, "I want to get George one of those Merle Haggard guitars." But they usually take two, three years to get because they have to build them. So I called up Fender and said, "Hey, George really wants this and I think it'd be appropriate." Because [Haggard's 1970 Bob Wills tribute album] The Best Damn Fiddle Player was really the reason we started doing Bob Wills material as well as Merle Haggard.
What song of Haggard's first made an impact on you?
Watson: "The Bottle Let Me Down." I played that record over and over, and on the flip side was a song called "The Longer You Wait."
Benson: "Sing Me Back Home" and then "Okie From Muskogee." But "Okie" was a little disturbing, because we were hippies who were against the war in Vietnam and we were like, "I love Merle Haggard. Why is he doing this song?" It was very tentative times in the Sixties, where it was either us or them, and Merle personified that, but Merle was actually everything. We were young hippies, but we loved country music and it really unified us, because the country was so divided in 1969 over the Vietnam War. It was amazing as time went on to see how Willie Nelson and Haggard were able to bring these disparate groups together.