As country music reacted to the loss of the legendary Merle Haggard, who died on his 79th birthday this week, many of the tributes focused on the singer-songwriter’s influence as a “poet of the common man.” While the moniker certainly fits, it’s easy to overlook another of his greatest qualities, which was the reverence he had for artists who influenced him and the contemporary musicians he greatly admired.
Yet, Haggard’s admiration went one step further in the case of a handful of the country stars he could impersonate with startling accuracy. As Dwight Yoakam told Rolling Stone, “He was great at doing impressions. His Buck Owens impersonation is hilarious. It’s eerily, spot-on Buck. Merle brought me on in Vegas that night and he did one of those for me. He moved his leg and danced a little bit like I’m known to do. And that’s something that I’ll remember forever.”
As the saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and by all accounts the stars who were the subject of Haggard’s impressions were flattered, even Buck Owens, whose first wife, singer Bonnie Owens, divorced him and went on to become Haggard’s second wife (and longtime back-up singer). In January 1972, during an episode of the CBS variety series, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, Haggard not only appeared as musical guest, but he also brought to life (through his flawlessly executed impressions), a Mount Rushmore of country giants, singing snippets of classic hits from Marty Robbins (“Devil Woman”), Hank Snow (“I’m Movin’ On”) and tackling impersonations of Buck Owens and Johnny Cash with both men lurking nearby.
As Haggard not only mimicked Owens’ signing voice (with “Love’s Gonna Live Here”) he also nailed the Hee Haw star’s bouncing shoulders and half-closed eyes with his performance. Owens then snuck up behind him and put his hands over Merle’s eyes, while harmonizing with Haggard, as Campbell grinned and played guitar in the background. Next up, at Owens’ request, was an impression of Johnny Cash, and, naturally, the real-life Man in Black interrupted the Hag’s rendition of the hit “Jackson,” with both of them singing Johnny’s part of the duet originally recorded by Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash. Although unseen in this clip, June was a guest on the episode, which also featured appearances from singer Freddie Hart and comedienne Minnie Pearl.
Remarkably, with both Haggard and Cash singing the same line of the song, it’s a little tough to figure out which voice is which. Yet, it’s easy to see the great respect that all of these artists have for one another. Often imitated, they will certainly never be equaled.