As American icon Merle Haggard entered the twilight of his career, and unfortunately neared the end of his life, organizations and awards shows celebrated his monumental legacy with tributes that often called upon other artists who were influenced by the man and his music. The last time Haggard was in attendance for one such tribute was at the CMT Artists of the Year special, airing live from Nashville in December 2014.
Although he didn’t perform, the Hag, who received the Artist of a Lifetime Award from Billy Bob Thornton, watched from the audience as Eric Church, Ashley Monroe and an all-star band unleashed a fiery version of his 1969 classic “Workin’ Man Blues.” Church’s connection to one of the chief architects of country’s Bakersfield Sound stretches back to 2006 and his debut record, Sinners Like Me, which featured a tune called “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” boasting a special appearance from Haggard himself. Monroe was also in attendance to support her friend and Pistol Annies’ bandmate, Miranda Lambert, who was one the Artists of the Year honored.
The lead track from the LP A Portrait of Merle Haggard, “Workin’ Man Blues” would become an anthem for Haggard’s blue-collar fans and was his seventh Number One single following the album’s first chart-topper, “Hungry Eyes.” For this CMT special, T Bone Burnett and Nashville regular Colin Linden backed up Church and Monroe on rhythm and lead guitar, respectively, with Linden providing some mesmerizing slide licks as Haggard looked on from the crowd.
Haggard and Lambert both find themselves in the midst of a current controversy that began when musician Sturgill Simpson expressed his “disgust” at the creation of an award bearing Haggard’s name by the California-based Academy of Country Music. The inaugural Merle Haggard Spirit Award will be given to Miranda Lambert during the ACM Honors event, which will air on CBS on September 9th. Lambert has been a lifelong Haggard disciple. In 2003, as a contestant on USA’s Nashville Star, she performed his “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and at the 2010 All for the Hall fundraiser in Nashville sang the barroom anthem “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
In October 2015, Haggard made his final appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. His last-ever TV performance was in late 2015 for the DirecTV Audience series Guitar Center Sessions, during which he performed another of his signature songs, “Okie From Muskogee.” Haggard died earlier this year on April 6th, his 79th birthday.