“On my birthday, I want to honor the greatest inspiration I ever had in my life,” he said, before launching into two of Haggard’s most iconic songs: “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Two days after that benefit concert for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Gill, who is enshrined in the Hall of Fame with Haggard, paid tribute to the late country legend on stage at the Grand Ole Opry with a heartfelt original song called “A World Without Haggard.” Seated on a stool within the stage’s famed wooden circle and wearing a gray fedora, Gill strummed guitar and was accompanied by steel guitar player Paul Franklin, his fellow member in the Time Jumpers and his partner on the 2013 LP, Bakersfield, which paid homage to Haggard and Buck Owens.
“I was on the road in Georgia when I heard Merle had passed away,” Gill poignantly sings in the opening line. “Hell, I thought he’d live forever. He shaped every note I played.”
In the song’s chorus, Gill laments, “I’m lost in a world without Haggard. Who’ll tell the truth to you and me? I’m lost in a world without Haggard. It’s a world I thought I would never see.”
Gill’s long history of honoring his heroes and friends in country music stretches back to the early Nineties, following the 1989 death of country singer Keith Whitley. At the time, Gill began writing a song to honor Whitley, but it remained unfinished until Gill lost his older brother, Bob, to a heart attack in 1993. Released in 1995, and featuring backing vocals from Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless, “Go Rest High on That Mountain” would go on to win two Grammys and be named CMA Song of the Year. At the 2013 funeral of George Jones, Gill was overcome with emotion while singing the song. Earlier this year, during Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, Gill debuted “Sad One Comin’ On,” which he had written for the late George Jones.
While he manages to maintain his composure throughout the six-minute performance, Gill’s emotional tribute to Haggard – which also features a positively spine-chilling steel-guitar break from Franklin – beautifully conveys the thoughts and feelings shared by Haggard’s fans since his passing.
Released in February, Gill’s latest LP, Down to My Last Bad Habit, features guest appearances from Little Big Town and Cam.