Jamey Johnson is one of the fortunate individuals to have counted the late Merle Haggard among his friends, and his honest, sympathetic approach to songs about working-class life makes him one of the country legend’s closest modern analogs. The two performed together on numerous occasions and, in 2012, Haggard joined Johnson for a version of Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard’s “I Fall to Pieces” that appeared on Johnson’s album Livin’ For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran. Following Haggard’s death on April 6th, Johnson shared his memories of the country legend’s friendship and invaluable songwriting advice.
There was a time when I really wasn’t right, and I didn’t have any inspiration or motivation to write songs. Then Merle told me, “I wish you’d write some more songs just because I want to hear them.” Those were the words that got me crawling out of my slump and trying to find my voice again.
Merle Haggard was a mentor to me. But more than that, he cared about me. He wanted to make sure I learned something from him — not just the music, not just the lifestyle, but something good. You’ve heard it said, “You give a man a fish, he eats for a day. You teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Merle taught me how to make music, and that’s how I make my living and feed my family today. I couldn’t owe anybody a greater debt of gratitude than I owe Merle Haggard.
Bobby Bare introduced us at a party in 2008. I started off with a joke, and I guess he liked it. Then we got booked on a show in Hodag, Wisconsin — I’ll never forget the name of that place. He asked me to hang out on the bus a little bit, and we realized we had a couple of good things in common. We were smoking those, and then discovered we had some other things in common. He had a lot of respect for military men and women. He loved that I had served. Soon, I’m getting phone calls to talk about fishing, about musicians, phone calls just to talk. He’d call me up at 3 a.m. to talk about writing and song parts.
Merle told me to write about the parts of you that hurt the most. That’s the spot where he wrote from: He’d find the richest source of pain and write from that perspective. Just listen to “Kern River,” or “Today I Started Loving You Again.”
Once he told me, “I woke up this morning and I had a spot on my leg about the size of a quarter. It didn’t hurt, so I reached down and pinched the living shit out of it.” That was his sense of humor.
Merle had a very deep patriotic core. He wrote about topics that improved my character. I had to look them up and see what they’re about. “Okie From Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” He made me proud to be who I was. I think of him as strong a character as our Founding Fathers. It never really dawned on me to consider him that way until the Kennedy Center Honors. When I looked at Merle Haggard that night, it was a lot like looking at Abraham Lincoln. He had that stature about him.
I’m filling in for him on the tour he’d planned with Willie Nelson, and we’re playing all the Merle songs we know (and some we don’t). When I got the call, they said it was nine dates, so I was thinking it would take, maybe, three weeks. But it was nine shows in 11 days! I’ve got nothing on them, man. And from playing his songs, I can tell you he enjoyed challenging musicians. He enjoyed the chords that you wouldn’t think to put in that order. He really wanted to make something worth listening to. It wasn’t just music for him. It was the most important thing in the world.
As told to Patrick Doyle