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Flashback: Merle Haggard Sings an Emotional ‘If I Could Only Fly’

Haggard dedicated the 1986 performance to his mentor Lewis Talley

On April 6th, 2016, his 79th birthday, country music icon Merle Haggard died at his home in California’s San Joaquin Valley after a battle with pneumonia. In the three years since his passing, Haggard’s already sizeable legacy continues to inspire country artists and others touched by his image as the “poet of the common man.”

Merle Haggard was one of the chief architects of the Bakersfield Sound, the hugely influential West Coast-based sub-genre of country music. The city’s first recording studio dedicated to country music was Tally Records, co-owned by Charles “Fuzzy” Owen and his cousin, Lewis Talley. Operated at several locations throughout Bakersfield as the music’s popularity increased, others who recorded at Tally included Buck Owens — who cut a rockabilly record credited as “Corky Jones,” and his first wife, Bonnie Owens, who was later to become Merle’s second wife. Haggard, just out of San Quentin Prison in 1960, was getting booked for club dates and local TV by Talley, and in 1962, cut his first Tally Records single, “Singing My Heart Out,” backed with “Skid Row.”

With “Sing a Sad Song,” Haggard first entered the Billboard country charts at the end of 1963, reaching Number 19. His next three singles, also on Tally, would chart, including his first Top 10 entry — and last single for Tally — (“My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” penned by Liz Anderson, mother of “Rose Garden” singer Lynn Anderson and the co-writer of his first Number One single in 1967, “The Fugitive.” By that time, of course, Haggard’s Tally contract was acquired by Capitol Records, where he would score a total of 24 chart-toppers through 1976. But he continued to remain loyal to Owen and Talley. In 1974, Haggard, who was soon to vacate his Capitol contract for MCA, formed his own imprint there called Tally-MCA.

In addition to his role as a manager, booking agent, studio owner and record producer, Lewis Talley was a songwriter, having penned, with Owen, “A Dear John Letter,” the six-week Number One hit for Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky. Talley, who suffered a fatal heart attack on Haggard’s houseboat on Lake Shasta in 1985, was fondly remembered in a live appearance by Haggard a year and two weeks after his passing.

“He was my press secretary, he was my first fan,” Haggard tells Nashville Now host Ralph Emery in the above clip from 1986, as he lightly strums his guitar. “He was a lot of things to me.”

Chief among Talley’s most prized traits for Haggard were his honest opinions, an example of which was his appraisal of “If I Could Only Fly,” a song that, although Haggard didn’t write it, would become closely associated with the singer because of two versions he recorded. Shortly before his death, Talley would, according to Haggard, refer to it as “the best damn song I’ve heard in 15 years,” and Haggard would perform the song at his friend’s funeral.

Written by mercurial tunesmith Blaze Foley, “If I Could Only Fly” appeared on Haggard’s 1987 duets LP with Willie Nelson, Seashores of Old Mexico, and was released as a single at the time, although it failed to reach country’s Top 50. More than a decade after this performance, the song served as the title cut of the 2000 album seen as a creative renaissance for Haggard, whose most recent releases had been regarded as frustratingly hit-or-miss.

The legend’s impassioned, nearly tearful, vocal performance here and the nothing-short-of-heartbreaking fiddle solo by Strangers band member Jimmy Belken (who died in 2000) make the entire clip one of the most poignant, chilling tributes not only to Talley, but also to Foley and certainly to Haggard himself.

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