Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Clint Eastwood Remember Merle Haggard
“He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him,” writes Willie Nelson in a tweet, accompanied by a photo of himself sharing a laugh with the late Merle Haggard and a link to view their iconic “Pancho and Lefty” video. Nelson and Haggard were indeed as close as family, with their musical and personal bonds dating back to long before that first collaboration, and spanning through Haggard’s death today at the age of 79.
Just last summer, the two country music treasures celebrated the Number One debut of their Django and Jimmie album. “It’s a mutual-admiration society with us,” Nelson said in an interview promoting their new music. “Merle’s one of the best. There’s not anyone out there that can beat him.”
Haggard once admitted a big crush on Dolly Parton, with whom he toured in 1974 and 1975. Their many collaborations included a few songs on Parton’s own television show. “We’ve lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time,” says Parton. “His heart was as tender as his love ballads. I loved him like a brother. Rest easy, Merle.”
Movie legend Clint Eastwood worked with Haggard on the 1980 Wild West film, Bronco Billy. The late singer contributed the song “Bar Room Buddies” to the movie’s soundtrack. “We had a lot of fun in the recording studio,” Eastwood tells Rolling Stone Country, “and the song even made it to Number One during that era. Merle will always be one of the greatest classic country artists of all time. He will be dearly missed.”
Fellow Oscar winner Ron Howard acted alongside Haggard in the 1975 film, Huckleberry Finn. “He was a great communicator and a powerful performer,” Howard tells Rolling Stone Country. “I remembered being very impressed with him. He was a huge star at that point. His controversies were known but behind him. He was very gracious. . . He was excited to be there since he didn’t consider himself an actor — he was learning as he went. There was a confidence and humility.”
A proven disciple of Haggard, Sturgill Simpson just recently forged a friendship with the late legend. “We lost a true hero today and I am very, very sad to say a true friend. I will always be eternally grateful,” Simpson writes.
Wynonna’s very first concert as a fan was the double bill of Merle Haggard and George Jones, when she was just 15 years old. “Watching them, I knew that night that I wanted to be in country music,” she says. “Years later, Mama and I would be opening for both legendary artists. Those experiences taught me the greatest lessons that I continue to draw strength from even today. Their example encouraged me to not just be a good singer but to strive for excellence, to be a stylist. . . Merle’s passing is the end of an era. I am reminded once again that we must not ever forget where we have come from in country music.”
Tanya Tucker famously dated Haggard many, many years ago, and the two remained friends until his death. “I just can’t imagine a world without Merle,” says Tucker. “We played a lot of gigs together through the years, but some of my fondest memories were hanging out in a natural setting, like the time we sat there by the river in his backyard and ate bologna sandwiches. Merle was a simple man with incredible talent like no other. And now he’s up there singing with George [Jones] and all the angels.”
Hank Williams, Jr., another friend and collaborator of the late legend, deems Haggard “an original.” The two recorded a remake of the Hag’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” in 2013. “He was your common everyday working man,” says Williams. “I remember when I was 15 years old on tour with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. They both were wondering which one of the two was going to make it. Well, they both made it. Today, ole Merle joined Waylon, George, and Daddy to sing in the Heavenly choir.”
Toby Keith shared the stage with Haggard numerous times over the years and recruited the artist to sing the song “She Ain’t Hooked On Me No More” for his 2005 album Honkytonk University. “The greatest singer songwriter of my lifetime is gone. Thanks for the music and friendship,” he tweeted.
Jake Owen’s appreciation of Haggard is so deep that he named one of his dogs Merle. He poetically connected today’s stormy weather in Nashville to his hero’s death. “Nobody ever sang a song with the heart and emotion that @merlehaggard did. No wonder it’s raining today. Even God is crying,” Owen tweeted.
Clint Black co-wrote two songs with Haggard, “Untanglin’ My Mind” and “The Kid.” “I was lucky to have him as a special guest on my first headline tour and got to know my biggest musical hero up close,” says Black. “It was a magical. He and I had a lot of hang time on my bus, which was too big a deal to have even been imagined for a bucket list. He was generous with the stories from his life and I could’ve sat across from him and listened for hours. . . There are no words to describe what his music and the time I had with him meant to me.”
Gretchen Wilson, who recorded the song “Politically Uncorrect” with Haggard for her 2005 album All Jacked Up, praised the singer’s authenticity. “He was as real as they get. . . He sang about what he knew. And his rare but honest approach to music inspired everyone who heard him.”
Jason Isbell, who had been scheduled to share the stage with Haggard in May, tweeted that he was “the best country songwriter there ever was.”