Merle Haggard, who died last week at 79, considered Willie Nelson one of his closest friends. “I love Willie and I think Willie loves me,” Haggard told Rolling Stone in 2014, detailing how the two bonded on the Nevada casino circuit in the Seventies. “We’d play a couple of long shows a day, then spend all night long jamming,” said Haggard. “There’s seldom a straight moment between us. He likes to pop a good funny, and so do I.” They went on to score a Number One hit with 1983’s “Pancho and Lefty.”
As the two got older, Haggard came to admire Nelson’s work ethic as well as his talent. “That’s why we all admire Willie: because he doesn’t go out every six years. He goes out every six minutes, and he’s on all the time. Anytime you call on him, he can handle it. He can be Willie Nelson. He’s gonna do it till he drops. I guess I’m the same way.” Nelson spoke with Rolling Stone about their friendship, which Nelson calls “a bond that went a long way.”
Merle and I were buddies from way back. I first met him at a poker game at my house in Nashville in the early Sixties, before he went back to Bakersfield and I went back to Texas. We always had a lot in common. We both hopped trains as kids. We both got our starts playing bass in other bands before stepping out on our own. We’d both been married for the last 20 years. We both had our sons playing guitar with us. Over the years, we played a lot of dates, a lot of poker. He was a great audience for my jokes. I told him recently, “You know what you call a guitar player without a girlfriend? Homeless,” and he laughed.
“I always had a lot of admiration for him.”
In the early Eighties, he came to stay with me in Texas to record. We were living pretty hard back then, but we’d also try to be a little healthy. We used to go jogging a lot. We’d burn one down and run two miles in cowboy boots. In Texas, we went on a 10-day cayenne-pepper juice cleanse. It was horrible. One day after we’d been up all night, Merle went to the condo to get some rest. Around 4 a.m., we woke him up to sing his part on “Pancho and Lefty.” He sang it half in his sleep, but Hag sings pretty good in his sleep.
I always had a lot of admiration for him. He came onto the scene with a bang. He wrote more Number One songs than me, Kris [Kristofferson], anybody. He was a great one to follow. He was able to talk about his life in his songs intelligently and ingeniously, really. And from the time he met Johnny Cash in prison to “Okie from Muskogee,” it’s a great story.
It’s hard to pick a favorite Merle song. “Looking For A Place to Fall Apart” is a great one. “Somewhere Between” is another. He could play guitar with anybody. When we’d play together, he’d do his show and I’d sing a couple with him and then he’d come back out on my show and just jam the rest of the evening. It was so much fun.
Merle was also a great imitator. I just happened to see a thing recently with him on the Glen Campell show. Merle does imitations of Glen, Johnny Cash and Buck Owens. He does a great job.
Last year, we did another record together, Django and Jimmie. We’d text ideas back and forth. He wrote a song called “The Only Man Wilder Than Me,” which I took as a great compliment. Our last tour was special. I loved singing “Okie From Muskogee” with him. He wrote that song straight from the heart. But as he lived, his thinking progressed. The last time we did it, it was tongue-in-cheek, and the audience knew it. That’s the way he was – he always evolved.
When he called me to cancel the tour, he told me he had lung cancer. I told him they have a lot of great stuff these days, and they can do miracles. I was hoping they would be able to do something, but it had already gone too far, I guess. We’re finishing the tour in Merle’s honor. We’re getting through it.
The Django and Jimmie album and tour were big hits, and we had a lot of fun together. His last year was probably one of his best ones. Old Merle’s timing has always been perfect, and it was here, too.
As told to Patrick Doyle