When I think of Merle Haggard, I'm often transported back to the winter of 1970—riding the bus to school, 25 miles or so, across snowy Gila County to Payson. The driver played KNIX (a country radio station out of Phoenix) loudly over stereo speakers in the bus.
On this particular morning, the bus crossing a river bridge, a song new to me blasted over the speakers: "Wehhhlll, I'm prowwwd tuh beee an O-keee frum Mus-ko-geee ... place wur evun skwares cun have uh bawwwl ..."
Huh? The 8-year-old hippie kid from Tucson sat perplexed. What was the singer trying to say? Haggard was his name—Merle Haggard. I'd never before heard such a name—nor such a song—but I sure would, from there on out.
Over his 50-year career, Merle Haggard was the total package: trendsetting songwriter, evocative singer, player, showman. His impact on music in general will not be surpassed. I do a little singing myself, and "Okie From Muskogee" is one of my go-to cover songs. Hag lived a life in and out of trouble, which makes me identify with him even more. To see him in concert was a true thrill—one I'll always remember.