This past April, country music lost a giant of the genre when the legendary Merle Haggard unexpectedly passed away at age 79. Alongside Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Haggard was one of country music’s celebrated outlaws and, alongside Buck Owens, was an originator of the “Bakersfield sound.”
Over the course of 65 albums, Haggard racked up 40 No. 1 singles, earning two Grammy Awards, several Country Music Association nominations and in 1994, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“When I hear the word ‘legend,’ all I hope is that people aren’t over-exaggerating the situation,” Haggard told me in the week leading up to what would be his final performance in Moncton in May 2013. “It certainly is great to be considered the way they do, though.”
Given Haggard’s numerous accomplishments, including the impact he had upon country music, one couldn’t blame him if he did choose to be a little boastful about his standing in the music business.
Haggard’s remarkable humility comes as no surprise to his son Marty, who will be performing the music of his father along with some of his own original material at the Moncton Wesleyan Celebration Centre on Monday Sept. 26.
“My father was humble and a thinker, but he was nobody’s dummy,” Marty says. “He realized his success stemmed from more or less being in the right place at the right time with the right external circumstances. [1969’s] ‘Okie From Muskogee’ became a hit all because of timing. My father realized that; he never took one moment of his success for granted. He knew he had a talent, but remained spiritually grounded throughout his life. Even as he recognized his dying day was coming, he would say that we all stand eye-to-eye in the grave; why would we not do that in life?”
Born and raised in Bakersfield, California, some will argue it was inevitable that Marty would follow in his father’s footsteps. In the late 70’s, he began touring with his own band, signing his first record deal in 1981. Shortly after, Marty was recruited by his father to join his backing band.
“I had originally gone on tour with my father to help manage merchandise. One day, as I was getting ready, I walked by the stage and my father informed me that he and his wife Leona Williams were divorcing and that he would need me on stage until they could recruit someone to finish the tour. Two years later, I was still on that stage,” Marty says with a laugh.
The early 80’s were good to Merle Haggard. In 1983, he and his friend Willie Nelson scored a major hit with their collaborative album Pancho and Lefty. As Marty continued touring the concert stages of the world with his father, he says he considers that era to be the peak of his father’s career.
“That was a time both my father and his band were at their very best. It was inspiring to be on stage with that band every night. It wasn’t until I left the group in 1985 that I gained a real appreciation for just how much I learned in those few years I spent travelling with them.”
After striking out on his own again, Marty signed a second recording contract in 1986. His single “Trains Make Me Lonesome” earned the singer an Academy of Country Music Award nomination. The song was later covered by George Strait.
Following the release of albums in 2000 and 2009, Marty then turned his attention towards his father’s catalogue of music. He released A Tribute To Merle Haggard: My Dad in 2010, on which he performed classics including “Mama Tried” and “Silver Wings.” The next year, Marty released a second recorded volume of his father’s music.
He shares that his show at the Moncton Wesleyan Celebration Centre on Monday evening is a celebration of his father’s music with some of his original material thrown in for good measure.
“I’ve been playing my father’s music since long before we lost him. One of the aspects I enjoy most about it is having the chance to share stories behind some of the songs. My father held his cards a little closer to his vest, but I have no problem talking whatsoever,” Marty says with a laugh.
Asked about the emotional impact playing his father’s music has upon him now that he has been shuffled off this mortal coil, Marty says some shows are tougher than others. What never fails to surprise him, however, is the reaction that his father’s music elicits from those in attendance.
“Seeing the effect that my father’s music has had upon everyday people is probably the most powerful aspect of every show. I see a lot of smiles and a lot of tears every night, but I can also take comfort knowing his music is still bringing people together from all walks of life.”
What: Marty Haggard
When: Monday Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Moncton Wesleyan Celebration Centre, 945 St. George Blvd., Moncton
Tickets are $45 plus taxes and service charges. Advance tickets are available by phone at 1-877-700-3130 and online at www.celebrationcentre.ca