Marty Haggard has just pulled the family motorhome into Lake City, Colo., elevation 8,600 feet. The Western Slope town of 200 has so many deer they just walk around like stray dogs, unmolested and practically unnoticed.
This is Marty’s kind of place, because, like the single-traffic-signal Louisiana town he calls home, it’s got vastly more wildlife than wild life. Marty is getting ready to play at a cozy little outdoor venue called the Sportsman's Backyard at an event that’ll temporarily double the town’s population. But at the moment his mind is on the landscape, not the playlist.
“Took us two hours to go 40 miles,” Haggard says in the family baritone. “I’ve done a lot of things on the road but this is a first.”
Haggard, the 58-year-old eldest son of country-music legend Merle Haggard, is experiencing another first too on this, his latest series of road trips: Talking about his father in the past tense.
That road trip brings him to Bakersfield, his father’s hometown, for a political fundraiser Friday night at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame.
“Now it’s ‘he did’ and ‘he was,’ and that’s just odd,” Haggard says. “Everywhere I go, everyone knows him, and I’m constantly reminded that he died. But the one heartwarming thing I’ve seen is his influence on their lives. I’ve seen full-grown Texas cowboys tear up when they’re talking about him.”
His warm but strong baritone, then, is undoubtedly comforting to those who miss the rich fullness of his father’s famous voice.
He’s without question the Haggard boy who sounds closest to Merle, who died April 6 at age 79.
“Yeah, I sound like dad,” Marty acknowledges. “Benny (at 23, the youngest), he’s got a good voice but he doesn’t sound like him. Noel (52) sounds a little like dad. They tell me I sound the most like him. Me and Noel look just like my dad, too, Noel when dad was young and handsome. Me — I look like my dad a couple of days after he died. I’ve got those deep creases.”
Things have been good for Marty, professionally speaking, these past couple of years. “Dad dying might have had a little to do with it,” he says, “but last year was good too.”
He, his wife and their young son are on the road for a month at a time in their little motorhome. The other key musician in the band is guitarist Eugene Moles, a lifelong friend whose father, Gene Moles, played with the Ventures, Jimmy Thomason, Cousin Herb Henson and, for a year while Roy Nichols was ill and convalescing, Merle Haggard’s Strangers. Eugene got the guitar gene from Gene.
“Eugene was born the day after I was,” Marty says of his friend. “We went to high school together, we dropped out of high school together, and we’ve been playing together off and on since we were 18, 19. Out of all the guitar players who’ve come out of Bakersfield, and there have been a lot of great ones, he’s twice the player of any of them.”
Eugene indeed can shred; he’s been a much-in-demand session player in Nashville for years. But this Bakersfield performance, a fundraiser for mayoral candidate Kyle Carter, who owns the venue, won’t be that kind of show. Configured for fewer than 200, it’s too small for shrieking Telecasters, which suits Marty fine. (A few seats remain; tickets are $150 for dinner and the show or $170 for dinner, show and hosted pre-show cocktail hour starting at 5:30 p.m. Call (661) 864-1701 for details.)
“I hope people leave feeling like they’ve been sitting in my living room,” he says. “I don’t consider what I do a show, I consider it a sharing. I like to eliminate the distance between the audience and me as quick as possible.”
He’ll give folks equal parts Marty and Merle. “It’s probably a half and half kind of deal,” Marty said. “I’ll be doing a little tribute to my dad sprinkled in throughout the evening.”
Much of the evening, therefore, will seem pretty familiar to most in attendance. The most jarring exception: all of those past-tense references to Merle Haggard. It’ll take a while to get used to that.