Perhaps being the subject of rapturous adoration for so many decades made Merle Haggard wary of easy praise, both receiving and giving it — especially giving it.
But one performer so thoroughly delighted him that Haggard once paid the guy the curmudgeon’s ultimate compliment: “He’s so good, it makes you sick.”
Haggard was talking about Vince Gill, recognizing in that next-generation performer what so many saw in him: the rare triple threat of extraordinary songwriter, gifted vocalist and thrilling musician. He loved Gill’s expressive tenor voice so much, in fact, that he asked the singer to contribute vocals to some of the last songs he ever recorded, just weeks before Haggard's death on April 6, which also happened to be his 79th birthday.
“I remember one time he called and I missed his call,” Gill said Wednesday from his Nashville home, speaking to The Californian in tribute to Haggard, included with our annual In Memoriam edition of reflections.
“I had my ringer off, and I was so mad. C’mon, no! And I saved that voice mail. I’ve still got it. ‘Hey, Vince, this is old Merle. I was just thinking about you. Wanted to thank you for singing on my new record.’ He said, ‘I sure love you for it.’”
Gill met Haggard in 1981 after the Los Angeles-based up-and-comer had written a song for Haggard's then-wife, Leona Williams.
"I met him after playing a beer joint in Colorado. He actually knew who I was, this kid. Life was pretty well complete at that point."
Gill had planned to call Haggard on his birthday but awoke while on tour in Georgia to the news of his friend's death. To steady himself, he sat down to write and had "A World Without Haggard" ready to play live a couple of nights later. A video of Gill performing the song was played at Haggard's Bakersfield memorial service.
"You know, everybody’s going to write a song about losing Merle. What I'm proudest of about that song is it’s not really a song that has all of his song titles in it. It’s more of a testament to who and what he was. He spent time in San Quentin for things that he’d done wrong — that’s what I liked most about him is that he didn’t run from his mistakes. He owned his own troubles. He told the truth, whatever it was, and the rest of it be damned."
Here's more of Gill's reflections on Haggard's artistry, their final collaboration and the legacy of the Bakersfield Sound.
On why Haggard is so singular in the history of country music:
"First, his legacy is because of the length of time that he was creative and writing these wonderful, wonderful, wonderful songs. Hank Williams was as prolific and as great but it was such a short window of time that we had with Hank Williams. Willie (Nelson) is about the only one we have around who has that history of a songwriting career.
"Also, he was easily one of the best two country singers who ever sang country music. Merle was a great singer — George Jones was, too, but he couldn't play the guitar like Merle, who could have been just a great musician. He played in Buck's band early on. He was also a great bandleader. His band that he put together and the kind of musicians that were part of his touring band, he kept them forever. And the band was as much a part of his sound as anything. Roy Nichols and Norm (Hamlet) and Biff (Adam) — those guys were an unbelievable core of a band.
"I scratched my head my whole life. Why was he so good, why did he have a slant on these songs that had such a different kind of heart in them? There was just a different kind of reflection there.
"And I think, for me, I stumbled onto it after he passed. The fact that he actually did spend a few years in prison gave him a perspective that nobody else had. That he spent that much time having his freedom taken away from him. And you think about us as a country. What are we most prideful about? Freedom. So he literally knew how it felt to not be free and I think it gave him a total different slant and different place to reflect from and create these songs from."
On the deceptive simplicity of Haggard's songs, using as an example the 1969 hit "Silver Wings," whose lyrics basically consist of describing an airplane:
"The next time you listen to it, say to yourself, 'If I threw in something else, would it add anything?' And the answer would be a profound no. You said everything that needs to be said.
"'Today I Started Loving You Again' has one verse. 'Holding Things Together' has one verse, one chorus. More verbiage is just more verbiage. That's what he knew. That’s what’s so beautiful about his songs — they lived in such a beautiful truth. I heard him say it one time. He said, 'Why don’t you just tell the truth? Then you don’t have to worry about anything else. You don’t have to defend the truth. You don’t have to explain the truth. It just kind of is what it is.' It was really beautiful to hear him say that. You don’t have to cover your tracks, you don’t have to think about what you did say, what you didn’t say."
On the last time he worked with Haggard:
"Did Merle know he was dying? Oh, yeah, absolutely he did. I was not with him when I recorded those things. They sent me a file over the computer and you do your work and send it back. That was the case. But just getting to be under the headphones with him. The guy who produced those sessions told me recently, 'Here’s what you should know about when Merle heard what you did. He said he didn’t want to change one note.' And that was as good a compliment as I could ever have gotten.
"There's a lot of history wrapped up in those songs. And I don’t even know that they’re ever coming out."
On whether people will forget the Bakersfield Sound now that its most celebrated performer is gone:
"Well, in time. You can’t expect a 25-year-old to even grasp what it was. You look at country music now, it’s nothing like it was 20 years ago. And it’s even more nothing like it was 40 years ago. And it’s more and more and more and more nothing like it was 60 years ago. People can learn their history, but they don’t just automatically know it. And for us to think people will automatically know the history of Bakersfield and Nashville, the history of Memphis and Chicago — music is always evolving. We can’t claim to be holier than thou. All we can know is our own experience."