And today, we’re digging into the Merle Haggard vault for another awesome Hag story, this time outta 2009.
According to CMT, Merle Haggard was accepting a career achievement award from Country Radio Broadcasters back in 2009 when an Emmylou Harris tribute performance of “Kern River” brought back a memory from his days on Epic Records.
When Merle took the stage, he recalled a certain label executive that hated the song.
“I want to say that there was this other guy … I can’t remember his name, he was head of CBS, and he made fun of my song. He said, ’Who in the hell knows where Kern River is at?’”
At that moment, someone in the audience yelled out “Rick Blackburn,” who was the head of Columbia Records from 1980 to 1987 (Epic was a subsidiary of Columbia). Blackburn also was the guy that dropped Johnny Cash from Columbia Records in 1986, shortly after “Kern River” was released in 1985.
Haggard continued, detailing another instance when Blackburn told him he didn’t like the song. And in true Merle Haggard fashion, he let him have it.
The conversation went a little something like this:
Blackburn: “I’d like to tell you one more time. I don’t like ’Kern River.'”
Merle: “That’s about the third time you’ve told me that.”
Blackburn: “It’s more like five times.”
Merle: “Well, I’m about five times short of telling you to go to hell.”
He continued on:
Merle: “Who do you think you are? You’re the son of a bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son of a bitch I’ve ever met.”
Needless to say, the crowd was roaring at this point. And remember, this is 2009, we’re 23 years removed from when this conversation actually went down.
Blackburn, upon hearing about Merle’s speech, told CMT:
“He’ll get more pleasure out of that than I’ll get grief.”
23 years later and Merle still wasn’t about to let that go. And something tells me Blackburn wasn’t much of a Merle fan back then either.
At the time of this awards presentation, Merle was also battling lung cancer and dealing with pneumonia, but he still managed to tell that vivid story, one that had the crowd howling in their seats.
An absolute legend.
And speaking of Kern River,” let’s hear it.
Merle Haggard Reveals How His Ex-Wife Inspired “Today I Started Loving You Again”
Merle Haggard is easily one of, if not THE, greatest country music singers that ever lived.
And though his life was far from perfect, he was never afraid to put those experiences into his songs and be as authentic and real about his struggles as he possibly could be.
And that includes the challenges that came along with his multiple marriages.
The Hag was married five times in total, and he was married to his second wife, Bonnie Owens, from 1965 to 1978. Of course, he also had a decades-long crush on the queen of country, Dolly Parton, which you can read about more in-depth here.
But back in 2012, Merle made a surprise appearance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum forum, where he spoke with the Tennessean about his marriage to Bonnie.
She was also a musician, and won the ACM for Female Vocalist of the Year in 1965. She married Merle that same year, and started touring with him and helping take care of his kids from his previous marriage soon after.
Merle says he was in a really creative period during that time, too, and she encouraged him to keep going:
“I got into a heated period, where I was writing pretty good and it was right after she and I had gotten married.
If I even indicated that I was gonna write, she was there with a pad and a pen, and she didn’t miss anything, you know.”
He credits her for making sure some of his biggest hits, like “Mama Tried” and “Workin’ Mans Blues”, made it to the radio. If it wasn’t for Bonnie, he says those songs wouldn’t even exist:
“There wouldn’t have been no ‘Mama Tried’ or ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ if it wasn’t for her. She took those words down at the right time.
I think in ’68 or ’69, we had six BMI awards that year, and she took down the songs, each one of ’em, she had took ’em down.”
One of my favorite Merle Haggard songs, “Today I Started Loving You Again,” was written for Bonnie after they’d been out on tour together and were able to reconnect as a couple, he says:
“‘Today I Started Loving You Again’ was written for her. We’d been on a long tour down in Texas, we’d been down there 90-something days, and we got a week off and then we had to come back and do 45 more days.
And we took this week off, and we flew home and we were in the L.A. airport, and I said, ‘You know, we haven’t had much time to say hello’, talking to her. I said, ‘Today I started loving you again. I had time to start loving you again.'”
And like a true business woman, she responded with this:
“What a great idea for a song.”
He first included the beautiful track on his 1968 record The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde, and it also appeared on the tracklist for his 1970 album The Fightin’ Side of Me.
Of course, the song became an instantly recognizable country classic (though it never peaked in the top 10 on the country charts), that was later covered by other legends like Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty, Kenny Rogers and plenty of other artists over the years.
Once Merle and Bonnie were back on the Texas tour after that week-long break ended, one night, Merle asked her to go get him a hamburger. He wrote out the song on the paper bag his food came in that night:
“I had written ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’ on this paper bag… tore it open and wrote it on there. There was another verse that we never did use.
When I get a royalty check, all the songs that I’ve written make up about half of the money. And ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’ is the rest of the money, and I only get 12% of it.
I’d written it for her, so I gave her half of it to begin with. Then we got our divorce, and she got another half.”
But the most incredible part of the interview comes when Merle talks about their relationship years after their marriage ended. He said it took a divorce for them to really realize they were never meant to be married, but they were able to build a friendship that lasted for many years as a result.
He added that they remained close all the way up until her death in 2006:
“I went to see her last time at the home where she was stayin’, and she was several years into the Alzheimer’s thing. She grabbed me by the arm, there was some other people with us, she said ‘I’ve got to take you down to my room.’
So I followed her down to the room, and she had this big slick of her and I up behind her bed.”
And you might want to grab a tissue before you read this part…
“And she looked at me and she said ‘He’s my favorite.’
And she didn’t identify me with that picture.”
I’m sorry, but I cannot even handle that… I think that’s one of the sweetest and most heartbreaking things I’ve ever heard.
And you have to listen to Merle tell the story himself, because he even gets choked up remembering that beautiful moment: