Merle Haggard was one of a kind.
Of course, we’ve all heard plenty of wild tales about the country legend, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard one as funny as this.
Guitarist Kenny Vaughan, who is a longtime fixture in Marty Stuart’s band, spent quite a bit of time around Merle in his early years as a guitar player in Nashville.
And back in 2017, he told a great story about Merle, and his then-wife Bonnie Owens, and the time they got absolutely obliterated before a show and almost missed it altogether:
“One night, the promoter is throwing things at me from the side of the stage, trying to get my attention. And I look over at him, and he says, ’20 more minutes! 20 more minutes! Tell her 20 more minutes!’
So I told the lead singer 20 more minutes, and she looks at me like, we’re done. And I said, ‘Well he wants 20 more minutes!’ So we gave him 20 more minutes. We came off, and we were like, what’s going on?
And he said, ‘Well Merle’s not here. The band’s here, but there’s no Merle.”
By this time, Merle’s band The Strangers had gone on stage and just started playing without him, and Kenny went to go load his guitar and amp onto the bus so he didn’t have to do it later:
“The buses were downstairs in this parking garage, and so I had my little Fender amp and my guitar, so The Strangers went out and started playing, I think it was Kenny… he was fronting the band a that time, singing harmony, and we’d open the show.
And he’s out there doing ‘Heartaches by the Number,’ ‘Wine Me Up,’ or whatever, you know, just stock country covers. The Merle Haggard show, you know?”
And while he’s down there putting his stuff away, he hears a car horn and a man yelling his direction, trying to get his attention for help.
And it’s the driver of the limo, asking Kenny if he can get a very drunk Merle Haggard up the stairs to the stage…
“So I go downstairs to load my amp into the bus with my guitar, and I’m down there, I open up the bay and I hear this horn honking you know?
And this guy gets out of a limousine and says, ‘Hey! Can you help me out here?’ So I close the bay and I walk up there, and Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens are in the back of the limousine drunk.
And he says, ‘Can you help me get this guy up these steps to the stage? Can you show me where the stage is?”
So they literally carried Merle up the flight of stairs, and though he’s a little embarrassed about the situation, shakes it off and heads right for center stage and starts singing “Folsom Prison Blues,” while his band is already in the middle of a song:
“So we carried Merle Haggard up the stairs, me and this guy right? And I got him to the side of the stage and the he brushes us off, you know?
Straightens up his hat and kinda shakes it off a little bit, and he walks out, they’re in the middle of a song, and he walks out on stage and takes his guitar, and he hits this big ol’ E chord, the band stops… and he starts singing ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’
While Merle’s doing that, Kenny realized he might’ve forgotten to lock the bus back after all the commotion, so he ran back down there to make sure it was secure.
Except this time, he stumbled upon Bonnie Owens, who also needed help up the stairs. Bonnie was Merle’s second wife, and they were married from 1965 to 1978, and she would often sing backup for him out on the road.
As it turns out, she was down as bad as her husband, and this time, Kenny carried her all the way up the stairs by himself:
“I was like, ‘Oh, shit,’ I didn’t remember if I had locked the bus or not. So I ran back down the steps… make sure the bus is locked. And this lady’s trying to stagger out of the, it’s Bonnie Owens, and she says, ‘Young man, can you help me to the stage, please?’
So I say, ‘Yes, Mrs. Owens,’ so I carry Bonnie up the steps, a long flight of steps, and she stumbles up there and she’s kinda gigglin’ and looking a little bit embarrassed, you know?
And so I pointed to the stage and she walked out there and assumed her place at the microphone and starts clapping along.”
But the absolute best part about this whole story?
“And he’s still singing ‘Folsom Prison Blues.'”
Classic… you can’t make stuff like that up.
That particular tour was sponsored by George Dickel whiskey, and they had two guys walking around backstage at all the shows with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of George Dickel, and would have people compare both whiskeys all the time as part of their routine.
Kenny figured that’s a large part of the reason Merle and Bonnie got so drunk on the tour, but added that it’s actually the one and only time he ever saw Merle that inebriated (though I think Willie Nelson would beg to differ):
“I quickly figured out that maybe that’s why everybody’s a little bit drunk on this tour, you know? It was a good tour, but anyway, that was the only time I ever saw Merle Haggard inebriated.
That was the one and only time I ever saw him that way. He wasn’t a big drinker, he smoked lot of weed, but he wasn’t a big drinker.”
It only seems right to cue this one up now…
You can listen to Kenny tell the whole story himself here, and this story starts around the 0:38 mark: