A Eulogy by Slim Jim Keller

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Today is Merle Haggard's birthday. He turned 79 today. The man, the greatest storyteller Country Music and this country itself has ever seen also passed away today, April 6th 2016.

My obsession with music began and ended with Merle Haggard. My earliest memories of my childhood was sitting in my grandmother’s chair in their living room facing the huge console stereo that sat behind her chair spinning record after record after record. So many Country Music greats: Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, and of course Mr. Merle Haggard.

My mother tells me my first babysitter was music. She told me stories of how they’d go over to a friend’s house to play cards when I was a toddler and they’d sit me on the couch and put headphones on me and turn on the radio. Of how I’d sit there for hours rocking back and forth listening to the music and never making a fuss.

From there it was my grandparent’s stereo and massive record collection of Country Music.
Hundreds of albums from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I don’t know how old I was when I first heard Merle Haggard, but I remember when it stuck with me. The album was Mama Tried. It was released in 1968 (a year before I was born) and it featured Merle on the cover, in prison gear, behind bars, playing a guitar.

The lead song was Mama Tried, and it told the story of a man who turned 21 in prison despite everything his mother ever did for him, told him, or taught him. Me being a young boy of 5 or 6 I stared at that album cover and listened to the song over and over and over again. It amazed me that the Folsom Prison (after all the cover of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues was on the B side of the album) Merle was in would allow him to record an album and release it. (HEY! I was 5. Ok?!?!) That album changed my life. It was the first time I remember really tuning in to music. It was that album that opened something within me and allowed me to see the music, the story, the lyrics, the emotion with my minds eye. It was that album full of trouble and melancholy that taught me that music can touch you. That it is more than just background noise.

41 years later, and I am sitting in my office in Austin, Texas spinning that exact album. That very album of Merle’s that my grandparents owned was given to me (along with their entire record collection) when they passed away. I listen to it frequently, it of the pops and crackles and a few scratches. It is soothing. It takes me back to days filled with amazing scents of cut grass, gardening, grandmother’s cooking or baking, and the sounds of Country Music filling the house. And me sitting in that chair, staring at the stereo speakers or the album artwork for endless hours.

There were other albums of his I would spin constantly, but nothing as often as Mama Tried.

Sing Me Back Home, Swinging Doors, I’m A Lonesome Fugitive, Hag, It’s Not Love, But It’s Not Bad, If We Make It Through December, and so many more. The man released 47 studio albums, 8 live albums, 23 compilation albums, and had over 40 #1 singles in his career.

I had the luxury of seeing The Hag three times live, once when I was about 7 years old, and 2 more times in the last 10 years. I was fortunate enough to be able to shoot the last show I saw of his.

My grandfather was an amazing man. The strongest man I ever knew. He taught me about football by watching the Dallas Cowboys ever Sunday. He taught me about music by allowing me to raid his collection whenever I was there. He taught me many other things over the years whether he was trying to or not, knew it or not. Our mutual affinity for Merle Haggard is something that I have carried with me through today, and cherished for many many years.

My grandfather passed away 25 years ago or so. For me a part of him lived in in Coach Tom Landry and Merle Haggard. When Coach passed away I took it real hard. Not because he was the greatest coach that ever lived, not because he revolutionized defense, but because I lost another piece of my grandfather. But I had Merle, and he still looked like he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon or stopping any time soon.

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The last two years has been tough for a Merle Haggard fan, not to mention Merle himself. His health has been failing him. A bout or two with double pneumonia side lined him and almost killed him last year. He was able to release one last great album with his long time partner in crime Willie Nelson last year, the critically acclaimed Django & Jimmie. But he kept having to be pulled off the road by one illness or another.

Merle Haggard was every man. Merle was the working man’s hero. His songs, whether originally penned by him or others, were songs of every day life, in the mines, on the road, in the factory, on the farm, in the bars, and in the home.

A hard living man, who went from doing time in San Quentin Prison to being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The man was a true hobo, hopping trains and living on the rails who would become one of the most prolific and respected music artists of all time.

A true act of Kismet, Merle was incarcerated in San Quentin and saw Johnny Cash perform at the prison. Upon release he decided to turn his life of petty crime around and submersed himself in the Bakersfield Country music scene.

From there it was a hard road, but a successful one for the Hag. He was part of the Outlaw Country movement in the late 60s and 70s with other artists such as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe, and others.

It was a direct middle finger to the established Nashville sound of the time that was full of lush arrangements. It was a harder edge, a grittier sound than what Nashville was pumping out at the time. It was this style along with lyrics that everyone could relate to, the hardships of life, love, and ethics, that propelled Merle’s sound and stardom.

I’ve said for many years, there would never be another Merle Haggard. There will never be another storyteller that can touch so many, be so relatable to so many, once Merle is gone.
There will never be another Okie from Muskogee like Merle.

Bless you good sir, for your contribution, for your legacy, for your music, your words, your experiences, for that special bond between my grandfather and I, for my obsession with music, for always giving everything to your fans, for everything sir, thank you.

Academy of Country Music

1965 Most Promising Male Vocalist

1965 Best Vocal Group – with Bonnie Owens

1965 Top Vocal Duo with Bonnie Owens

1966 Top Male Vocalist

1967 Top Duo with Bonnie Owens

1969 Top Male Vocalist

1969 Album of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"

1969 Song of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"

1969 Single of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"

1970 Entertainer of the Year

1970 Top Male Vocalist

1972 Top Male Vocalist

1974 Top Male Vocalist

1981 Top Male Vocalist

1982 Song of the Year – "Are the Good Times Really Over"

1995 Pioneer Award

2005 Triple Crown

2008 Poet's Award

2014 Crystal Milestone Award

Country Music Association

1970 Album of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"

1970 Entertainer of the Year

1970 Male Vocalist of the Year

1970 Single of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"

1972 Album of the Year – "Let Me Tell You About a Song"

1983 Vocal Duo of the Year – with Willie Nelson

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Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Inducted in 1994

Grammy Awards

1984 Best Country Vocal Performance, Male – "That's The Way Love Goes"

1998 Best Country Collaboration with Vocals with Clint Black, Joe Diffie, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Pam Tillis, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt & Dwight Yoakam for "Same Old Train"

1999 Grammy Hall of Fame Award – "Mama Tried"

Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame

Inducted in 1977

Kennedy Center Honors

Inducted in 2010

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