Merle Haggard had one of his first big hits with the song “Okie From Muskogee,” with its memorable opening line, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” But in real life Haggard, who died Wednesday on his 79th birthday, was a lot more complex, contradictory and all-encompassing than that.
I remember him, after all, as the guy who saved the day when Willie Nelson was running out of marijuana on his tour bus one humid Florida night around 1996.
Back then, I spent a few days on Nelson’s tour bus as he traveled through the state on a tour of outdoor festivals and minor league ballparks. Everything was mellow on the bus, of course — Willie’s bus is never a no-smoking zone, and the smoke is never tobacco.
But a day or two into my time on the bus, famously dubbed the “Honeysuckle Rose,” a sense of urgency overtook the boss and his band and crew. Willie’s supply of weed, it seemed, was starting to run low, a matter of no small consequence on that particular vehicle.
The saving grace is that Haggard was also on the bill at one of those festival dates, and word on the bus that morning was hopeful: “We’ll see Merle this afternoon, and Merle grows his own.”
Sure enough, Willie and Merle shared the bill and then they shared the stash, and the Honeysuckle Rose drove off into the night suitably replenished.
That was surely one of the least of Merle Haggard’s accomplishments, not even a footnote in an amazing life and career that found him appealing to rednecks and hippies, conservatives and liberals, country fans and rock ‘n’ rollers.
Haggard was one of the best songwriters and finest, most understated singers in popular music for this entire career — but on one swampy day in the South two decades ago, he was also the savior who kept Willie Nelson going.
That’s not what he’ll be remembered for — but for a busload of people way back when, it was pretty damn important.