Merle Haggard’s ongoing clash with lung cancer hasn’t made him any less sharp-tongued than he was in his glory days.
In Nashville Tuesday night (March 3) to accept a career achievement award from Country Radio Broadcasters, the feisty superstar used the occasion to lash out at the former head of his one-time label, Epic Records.
Prompting the outburst was Emmylou Harris’ wistful performance of Haggard’s self-penned 1985 hit, “Kern River,” a tune she ranked as her Haggard favorite. “The first time I heard that song,” she told the audience assembled in the Renaissance Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, “I almost drove off the road because it’s just so good.”
Her praise of “Kern River” evidently ignited Haggard’s memories of a man who didn’t like the song at all. “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?'”
Someone in the audience shouted out the name Haggard had apparently forgotten — Rick Blackburn, who helmed CBS Records (of which Epic was a division) from 1980 to 1988.
On another occasion, Haggard recalled that Blackburn said, “I’d like to tell you one more time. I don’t like ’Kern River.'” Haggard continued, “And I said, ’That’s about the third time you’ve told me that.’ He said, ’It’s more like five times.’ And I said, ’Well, I’m about five times short of telling you to go to hell.'”
By now, the crowd was roaring with laughter. But Haggard wasn’t through yet.
“I said, ’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.'”
[Blackburn, who dropped Cash from the label in 1986, the year after “Kern River” came out, took Haggard’s tirade in stride. Reached Wednesday (March 4) at his home in Nashville, Blackburn told CMT.com, “He’ll get more pleasure out of that [comment] than I’ll get grief.”]
“I was supposed to sing tonight,” Haggard told the audience when he first came onstage. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it or not [because] I’m fighting pneumonia. I think I’m winning.” He thanked everyone who had prayed for his recovery from cancer. “I certainly needed it,” he said.
Prior to Harris’ performance, Jack Ingram saluted Haggard by singing his 1982 hit, “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver).” Ingram accompanied himself on guitar, while Harris was backed by Carl Jackson on guitar and Phil Madeira on accordion.
In the opening segment of the evening, CRB honored Shelia Shipley-Biddy with its president’s award. Then, after Haggard’s appearance, the organization inducted Bob McKay and Moon Mullins into the Radio Hall of Fame and Chuck Collier and Gerry House into the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame.
Currently president of Stringtown Records, John Michael Montgomery’s label, Shipley-Biddy was the first woman to head a major country music label when she was appointed senior vice president and general manager of Decca Records in the early 1990s. Earlier she had held a top promotional post at MCA Records.
McKay now programs for WXTU in Philadelphia, after having spent more than three decades as DJ and/or programmer at stations in Oklahoma, Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, Kansas, Wisconsin, California and Florida.
Apart from his on-air work, Mullins has a long history of consulting for radio stations via such organizations as the Pollack Media Group, First Track and the Moon Mullins Company. He is now operations manager for WBKR and WOMI in Owensboro, Ky., and host of a morning show on WBKR. Early in his career, he worked at stations in Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky and New York City.
Collier has been a DJ for WGAR in Cleveland for 37 years. Indeed, most of his career has been spent at Ohio stations, including stints at outlets in Hillsboro, Wilmington and Dayton. In 2007, the National Association of Broadcasters named him its large-market personality of the year.
A songwriter as well as a DJ, House has been most closely associated with WSIX-FM, Nashville, where he continues to host the highly rated House Foundation morning show, a mixture of music, comedy and in-studio and call-in guests (often top country stars).
House’s quick, sardonic wit is legendary, and he routinely supplies jokes for the annual Country Music Association awards show. As a songwriter, his hit songs include Reba McEntire’s “Little Rock” and George Strait’s “The Big One.”
While the other honorees focused on thanking the people who’d encouraged and advised them, House played his induction for laughs. After observing the reverential tones in which the others spoke of their honor, House remarked, “I didn’t realize that this was such a big damn deal. Actually, I have no one to thank.”
Mike Bohan, a member of House’s morning gang, introduced his boss, a favor House found decidedly underwhelming. “I wanted Joaquin Phoenix [to introduce me],” he said, “but he wasn’t available.”
Bohan noted that the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb had called in that morning to congratulate House. Conceding that the honoree’s achievements were too numerous to recite, Bohan reached into his jacket pocket and held up an object. “I have all Gerry’s accomplishments on this thumb drive,” he said. “It’s four gigs.”
House had some warm words — kind of — for his daughter, Autumn, who, he pointed out, heads Capitol Records’ A&R department, which screens material for artists to record. “I have an appointment to play her songs,” he said. “In April.”
Turning to his wife, Allyson, and speaking of their long marriage, House said, “We were young when we started out. She was 13 … I was 27. It was Kentucky.”