In one of his big hits from the early 1980s, Merle Haggard asks, "Are the good times really over for good?" Well, judging from the famous faces who turned out Monday (April 19) to toast his musical legacy, the answer is a deafening, "No!"
The celebration took place in the cavernous reception hall of the BMI building in Nashville and was occasioned by Capitol Records' release of the Haggard retrospective album, 40 No. 1 Hits. The singer recorded for Capitol from 1965 to 1976.
Nodding to the fact that many of the celebrants were well up in years and more inclined to sit than circulate, BMI furnished the room with tables that were covered in black cloths and decorated with flowers. The more ambulatory guests hovered around the full bar and appetizer spread. Guests were asked to sign a commemorative register as they entered.
Early arrivals, many of whom bee-lined to greet Haggard before the presentations got underway, included Toby Keith, Bobby Bare, Lee Roy Parnell, bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman, songwriter Liz Anderson [who wrote Haggard's "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" and "The Fugitive"], producers Carl Jackson and Randy Scruggs, Trick Pony's Ira Dean, Grand Ole Opry star Jim Ed Brown, Patsy Cline's husband Charlie Dick and songwriters Sonny Curtis (who wrote the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme) and James Talley ("Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again").
BMI representative Joyce Rice called the party to order. She noted that Haggard had been affiliated with BMI for 42 years. During that time, she continued, his songs had earned 13 "Million Air" awards (each one designating 1 million airplays), 44 country awards, nine pop honors and one rhythm and blues prize. Rice noted he had also been BMI's songwriter of the year in 1976 and 1980. When Haggard loped onto the stage, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. C. Paul Corbin, BMI's vice president of writer-publisher relations, announced that if all the airplay Haggard's songs had gotten in his career were added up, it would total 303 years.
Low-keyed but clearly enjoying himself, Haggard greeted old friends as he spotted them in the audience. He singled out songwriting buddies Red Lane ("My Own Kind of Hat) and Hank Cochran ("I Fall to Pieces"). "If Hank Cochran had paid attention," he joked, "he'd have something like this."
Capitol Nashville president Mike Dungan congratulated Haggard for his years of achievement for the label and presented him with a plaque that commemorated "50 albums in five decades" -- to which, Haggard marveled, "That's the largest award I've ever seen."
Spotting another familiar visage near the stage, Haggard exclaimed, "My God, it is Tom T. [Hall]! I just recorded 'Sunset in June.'" [After the ceremonies, Dixie Hall told CMT.com that "Sunset in June" was a bluegrass song she and her husband, Tom T., had written.] Haggard then acknowledged Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, who stood at the back of the room, as well as Mel Tillis, Rose Maphis, his longtime manager Fuzzy Owen and various of his band members.
"Seems like every time I come to Nashville," Haggard mused, "something good happens to me. I don't know why I don't live here." At that, the crowd roared. He said he'd been visiting George and Nancy Jones, who live just outside of Nashville, and that George was trying to interest him in a piece of nearby property. He admitted, though, that he was cautious about making any such move. "I lived here in 1976 and '77," he recalled, "and my record sales were the lowest [then] they'd ever been."
Visit Merle Haggard's artist page at CMT.com to view photos from the reception.