The mere aura of Merle Haggard was sufficient to draw a capacity crowd to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Ford Theater. But to the crowd's utter delight, Haggard, himself, dropped in unannounced to steal the show.
Dubbed "My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers: A Conversation With Norm Hamlet, Don Markham and Fuzzy Owen," Wednesday's (April 11) symposium was supposed to reveal Haggard through the eyes of his manager and two longtime members of his band, the Strangers.
Hamlet is Haggard's bandleader and steel guitar player. Markham plays trumpet and saxophone. Owen gave Haggard his first record deal and then went on to work as his steel player and, later, his manager.
However, Haggard dominated the 90-minute presentation, which was deftly moderated by the museum editor Michael Gray.
The event was tied into the museum's new exhibit, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California Country and with Haggard's sold-out concert Wednesday night at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
Several celebrities were in the audience, including Gene Watson, who had just completed a performance with his band in the museum's courtyard, singers Rose Lee Maphis and John Prine, songwriters Dallas Frazier and Red Lane, revered steel guitarist Weldon Myrick and music chronicler Peter Guralnick.
Gray, Haggard, Hamlet and Markham sat in a semicircle of armchairs below a large video screen, each with a microphone. Owen sat on the front row but did not take part in the conversation, which was streamed live.
Adding to the historic overtones were the facts that Haggard had just celebrated his 75th birthday and his 50th year as a recording artist.
Recalling his first encounter with Owen in 1956, when Owen and his cousin Lewis Talley were operating Tally Records, Haggard said, "He [Owen] kept me from recording for about three or four years."
Haggard explained that Owen told him he sounded "too much like [then popular recording artist] Wynn Stewart" and that Talley agreed, adding, "Yeah, he sounds like Elvis, too. ... I think if they'd signed me, I probably wouldn't have went to prison."
Arrested for burglary in 1957, Haggard was subsequently charged with attempting to escape from a county jail and sent to San Quentin prison, where he remained until he was paroled in 1960.
He was pardoned in 1972 by California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Owen signed him to Tally Records in 1962, and Haggard went Top 20 on that label the following year with "Sing a Sad Song," which Wynn Stewart penned.
When Gray asked him why he later chose Owen to manage him, Haggard explained, "Somehow or other, we knew we weren't going to lie to each other. ... That's so unusual in this business. We built this relationship on honesty."
Haggard moved from Tally Records to Capitol in 1965, where he was produced by the legendary Ken Nelson.
Haggard amused the crowd by imitating Nelson's clipped Midwestern accent "calling out master numbers" before the start of each recording session.
He said Nelson was protective of his career and told impresario Dick Clark, "You used the boy," when Clark cast Haggard in the 1968 B movie, Killers Three. The film soundtrack also featured Haggard's doleful "Mama Tried."
(Despite its cinematic tie-in, "Mama Tried," which Haggard wrote, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.)
At this point in the proceedings, Gray paused to show an archival video clip of Owen playing steel as Haggard sang "Swinging Doors," his Top 5 hit from 1966.
The contrast between the face of the beautiful boy on the screen and the time-tattered old man sitting below was both heartbreaking and an object lesson to young stars who may still think they're immortal.
Hamlet says he succeeded Owen as Haggard's steel player because Owen was taking time off to go "back home with his folks."
Moreover, Hamlet continued, Owen "was also managing Merle, plus he was driving the bus and he was working on the bus. It broke down a lot."
Haggard recalled that Owen was having trouble with his steel guitar when they were playing in Las Vegas. He said Owen spent hours working on the instrument, but it still sounded to Haggard as if it were strung with barbed wire. After that, Haggard said, Owen never played the steel again.
Both Hamlet and Markham were refreshingly candid in their recollections of working with Haggard.
Markham said he went into country music "because there wasn't much going on in pop and jazz" in Bakersfield, Calif., where they were all then based.
He also observed that the people in country music were "so much nicer" than the pop and jazz musicians he'd been playing with.
Gray then showed a photo of -- and played an audio recording from -- the Blackboard nightclub in Bakersfield where so many country acts played. He called the club "a cultural center of Bakersfield."
"When we worked at the Blackboard," Haggard mused, "whatever was in the charts, we had to play. It was a great school for people like me."
"Anyone know how to turn these damn things off?" Hamlet inquired as his cell phone rang out and shattered the nostalgia for the second time.
Hamlet said he learned his first music lessons from Lloyd Massey, who taught him to play rhythm guitar. But he was first attracted to the steel guitar from listening to Bashful Brother Oswald -- Beecher "Pete" Kirby -- playing in Roy Acuff's band.
Haggard also reflected on the contributions of the late Roy Nichols to his band. He said he became aware of the then 15-year-old guitar prodigy when his older brother took him to see Nichols perform.
"He don't have to pick cotton or go to school," Haggard recalled his brother remarking about Nichols. "That was the life I wanted," Haggard admitted.
For a while, Nichols worked with another of Haggard's "heroes," Lefty Frizzell.
"What's it like working for Lefty?" Haggard asked the young guitarist.
"Not worth a shit," Nichols reportedly responded, complaining that Frizzell took all the women the band attracted.
Haggard said he was driving his band bus toward home in 1974 when he crossed paths with Markham, who was then driving Johnny Paycheck's bus and playing in his band. It was not a serene job, Markham confessed.
"Can I just ride back to Bakersfield with you?" he asked Haggard.
"I said, 'I've been using a horn lately. Why don't you play with me?'" Haggard told him. "He's been with me ever since." He's also played on all Haggard's records since then.
"I've been with Merle 45 years," Hamlet chipped in. "I think it's going to turn into a steady job."
Haggard was lavish in praise of Bonnie Owens, his second wife, to whom he was married from 1965 to 1978. A recording artist in her own right, she worked in Haggard's band and played a key role in encouraging him to write songs.
"There wouldn't have been any 'Mama Tried' or 'Workin' Man Blues' if she hadn't been there to write them down," Haggard asserted.
He said he wrote "Today I Started Loving You Again" for Owens and that it has become the most valuable song in his catalog.
(More than two dozen artists have recorded the song, including John Fogerty, Don Gibson, Kenny Rogers, Loretta Lynn, Martina McBride, Marty Robbins, Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Oddly enough, although he recorded it, it was never a hit for Haggard.)
"I gave her [Owens] half of it to begin with," Haggard said. "When we got the divorce, she got the other half."
He said he went to visit Owens shortly before she died in 2006. At the time, she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Haggard remembered she took him to her room and showed him a picture of the two of them.
"She said, 'He's my favorite,'" he recalled. "She didn't recognize me."
Haggard noted he played in Buck Owens' band -- Owens was Bonnie's first husband -- for two weeks and that he recommended Owens name the band the Buckaroos, which he did.
During that brief tenure, Haggard recalled, Owens played a sold-out stadium of "17,000 or 27,000" in Milwaukee.
When Owens broke a string on his guitar, he told Haggard to fill in for him while he replaced it.
Having never fronted Owens' band before, Haggard said, he thought desperately for a moment of what to sing and then told the band to play "She Thinks I Still Care," a recent hit for George Jones.
When he finished, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Haggard said Owens never asked him to sing again.
Haggard has been a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame since 1994.