Haggard Brothers to Honor Father at Redding Civic
By Jon Lewis
Sing Me Back Home
By Jon Lewis
Photo by Alan Wallace
Ben Haggard was homeschooled and road-schooled.
The Palo Cedro resident’s homeschooling began after he completed the second grade. His road-schooling commenced at age 15 when his father, the legendary Merle Haggard, asked him to step in as the lead guitarist for The Strangers, Merle’s longstanding backup band.
“I’m not going to say I wasn’t scared to death,” the soft-spoken 23-year-old says of that first time on stage in Sacramento. That frightened teenager needn’t have worried. Ben recalls his father repeatedly emphasizing, to audiences and band members alike, that he was not simply favoring his youngest son. “He’d say, ‘Let me make this clear: I would not put somebody in this position if they can’t play.’ That helped a lot.” Any remaining frazzled nerves were calmed by those whose opinions the young Haggard clearly values: his band mates.
Doubts are only natural when you’re the boss’s son and you’ve been inserted into a rock-solid band of road-tested professionals. “I always looked at that aspect,” Ben says. “These are seasoned musicians who have been next to some of the best guitar players in the world. They’ll never say anything, but if you play something good, and communicate with music, they’ll turn around and smile. That was more of a compliment than anything they could say verbally.”
Norm Hamlet, the 81-year-old pedal steel guitar guru who has spent 43 years with The Strangers, did more than smile. “He would reassure me and say, ‘You can actually play.’ That really gave me a lot of encouragement.”
Ben is bringing that encouragement, along with his older brother and fellow musician, Noel, to the Redding Civic Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 7, for a concert to honor the pair’s father. “We don’t really know what we’re going to do yet, but we’re going to try and keep a bit of the excitement going on,” Ben says.
Fans will quickly learn that Merle Haggard’s rich musical legacy is in good hands when the pair performs some of their father’s greatest hits, including “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home.” Ben recorded both songs on the 2014 release “Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard,” and he has taken to YouTube lately to record a couple other favorites from his father’s vast catalog, including “Silver Wings.”
Merle Haggard passed away on April 6, his 79th birthday, after a long bout with pneumonia. The younger Haggard quickly turned to social media to offer up a eulogy: “He loved everything about life, and he loved that every one of you gave him a chance with his music. He wasn’t just a country singer … he was the best country singer that ever lived.”
Merle Haggard’s wife and Ben Haggard’s mother, Theresa, offered her thoughts on her husband’s website: “He was the best singer, songwriter and performer I’ve ever seen. Not only did he write the songs he sang, he was the music. I will miss him forever.”
A professional to the end, and knowing his time was near, Merle asked Ben and Noel to honor his previously scheduled concert dates with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. They happily complied and Ben had both artists carve their names on his Telecaster guitar, joining a tradition started by his father.
“I guess I have my own ‘Trigger’ now,” Ben says with a chuckle, referring to Nelson’s battered Martin guitar that has been signed by numerous artists. “It’s my No. 1 guitar. I found it over in Humboldt County at a music shop. It really had a thing to it when I picked it up. Then I set it down for a while and almost sold it. I have a bad tendency of going through guitars pretty quickly. It’s almost like a marriage: You start to get along and end up staying together for a while.”
Autographs aside, Ben says he had to prepare himself for the time when he would no longer share the stage with his famous father. “He wasn’t immortal and that’s a reality I had to face from a young age. I was very fortunate to have the years I had with him on this Earth. I had 23 great years and I wouldn’t change a bit of it.”
In addition to his rich baritone voice, the young Haggard shares another of his father’s traits: a love of fishing. And thanks to a serendipitous encounter on social media, Ben can pursue his passion in his dad’s old Ranger bass boat.
Not long after his dad’s passing, Ben posted a Shasta Lake fishing picture to his Facebook page. Tanyalynn Cornett of Cottonwood saw the post, replied with her condolences and mentioned that she had Merle Haggard’s old bass boat, and that the time had come to sell it.
Ben was skeptical at first, but when he saw the boat—a custom 1983 Ranger fitted with a Merle Haggard plaque—advertised on Craigslist, “I was like, oh my God, I have to buy this thing.” The next morning, he drove out to Cottonwood to seal the deal, and the reunion was complete.
Ben plans to continue touring with The Strangers “for as long as people want to hear it,” but he also has designs on defining his own career path in the music world. “I’m going to try and make my own thing, something a bit abstract and different from another Haggard’s point of view.”
Friday, Oct.7, 7 pm (doors open at 6 pm)
Redding Civic Auditorium: (530) 229-0022, www.reddingcivic.com