'Merle Did Things His Way': Country Radio Programmers Cite Haggard's Enduring Influence

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Merle Haggard photographed in the 1970s.

Merle Haggard’s death from pneumonia on April 6 hit many country radio programmers hard, and left them pausing to reflect on the County Music Hall of Famer’s profound and lasting influence on the format. For some, “Hag” was part of the reason they pursued careers in country radio in the first place.

Much of Haggard’s legacy is obvious, as evidenced by the 71 top 10 hits and 38 No. 1s he amassed during slightly more than two decades. Haggard’s impact on other country artists is also measurable. His working man’s poet songs have been covered by numerous stars, and Haggard himself has been named-checked in countless country hits, ranging from Brooks & Dunn’s “Little Country Girl” and Collin Raye’s “My Kind of Girl” to Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone” and, more recently, Jake Owen’s “Yee Haw” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Sun Daze.”

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Ron Meredith, president of Clinton Broadcasters, selected the country superstar as the namesake for the Knoxville, Tenn., radio station he signed on in 2007, WMYL (96.7 Merle FM). Meredith says he chose the name “so that everyone would understand what we did … There is only one name that I can think of that everyone understands to be country music: Merle.”

While Haggard’s hitmaking years occurred decades ago, KKGO Los Angeles PD Tonya Campos thinks his songs have stood the test of time. “His music will be here long after we are all gone,” she says. “He was rough around the edges, but yet when we played a montage of his hits when we found out he died, his voice didn’t sound out of place. It still had the smooth resonance that appeals to us today. Merle was one of a kind, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then he was probably pretty darn proud.”

For D.J. Stout, operations manager/PD of Beasley Media Group’s Charlotte, N.C., cluster, “Merle’s most lasting contribution to country music, country radio and our listeners is the fact he was such a great storyteller. We still crave and look for great storytelling in our songs, and no one did it like Merle.” As for today’s current crop of stars, Stout says, “It would be hard to find one of them who wouldn’t have Merle listed as one of their biggest influences.”

WKSJ Mobile, Ala., PD Bill Black says Haggard’s songs reflected “America, blue-collar life, and life situations that most everyone has experienced. Whether it was the whimsical or the tear-laden, Merle’s songs could slap you in the face. And when you factor in that Merle was a vital member of the country music community for decades, you realize what an impact he has made on the tapestry of country music. His music is a true representation of what we were and still can be.”

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Scott Lindy the WKHX Atlanta-based Cumulus corporate PD, characterizes Haggard as “a guy who could write and perform everything from rough-and-tumble outlaw music to some of the most touching and tender love songs.” But he thinks the star’s “swagger and non-conformist attitude towards his music is his most lasting legacy. Merle did things his way from the start. When you listen to his music, you can hear that he was OK with sometimes paying a high price in his relationships, career and image in exchange for being true to his vision.” Adds Lindy: “[It’s] hard not to admire, or aspire to that way of living, which is why there’s a little bit of all of us in his songs.”

Justin Case, operations manager for Scripps’ Wichita, Kan., cluster, thinks Haggard’s lasting appeal and influence comes from his “authenticity” and vocal honesty. “His unique phrasing and interpretation connected with the audience … He found ways to present the emotion of a song in a way that people felt deep inside. Beyond that, he knew his audience, gave them a healthy dose of what they expected and experimented along the way. He had character, and that resonated with fans.”

Radio consultant Joel Raab thinks Haggard’s charm and significance lies in “his outlaw, free spirit. When you combine that attitude with his immeasurable talent, you have a legend rivaling Hank Williams. He bucked the system when he found it unjust, did it his way and was successful because of his unquestionable talent.”

“He called out politicians, business owners and others, all in support of the working men and women of this country,” says KFKF Kansas City PD Dale Carter. “Those people knew Merle was on their side. Country music is at its best when it tells a story and strikes a nerve. Merle did both.”

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“No one could emote the feelings of the common man and the poor man like Merle Haggard,” says CBS Radio/Detroit operations manager/PD Tim Roberts. “You really felt like he lived every song he sang, and he recorded over 900 of them. He could touch emotional chords deep inside your soul in a unique way … He was such a great lyricist, and truly the poet for the common, everyday American.”

“What made Merle Haggard so special is was that he was the definition of an everyman,” adds Charlie Cook, vp country for Cumulus Media and operations manager/PD for Nashville stations WSM-FM and WKDF. “His music spoke to the trials many people struggle and identify with.”

Several programmers note that Haggard directly or indirectly led them to a career, including Raab, who says the singer-songwriter “is the reason I got hooked on country music. He put the soul in country music better than anyone.”

Black cites a Haggard tune as one of his earliest childhood memories. “One of the first songs I can remember hearing and singing along to was ‘Mama Tried.’ From then on I was hooked on Haggard,” he says. “I had the opportunity to meet Merle one time, but I remember it like it was yesterday. [He was] kind, soft-spoken and genuinely humble. After so much success and so many giant moments in his life, that spoke volumes.”

Roberts says he was “devastated by the news of mighty Merle’s passing. When I first got into country radio, he was my guy. Flat out, in my opinion, he was the best country singer of all time. Even George Jones thought so, so that says something right there.”

Looking back on some personal memories of time spent with Haggard, Roberts says, “I’m fortunate that I booked him for a few shows over the years and got the chance to hang with him. He was always gracious, interesting and [a] totally fascinating, first-class guy. He also helped so many other country artists of today along the way. Our country world will miss him but never forget him. To this day, I listen to Merle’s music all the time. He’s a part of my musical DNA forever.”