The first song of Haggard’s I remember hearing [was] “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down.” That was because of my dad. From the time before you could walk, Haggard was playing in the house.
I was at the Crazy Horse [Steak House & Saloon, in Santa Ana, Calif.] in the early ’90s. It’s the first time I’d seen Haggard play live. I’m crying like a baby, standing in the back shadows. He says, “I hear Garth Brooks is in the audience tonight.” And my whole throat just tightened up. I was like, “Please, I’ll never make it. I’ll just bawl like a baby.” He said, “I’d love for him and come up here and sing, but the truth is I got enough of my own songs to sing tonight.” And the place laughed and I started laughing through my tears and he went into something like “Okie From Muskogee.” It was so perfect.
I met him that night. It was surreal. You’re looking in the eyes of the guy you’d stared at [on] his album covers forever. It was cool. I actually was proud of myself that I handled it better than I did meeting [George] Jones. I met Jones first and I think how much I embarrassed myself around Jones from just uncontrollably crying and how much I embarrassed Jones by doing it. I think that kind of helped me with Haggard. [I told him] how much he meant to my dad (chokes up). He got my dad through a lot of hard times. If you’re going to lead a generation through some hard times, it’s going to be because you’ve gone through hard times yourself.
Haggard and I talked on the phone. I so enjoyed those talks because it helped me in my career. The last time I talked to Haggard was about [2014’s Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard], and he was very sweet. He heard I had cut “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” [for Brooks’ 2013 Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades Of Influences box set]. He said, “Can I have that [recording for the tribute album]?” I reminded him, “Merle, understand, I know every song you’ve ever done. Every song. Every album cut. Everything. Anything you want done on this, please let me know.” He said, “Nope. That way I don’t trouble you and I get what I need.” He was a very common sense guy, which I loved. That was Haggard. He wouldn’t take up a lot of time. He’d just say what he meant, meant what he said and go on. I cherish those moments with him.
He is the all-around guy. If you score it on songwriting, entertaining, musicianship, records, touring, all that stuff, Haggard is the greatest country artist of all time.
— As told to Melinda Newman