Happy Birthday, Willie Nelson, from Merle Haggard

by Merle Haggard, as told to Jason Hardison
Texas Music, Spring 2008

So we’re gonna do Willie’s 75th birthday again, are we?  [laughs].  I don’t really know how old Willie is, but 75 would put him four-years older than me, so that’s about right.

Congratulations, Willie — you’ve outlived your dick!

Seriously, though, I’d like to ask Willie to tell me what it’s like, because he’s beat the devil up over the back fence.  I’m glad he’s made it, and I hope I make it, too.  He’s my hero.  He’s always been right there beside me, joined at the hip in a way.  We’ve both been through a lot of the same things together; our mothers even hailed from the same part of Arkansas and probably came over on the same ship from Ireland.

I first met Willie in a poker game in Nashville in 1964.  That started a long history of him and I playing poker together, both in cards and our careers.  Nearly 45 years later, and we’re still playing together.  i enjoy playing Texas Hold ‘Em with Willie.  Don’t underestimate him, I’ll tell you that.

At the time, I had just released my first record and was looking to meet whoever I could to promote it.  I knew that Willie was a writer and I knew he was playing in a side band for other players.  Well, that’s what I did then, too.  Both of us loved to play lead guitar and sing, and we loved to write songs.  So we wound up on the road together entertaining the same people over the years.  But Willie and I knew each other a long time before we ever actually got onstage together.  Just about the time that he left Tennessee, started letting his hair grow long and became Willie, my career was in full gear.  So I hired Willie and his band for $800 a day to open my show going up to New England where they had never heard of Willie.  He went up tehre and just tore their ass up.  I think he picked up my whole audience and attached it to his own.  And we’ve been doing each other that way ever since.

Willie and I both made the same choice a long time ago that we weren’t going to be afraid to bound over a few barbed wire fences to do what the hell we wanted with our lives.  But I’ve learned a lot from Willie.  When I came along, Nashville represented the ugly head of the music industry and the home of screwing young musicians out of what they had written.  Willie was a step or two ahead of me in the game.  He might not know it, but I went to school on his life.  He saved me the mistake of going down there and losing my first songs and getting caught in the shuffle.

Of course we’ve had a lot of fun together, too.  There was a time when Willie and I regularly worked at the Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe and Renol  We were seen a lot together then because of ‘Pancho and Lefty,” which was the period we were going through at the time.  So we made a life-size dummy of Willie with his pigtails and a hat and some glasses.  A lot of times I’d be playing in town with my band, and we would put that dummy in our car to let people see it going up and down the street, and everybody would swear that Willie was in town, too.  Other times, we’d bring the dummy backstage and lay it on a massage table that had black sheets on it, and if you put the light just right, it looked like was levitating.  One night we had this girl who brought us sandwiches before the show, and she wanted to know if she could meet Willie.  We said, “Well, he’s meditating right now, and you dont’ want to bother him.  When he meditates, sometimes he levitates.  So she kinda grins out of the corner of her mouth, and we said, ‘No, we’re serious!  Peek around the corner if you don’t believe us, but don’t disturb him”.  So she leaned around the corner to see Willie levitating in a deep state of mediation.  [laughs] We never did get caught.

Those are just the kind of things we did when we were young.  We’re older men now, sailing along here on our reputations and fortunate that we can still go up onstage and create something close to what we’ve done all our lives.  I think it’s a miracle that WIllie at 75 is able to put on the hot energy show that he does.  I mean, it takes more energy to sing that it does to run. But I think that winds up being what’s keeping you alive.  If we quit doing what we’re doing, we’d be dead in five months.  When you quit squirming, man, it’s over.

Willie and I, we’re part of the same circus.  It’s been, and still is, quite a party.  Willie says, “We’re the last of the breeders.”  [laughs]  I do think we’re both better looking that we used to be because goddam we were ugly!  But we have spent two wonderful lives traveling around the world at other people’s expense.  We were given an opportunity to soak up everything we can, and we have.  I’ve lived ruing the greatest period of time in history.  I’ve know Elvis.  I’ve know the Rat Pack.  And I have known Willie Nelson.  What else can a person hope for?

One Response to “Happy Birthday, Willie Nelson, from Merle Haggard”

  1. [...] and fans of Willie share their birthday wishes via video, and Merle Haggard offers his own, too, “Congratulations, Willie — you’ve outlived your [...]

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