Merle Haggard Receives Radio Broadcasters’ Award

Ed Salamon, Jack Ingram, Merle Haggard,
Emmylou Harris, Carl Jackson
Photo Credit: Bev Moser

“I was supposed to sing tonight,” Haggard told the audience when he first came onstage. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it or not [because] I’m fighting pneumonia. I think I’m winning.” He thanked everyone who had prayed for his recovery from cancer. “I certainly needed it,” he said.
by Edward Morris

Merle Haggard’s ongoing clash with lung cancer hasn’t made him any less sharp-tongued than he was in his glory days.

In Nashville March 3, 2009  to accept a career achievement award from Country Radio Broadcasters, the feisty superstar used the occasion to lash out at the former head of his one-time label, Epic Records.

Prompting the outburst was Emmylou Harris’ wistful performance of Haggard’s self-penned 1985 hit, “Kern River,” a tune she ranked as her Haggard favorite. “The first time I heard that song,” she told the audience assembled in the Renaissance Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, “I almost drove off the road because it’s just so good.”

Her praise of “Kern River” evidently ignited Haggard’s memories of a man who didn’t like the song at all. “I want to say that there was this other guy — I can’t remember his name — he was head of CBS, and he made fun of my song. He said, ‘Who in the hell knows where Kern River is at?'”

Someone in the audience shouted out the name Haggard had apparently forgotten — Rick Blackburn, who helmed CBS Records (of which Epic was a division) from 1980 to 1988.

On another occasion, Haggard recalled that Blackburn said, “I’d like to tell you one more time. I don’t like ‘Kern River.'” Haggard continued, “And I said, ‘That’s about the third time you’ve told me that.’ He said, ‘It’s more like five times.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m about five times short of telling you to go to hell.'”

By now, the crowd was roaring with laughter. But Haggard wasn’t through yet.

“I said, ‘Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.'”

[Blackburn, who dropped Cash from the label in 1986, the year after “Kern River” came out, took Haggard’s tirade in stride. Reached Wednesday (March 4) at his home in Nashville, Blackburn told, “He’ll get more pleasure out of that [comment] than I’ll get grief.”]

Prior to Harris’ performance, Jack Ingram saluted Haggard by singing his 1982 hit, “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver).” Ingram accompanied himself on guitar, while Harris was backed by Carl Jackson on guitar and Phil Madeira on accordion.

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