Marty Haggard isn’t sure what he will feel April 30 when he takes the stage in Mifflintown for the first time since the death his father, country music icon Merle Haggard.
“It’s going to be very, very different,” Marty Haggard said by phone from Louisiana, in a voice very reminiscent of the distinctive tones of his father.
Merle Haggard died on his birthday, April 6, at age 79 of pneumonia. He was a singer and songwriter, known for hits such as “Okie from Muskogee,” “Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Pancho and Lefty.” He was a pioneer in the outlaw country style of music, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Merle Haggard was an “actual hero to many people” and a huge influence on country music and its musicians, his son said.
“My phone hasn’t stopped lighting up since he passed away,” Marty Haggard said.
“Dad was the Elvis Presley of country music,” he said. “I doubt he understood how much people loved him.”
Honoring his father
Marty, 57, who has had a long country career in his own right, started playing his dad’s songs during his concerts four or five years ago. He recorded a tribute album dedicated to his father in 2010.
“I chose to do it because I want to,” he said, adding that he’s not trying to be a star anymore, he just wants to play what he wants.
Haggard is performing as part of a benefit concert for the PA Wounded Warriors at the CJEMS Building along Route 35 near Mifflintown. Performances by the Make Mine Country Band, Floyd Sheets, Amber Foose Miller and Gary Swartz are also scheduled.
Most of the show likely will be his father’s songs.
“I’m sure there will be periods when I have emotional bursts,” he said.
He said he didn’t have anything special or particular in mind for the April 30 show.
“I don’t plan nothing (on stage),” he said. “My dad never did.”
“The main thing he told me was be yourself,” he said. “I’m not an actor, I’m a reactor.”
“I’ll speak from my old heart. This is not a show. It’s a sharing.”
Marty had five songs hit the charts in the 1980s, the biggest of which, “Trains Make Me Lonesome,” reached No. 57. That song was covered by another country music icon, George Strait, in 1992. (“My dad was his hero,” Marty said of Strait). Marty Haggard was nominated as Top New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music in 1987.
“We do have some difference phrasings, but it’s real close to what my dad did,” he said of his style.
He said he couldn’t pick which of his father’s songs he likes the most. “That’s like asking me which one of my kids I love the most,” he said. But he mentioned “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” as a possibility.
Marty said he talked to country star Vince Gill several years ago, and Gill told him he wouldn’t have been in the business without Merle Haggard. After Merle’s death, he talked to Gill on the phone, and “poor old Vince started bawling like a baby.
“It makes me feel good that people love him that much,” he said. “Knowing people loved him like they did makes it a little easier.”
As the oldest son, from the time he was 8 or 9, his dad took him on the road.
“From 1966 to 1979. I was exposed to that old guard of country music, dating back to Bob Wills and Tex Ritter, then Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell,” he said. Then he worked with the newer guard such as Strait and Gill.
What did he learn on the road?
“People are people. I don’t care if they’re famous or not,” he said.
Marty said his schedule will start to get very busy beginning with the April 30 event, including a trip to Ireland and England.
Many visits to central Pennsylvania
He is no stranger to central Pennsylvania. He said he’s played here more than “any other state in the Union,” including three or four times a month in the 1980s when he was a Nashville artist.
“Pennsylvania is by far the biggest supporter of country music,” he said, more than Texas or other states you might imagine.
“I’ve played every ‘burg’ you’ve got – Mechanicsburg, Mercersburg, Chambersburg.”
As big of a star as his father was, he always saw him differently.
“Merle Haggard doesn’t exist to me,” he said. “My dad does.”
He said his dad might be remembered most for the “uniqueness” of his life, a rags-to-riches story. He got out of San Quentin prison in 1960. “He was doing 1 to 15 years when I was born,” he said.
Then he made his mind up to quit messing around and do something with his life. By 1970, Merle Haggard and his family were sitting in the White House.
“He went from the jailhouse to White House in 10 years,” Marty said. “It’s the power of freedom and what makes America unique.”
While he said he’s glad to be a part of a Wounded Warriors benefit, especially as a former Marine, he said it’s a “crying shame” that money has to be raised for veterans because Americans pay taxes that should help care for them.
“I find it very shameful we have to do this for our soldiers because the government has lost its mind,” he said.
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