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A feel good story

Posted: January 30, 2014 12:33 p.m.
Updated: January 31, 2014 5:00 a.m.

A few years ago I used this Friday space to talk to you about Merle Haggard, one of the two country music stars I had ever wanted to see in concert.

George Jones – The Possum – was the other, and I had tickets to see him in Spartanburg last year, but he up and died, so that was that. Fortunately, Merle made it to Columbia and delivered a fine performance.

Merle – we’ll call him by his first name here, as I always do, though of course I don’t know him – is still hanging tough and touring at 76, fighting cancer while making smooth music.

He sang at last week’s Grammy Awards, and I thought I’d give you an update on him. This is a feel-good Merle story I ran across recently.

Seems that in 1982, at the conclusion of a marathon Los Angeles recording session, Merle went out to his tour bus and found his driver, Dean Holloway, in a deep funk.

Holloway and Merle were fast friends going back to the time they were kids. Sitting in the hot bus in a crowded L. A. parking lot, Holloway said, "I hate the place. I’m tired of this dirty old city."

Merle, who said he always has instinctively looked for ways to put meaningful lyrics on paper, replied, "I can see why you’re upset, but why don’t we take that anger out on a piece of paper?"

With that, he pulled out a pad and pen, and in about 10 minutes, Merle had written a song based on the conversation he’d had with his buddy about leaving a dilapidated urban area.

"Where would you really like to be?" he asked Holloway, who replied, "If it were up to me, I’d be somewhere in the middle of damn Montana."

So Montana it became.

Merle said when he works on lyrics, he can hear the music he wants as he writes the words. That's what happened then, and as he jotted down the last lines, he ran back inside to the studio and caught his musicians before they left.

He hummed the melody, and those band members, as gifted musicians can do, started making music and joining in with Merle’s leads.

When their producer returned – he’d gone out to buy a bottle of booze – Merle and The Strangers, the name he gave his band, were recording the song. The producer took one listen and told them, "Fix one bass note and you'll have a number-one record."

Listen to Merle tell it: "We fixed that one note, and while I listened to the tape, all I could think was, ‘Man, Dean-o just wrote a hit song.’"

Merle took the tape out to the bus, stuck it in the player and said to Dean, "I want you to hear something. This hasn’t been written a full hour yet. Listen to our song, Mr. Hollaway. You and I just wrote a hit."

Here’s the kicker, in Merle’s words, as told to Holloway as the two sat on the bus: "This was your inspiration so we’re splitting it down the middle. Dean was a plain old boy and was never the same after that. He wasn’t in my tax bracket – he was a regular guy making a regular salary, and this thing transformed him."

Holloway later told Merle the song, which they called "Big City," had made him half a million bucks.

So there’s my feel-good Merle Haggard story. I don’t claim it as my own but am passing along to you what I found somewhere else. But I like it, and I hope you do, too.

(Glenn Tucker is the contributing editor of the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)

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