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Wynonna Judd, Cactus Moser Pay Tribute To Merle Haggard
On April 6, 2016, the music community lost country icon Merle Haggard. The legend touched the lives of artists and fans alike, influencing musicians across many genres and generations. To honor Haggard’s musical contributions, GRAMMY-nominated rising star Sam Hunt paid tribute to the country king with a cover of his 1980 single “The Way I Am” and Dwight Yoakam, Eric Church, Jake Owen, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, and the Avett Brothers followed suit. After news of the legend’s death hit the Internet, heavy hitters like Glen Campbell, Trisha Yearwood, Dierks Bentley, and Rosanne Cash penned endearing messages in memory of their friend and inspiration. Among those remembering Haggard, Wynonna Judd claims to be the biggest fan out there.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Judd and her drummer/producer husband, Cactus Moser, to find out what they learned about life, business, and music from their departed idol.
What is it about Merle Haggard that makes him so special to you?
Wynonna Judd: Merle and George [Jones] were the very first concert I ever went to when I was 15-years-old. And they were the reason that I got into country music initially. I said, “I want that.” Years later, I sang at George’s funeral. That was an end of an era for me then. Hearing about Merle’s passing really numbed me because my first experience of country music was opening for him, Cesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Our names were on the big marquee. I’m standing under the marquee and it says “Wynonna, Naomi and The Judds and Merle Haggard.” He was my first memory of being in country music besides Loretta Lynn.
What made him stand out as an artist?
Judd: What I remember the most about Merle that just blows my mind, he would go out on stage every night — this is very very unheard of today — and he never had a set list. He would go out there and shoot from the hip. And I had never seen that before. I had always been taught to be organized and prepared. I come from a mom that was basically my commander and chief. So I’m watching this man command a room and just turn back to the band and name a song. There was no light production. There wasn’t anything. There’s a guy with a guitar. What he taught me is the voice is all you need — his voice and his music. He was a stylist and we are losing those. There are plenty of good singers out there but who do you know that you can say, “I hear you on the radio and within two seconds you know who it is?” Merle was my go to. I recorded “Are the Good Times Really Over For Good” and sent it to him and he sent me back a thumbs up, which to me was like a seal of approval from the President.
Why is it such a loss to country music that he’s no longer with us?
Judd: He and George [Jones] were the true cornerstones of what country music stands for. They are the true mavericks and we’ve lost an American treasure. We’re done. Once we lose these characters, Mt. Rushmore is no more. These guys were the heads of state. Merle was a huge part of my background and if you read my book, there are stories after stories after stories about him. So he and George were my two bookends when it came to stylists, which we don’t have many of. Just the way they did business. Merle had an attitude where he didn’t care when he went on. And I know artists today that will tell you straight up, “I’m the headliner. I will not go on first. I’m the badass because I have a No. 1 record.” And it’s so entitled and it just gets on my nerves because it’s very childish. And I’ve been there. We all have. “That’s my parking spot. I got here first.” Merle’s attitude was, “I don’t care. I’ll go on first because then I can get done and eat and watch TV.” He was so unaffected and such an artist and when you listen to his voice, you just literally download “Silver Wings” and just listen to the purity. I think the word is pure. We have really, in my opinion, done a great job of really screwing up that beautiful, traditional, really sweet, simple sound of everyday-life country music. You either love it or you don’t. Some people don’t. But I tend to listen to these mavericks and say, “Holy crap.” They had no help. They just sang. And what came out of them was so pure it pierced the atmosphere and we lost that.
How important is it to make sure that his legacy lives on and that future generations are exposed to his music?
Judd: I absolutely cannot even believe he’s not here. But wow it’s my job to not ever forget where I come from in country music because he’s part of the tapestry of my life every day. I’m worried about there being a gap between generations. I stand on stage every day and say, “We must not forget where we come from in country music.”
Cactus Moser: And it isn’t just country musicians that he has impacted and will hopefully continue to impact. I lived in Los Angeles for years and it was all rockers and pop people and Merle Haggard was still a show that groups of us would go to.
Judd: I have many friends that are in the world of rock and they will tell you straight up, “I wish I had met Johnny Cash. He was amazing.” So let’s not forget, these guys are the original mavericks, the original music mafia. I opened for the Highwaymen. I worked with Merle. I opened for George. I sang with George. I did a duet with Willy. These men are the absolute — go ahead and sit down Bono and all you rock stars and let me tell you how it’s done. I promise if you ask any artist out there and they will mention Merle because he was such a unique sound that no one could come close to sounding like this man. Listen to one of his records. It’s been a while since we have, and you’ll go, “Oh my God. If I were Bono, if I were in a rock band, I’d want to be just as cool as he was” because he didn’t try. He just was. How great is that?
Moser: I took all kinds of people with me when we used to see Merle. Years later one of my big thrills was walking into the CMA Awards and I didn’t realize they sit you where they are going to sit you. We had played some shows with Merle but never been near him. And then we sat down and he was in the seat right next to me. All of a sudden he reached over and he grabbed my leg and I was like, “Oh my God.” His face was a chiseled sculpture of lines and stories and he looked at me and winked. That was beyond winning an award!