Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had one of the all-time great country music friendships. The longtime friends and musical collaborators had several tour dates scheduled before Haggard died from pneumonia on his birthday earlier this month at age 79. Now, Willie Nelson is looking back at his decades-long friendship with the late country legend. Nelson told Rolling Stone he was always drawn to Haggard because they had a lot in common.
“Merle and I were buddies from way back,” Willie told Rolling Stone. “I first met him at a poker game at my house in Nashville in the early Sixties, before he went back to Bakersfield and I went back to Texas. We always had a lot in common. We both hopped trains as kids. We both got our starts playing bass in other bands before stepping out on our own. We’d both been married for the last 20 years. We both had our sons playing guitar with us.”
“Over the years, we played a lot of dates, a lot of poker,” Nelson added. “He was a great audience for my jokes…I always had a lot of admiration for him.”
The feeling has always been mutual. In an interview last year with Esquire, Merle Haggard talked about his country music brother and all that they had in common.
“Me and Willie have both been married to the same lady for 20 years or better, and we have two children by the lady we are with, and I am very happy with my life,” Haggard said. “All the parties and the women went away years ago.”
The country stars’ friendship deepened in the early 1980s, when Merle stayed with Willie at his home while they recorded together in Texas. It’s hard to picture it, but Nelson said despite their hard partying ways, he and his pal tried to live healthy while on the road together.
“We were living pretty hard back then, but we’d also try to be a little healthy,” Willie said. “We used to go jogging a lot. We’d burn one down and run two miles in cowboy boots. In Texas, we went on a 10-day cayenne-pepper juice cleanse. It was horrible.”
Nelson also touted his friend’s talents for songwriting, pointing out that Haggard wrote more Number One songs than anyone in their crowd. Willie said Merle could “play guitar with anybody,” and he noted that he was a great imitator, citing the late singer’s iconic impersonations of Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens back in the early ’70s on The Glen Campbell Show.
More than 30 years after the duo’s first collaboration, 1983’s Pancho and Lefty, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard teamed up for their final record, Django and Jimmie, last year. The album marked their sixth recording together, and they had planned an extensive tour.
“When he called me to cancel the tour, he told me he had lung cancer,” Nelson said. “I told him they have a lot of great stuff these days, and they can do miracles. I was hoping they would be able to do something, but it had already gone too far, I guess. We’re finishing the tour in Merle’s honor. We’re getting through it. “
While the full tour was never to be, Willie Nelson said his final collaboration with his country music counterpart was one of their best.
“We had a lot of fun together. His last year was probably one of his best ones. Old Merle’s timing has always been perfect, and it was here, too.”
Take a look at the video below to see the Merle Haggard impressions that Willie Nelson was talking about.
[Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for The Smith Center]