MERLE Haggard’s death on his 79th birthday, yesterday, has shocked and saddened the Australian country music industry, particularly Tamworth favourite Troy Cassar-Daley and local artist Lindsay Butler.
Haggard was Cassar-Daley’s biggest influence on his career, along with Slim Dusty, and he found out about his passing yesterday morning when his wife, Laurel Edwards, woke him at 4 o’clock to break the sad news.
“It’s like losing one of the family,” Cassar-Daley told The Leader.
“You don’t expect people to pass away like this when they are so heroic to you. That’s how I felt about Merle and Slim – they always seemed superhuman.”
He said he’d spent the day listening to Haggard vinyls and had shed plenty of tears over his hero’s passing.
“I did a song in the studio earlier, Today I Started Loving You Again,” Cassar-Daley said.
“I’ve had a bit of a ball. I was listening to all these songs and he kept taking me back to memories of my childhood.”
The Golden Guitar winner toured with Haggard in 1996.
“He was very open to Stuie French and I,” Cassar-Daley said.
“He knew we were genuine fans to the point of being obsessed. It was wonderful he was comfortable enough to come down and talk with us.”
Cassar-Daley said one of his fondest memories was being invited to Haggard’s hotel room at Wrest Point Casino where they sat down and had a sing.
“Merle was in a singlet and shorts and holding court,” he said.
“There was me, Stuie, James Gillard and Shane Flew, and we sat in a big circle singing songs.”
He said he was pleased his hero was a nice guy.
Another time they were looking for Haggard to go on stage and found him with Cassar-Daley and French jamming in their dressing room. When seeing him in the US after his Australian visit, Haggard even got Cassar-Daley up on stage with him in a bar.
Tamworth’s Lindsay Butler was also majorly influenced by Haggard.
“We are all very sad,” he said.
“I knew he’d been in hospital, and I knew he’d been very sick, but it was still a shock. He was a true icon and I honestly believe he was the greatest American country artist.”
Butler said that one of the many attributes of Haggard was that even diehard Australian country artists and bush balladeers loved him. He said he saw him live at Twin Towns in 1996 and released an instrumental album of Haggard’s songs a few years ago.
Butler also nearly toured with him.
“In the early 1980s, he was coming out and Arthur Blanch was going to be the support act,” he said.
“I was going to be the guitar player for Arthur Blanch, but for some reason, he didn’t end up coming out to Australia and came out later.”
The guitarist said Haggard would be missed terribly.
“He was what country music was all abouthe wrote it like it was and there was no plastic stuff with Merle Haggard,” he said.