In the year that the CMA celebrated the 50th anniversary of its signature awards show, country music also lost one of its greatest icons, Merle Haggard. In fact, the Country Music Association had envisioned Hag in a pivotal role in its “Forever Country” mashup of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” -- but it was not to be.
-- Merle’s final recording was with Willie on 2015’s Django and Jimmie. Though he struggled valiantly to complete the dates on a short tour to promote the album, the “Okie from Muskogee” was never quite able to overcome the lung issues that had nagged him. He passed away on April 6, his 79th birthday.
-- The man who’d become known for living the life he’d sung about -- from the Oklahoma poverty of “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” to the prisoner’s struggles of “The Fugitive” to the country music stardom of “Footlights” -- was laid to rest in a very private service in Palo Cedro, California. At the service, Connie Smith sang the gospel classic “Precious Memories” and her husband Marty Stuart joined her for Haggard’s own “Silver Wings.”
-- With no public memorial or remembrance set for Music City, Keith Urban and Vince Gill banded together to give the Poet of the Common Man a proper send-off at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. A week after Merle’s death, the sixth All for the Hall benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum turned into a Haggard tribute.
Keith wore a Haggard t-shirt, offering “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried.” Vince did “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and “Fightin’ Side of Me.” Emmylou Harris revived her recorded version of “Kern River.” Luke Bryan tackled “Big City” while Sam Hunt sang “The Way I Am,” which he'd already been planning to sing before Merle's passing.
-- Fast-forward several months to the half-century anniversary of the CMA Awards, and Merle’s impact was still being felt, even in his absence. Vince started the history-making show singing the iconic lyric “I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole…” with Merle’s youngest son Ben playing guitar by his side.
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