Inside Merle Haggard’s long-gestating ‘Tribute to the Troubadour’ album

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Why was Merle Haggard’s proposed “Tribute to the Troubadour” album shelved indefinitely? Featuring an exclusive interview, we dive into the late country maverick’s appreciation for Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb. Here Haggard tips his hat to the crowd as he takes the Palomino Stage on the first night of the sold-out three-day Stagecoach Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, on Friday, April 24, 2015. Photography by Allen J. Schaben / The Los Angeles Times

Three years before Merle Haggard’s death from recurring double pneumonia likely exacerbated by a previous bout with lung cancer, during a telephone interview plugging a show at Floore’s Country Store the veteran entertainer divulged that the intended studio follow-up to 2011’s acclaimed Western swing-espousing Working in Tennessee would be A Tribute to the Troubadour.

The “Troubadour” in question referred to Ernest Tubb, one of the supreme originators of pure honky tonk well before Hank Williams’ meteoric rise. Tubb ruled country music airwaves for decades, especially during the ’40s and ’50s with such enduring classics as “Walking the Floor over You”, “Slippin’ Around”, “Tomorrow Never Comes”, “Waltz Across Texas”, and “Rainbow at Midnight.” He developed a loyal fan base from frequent Grand Ole Opry spots and through his collaborations with Loretta Lynn, best exemplified on 1964’s tragic marriage post-mortem, “Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be.” Tubb was also widely regarded for his humility and penchant for signing autographs long into the night.

When asked why he chose to honor Tubb’s legacy, Haggard simply said, “Ernest was a wonderful, very professional man. I got to sing and play guitar with him. He just had a lot of wisdom to leave us all. I think everybody was influenced by him, and he deserves a tribute.”

Tubb’s influence on Haggard was already evident from the outset of Strangers, his debut 1965 album with Roy Nichols’ patented Bakersfield electric guitar embellishing a sprightly cover of “Walking the Floor over You.” Not surprisingly, Tubb also recognized his young protégé’s genius very early on, adding “[My Friends Are Gonna Be] Strangers”, Hag’s first genuine hit, to his Hittin’ the Road album in November 1965. As the wave of “Okie from Muskogee” mania swept the nation, “Sing Me Back Home”, “The Bottle Let Me Down”, “Today I Started Loving You Again”, and four additional Haggard compositions were waxed to vinyl by Tubb.

Haggard would continue to express his obligation to the Texas Troubadour by wisely covering the World War II-era “Soldier’s Last Letter” during the height of the Vietnam War. Unleashed as a 1971 A-side, “Soldier’s Last Letter” briefly charted on the pop charts but did much better country-wise, stalling just shy of the peak position at No. 3.

Nearly a decade after Tubb’s last Top 20 hit, a duet with Lynn on 1969’s “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out,” and his record contract with Decca/MCA Records gathering dust, it appeared that the country icon was finished as a viable recording artist.

Enter steel guitar ace Pete Drake [e.g. Elvis Presley’s “Just Call Me Lonesome” and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album sessions], who came to the rescue with a then-unprecedented idea. Why not collaborate with Tubb in the studio and produce an album reimagining his essential hits? Tubb was finally convinced and sessions commenced in spring 1977 and ran over a two year period.

After the basic instrumental tracks along with Tubb’s vocals were complete, the Texas Troubadour went out on tour. Unbeknownst to him, Drake decided to wrangle in some of the biggest names in country music to overdub vocals and occasional guitar onto the tapes. People like Conway Twitty, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and you guessed it, Haggard himself, on two cuts — coming full circle with the appropriate “Walking the Floor over You” and “Seaman’s Blues.” On the latter, Haggard got to play some tasty lead licks on his prized Telecaster guitar.

The recordings were unveiled to an overjoyed Tubb on his 65th birthday on February 9, 1979. Subsequently released as The Legend and the Legacy on Drake’s own First Generation Records imprint, the album went Top 10 on the country charts but poor distribution and legal problems thwarted much of its impact.

Tubb and Haggard’s duet on “Walking the Floor over You”, which also featured Chet Atkins on lead guitar, was distributed as a single and nearly went Top 30, notably Tubb’s final charting record. A video finds them performing the song live at the Grand Ole Opry House, an integral part of the special entitled Country Gold — The First 50 Years, which aired on ABC in October 1980.

Speaking from his spacious Northern California ranch home on 168 rustic acres in the unincorporated Palo Cedro community on March 5, 2013, the “Sing Me Back Home” singer casually admitted to me that he was listening to The Legend and the Legacy in his Hummer, an album he purchased through the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Thanks to Drake’s estate, folks can download individual songs via Bandcamp. Haggard considered the Tubb collaboration to be among his most treasured career milestones.

Other Tubb covers would continue to appear sporadically on Haggard albums into the early ’80s. Believe it or not Haggard delivered three renditions of iconic Tubb songs on his 1980 MCA LP, The Way I Am — “Take Me Back and Try Me One More Time”, “I’ll Always Be Glad to Take You Back”, and “It’s Been So Long, Darlin’”.

By then, the Texas Troubadour was suffering from advanced emphysema and had been forced to curtail his live bookings, so the covers were probably quite helpful to Tubb in terms of songwriting royalties. Less than four years later, Haggard’s musical hero was gone at age 70.

Haggard confirmed 14 tracks had been cut and that he intended A Tribute to the Troubadour to drop before Christmas 2013. So why did those optimistic plans fail to materialize, considering three tribute albums are already in Haggard’s venerable canon — Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimmie Rodgers [1969], A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills) [1970], and My Farewell to Elvis [1977]? The initial two are widely hailed as critical masterpieces, and the Presley homage also earned surprisingly good marks albeit tempered by derision in certain classic country quarters.

In a second and ultimately final phone conversation pushing a concert in Spindale, North Carolina, Haggard was asked point blank on July 28, 2015 — eight months before his demise — if there was a particular reason why A Tribute to the Troubadour had been placed on ice indefinitely. Did he decide that he didn’t like it?

A Tribute to the Troubadour is still in the making,” said Haggard, also serving as the project’s producer. “We had some other things that jumped out ahead of it. We did Django & Jimmie with Willie Nelson [a Billboard Top Ten pop album and Haggard’s first number one on the country chart since It’s All in the Game dropped in 1984], and we did one with the great bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman called Timeless [both LPs released in summer 2015]. I don’t know of anything I don’t like about A Tribute to the Troubadour, but we’re just not in a hurry with it. It’s about half done, but we need to go back, review all the songs, and see if we wanna re-sing any of ’em to make sure they’re ready for release.”

Further details about A Tribute to the Troubadour, languishing in the “struggling” guitarist’s Lake Shasta recording studio archives for over five years, remain a closely guarded secret. Haggard insiders are welcome to reach out and help fill in the blanks. In the meantime, a reasonably complete list of the Haggard-Tubb covers and collaborations has been tabulated below.

Merle Haggard covers Ernest Tubb

  1. “Walking the Floor over You” [Strangers, Haggard’s debut album, October 1965]
  2. “Soldier’s Last Letter” [No. 3 C&W, Hag, April 1971]
  3. “Take Me Back and Try Me One More Time” [The Way I Am, April 1980]
  4. “I’ll Always Be Glad to Take You Back” [The Way I Am]
  5. “It’s Been So Long, Darlin’” [The Way I Am]
  6. “Waltz Across Texas” [Heart to Heart, June 1983, duets album with third wife Leona Williams]
  7. “You Nearly Lose Your Mind” [It’s All in the Game, June 1984]

Ernest Tubb covers Merle Haggard

  1. “[My Friends Are Gonna Be] Strangers” [written by Liz Anderson; Hittin’ the Road, November 1965]
  2. “I Threw Away the Rose” [recorded in February 1968 but unreleased for decades until the Another Story Bear Family box set]
  3. “Sing Me Back Home” [Country Hit Time, September 1968]
  4. “The Bottle Let Me Down” [Country Hit Time]
  5. “Somewhere Between” [If We Put Our Heads Together, June 1969 duets album with Loretta Lynn]
  6. “Today I Started Loving You Again” [Saturday Satan Sunday Saint, June 1969]
  7. “One Sweet Hello” [A-side; One Sweet Hello, September 1971]
  8. “Holding Things Together” [Ernest Tubb, August 1975]

Ernest Tubb / Merle Haggard Duets

  1. “Walking the Floor over You” [The Legend and the Legacy, August 1979; final Tubb single to chart at No. 31 C&W]
  2. “Seaman’s Blues” [The Legend and the Legacy; also featuring Haggard on guitar]

© Jeremy Roberts, 2013, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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