All Roads Lead to Merle Haggard: Calgary musicians pay tribute to silver-winged rebel

Three singers, three trails, three tales. If beauty is more than skin deep, then for three veteran musicians who organized the upcoming Sing Me Back Home: Remembering Merle Haggard tribute at the Ironwood on Thursday, April 5, music is more than ear deep. Driven by heartbreak, longing or reflection, all roads led to Merle.

California native Tim Williams, who was a veteran of 1960s clubs and coffee houses around Los Angeles well before he found himself moving to Canada in the 1970s, recalls listening repeatedly to country legend Haggard’s album Going Where the Lonely Go after it came out in 1982.

“It’s really important to me because when that album came out I was newly separated from my second wife, without my kids, and living in my bus on the road. I played it a lot,” the guitarist, vocalist and songwriter says from his Calgary home.

“I was in the Maritimes working my way back to Alberta to sell off all my stuff and quit playing and go cowboying for a few years.”

That “stuff” included a house in Olds that was Williams’ “convenient headquarters” between touring and making ongoing weekend trips to Edmonton to play on the historic Sun Country TV Show, his tour bus, and even most of his musical gear.

The story of how the album ended up in Williams’ capable hands is a snapshot of music before the Internet played Tilt-a-Whirl. “I got the album from a buddy working at Haggard’s then-label CBS, who would send me all the interesting stuff on their monthly release schedule back in the days when labels still did that.”

Williams will perform the album’s title track, among others, at this second tribute night to Haggard — the first being last year following his death in 2016 on his 79th birthday on April 5.

Allen Baekeland was a little too young to be exiting a second marriage when Haggard began to course through his veins. Like Williams, he ended up with a Haggard album in his hands by fluke, and it, too, impacted his musical future.

“I bought a cassette of his greatest hits at a truck stop when I was about 19 or 20, played it in the car and fell in love with his phrasing, his delivery and so forth,” Baekeland says, recalling that purchase was likely made at Calgary’s Blackfoot Truckstop before Baekeland hit the road to Vancouver to see, he thinks, Northern Ireland’s pioneer punk sweethearts The Undertones.

“When I was discovering my own singing voice and what I could do with it and what I can’t do with it, singing like Merle was something I could do. Merle is by far the biggest influence on the way I sing. I guess that’s why I do the show.”

In a simple twist of fate, Baekeland’s future wife Jennifer Norfolk had “an awful lot of Merle Haggard albums” when they met. “It kind of endeared her to me.”

Baekeland wants to save some surprises for the gig, but he will be singing Haggard’s first hit, Sing a Sad Song, that night along with Lonesome Fugitive. He recalls his start playing Haggard’s music. “First time I played any of these songs was playing them with Tom (Phillips) in The Men of Constant Sorrow. I had seen Tom play them many times before I joined the band … The first time I ever filled in on bass was around 2004 at a Henry’s gig,” he says, referring to King Henry VIII Pub, the now defunct bar on Stephen Avenue that was the MOCS’ regular Saturday night gig for over a decade.

For Phillips, it wasn’t a random cassette or album that bound Haggard’s music to his heart. It was all of it — music, lyrics, life. “It’s several things. For me, his songwriting is amazing in the sense it’s right in the straight-up, hard-country tradition, but to me he seems to write these incredible poems. I also like his country-based, alcohol-related songs because they’re always cautionary tales. He’s an introspective, complex guy, and I love his singing as well,” Phillips says.

While Phillips’ gigs have featured Haggard with soothing regularity, he’s happy to be doing a few songs he hasn’t done before, notably Here in Frisco and Misery and Gin. But there’s still lots of room for the standards Phillips’ fans have come to know and, perhaps, demand.

“I’m doing Silver Wings — one of my very favourite songs of all time, like anywhere, I’m doing that.” Phillips has performed this song from opening his regular stint with the MOCS at the legendary Mecca Café in the early 2000s to his mom Kaye’s memorial service last May at Parkdale United Church. It was her favourite song. No way was anyone else going to claim that song for the tribute.

In addition, Phillips will be playing If We Make it Through December, which he says was on a Rolling Stone list as the 14th saddest country songs ever written. Kind of fitting considering the fact that on the day of this interview, a day before April, snow was still pouring from the sky.

The tribute was born the day Haggard died, Phillips says. “Pat (MacIntyre, owner of the Ironwood) and I weirdly tried to call each other to tell each other that he died. At the same time I tried to call Pat, it was busy. He was calling me; we were trying to tell each other.” When they finally connected, they talked about the gig, marked it on their calendars, and forgot about it until the next year rolled around.

Some things about a gig like this are easy for these pros, including the early reminder it was coming that popped up on MacIntyre’s calendar again this year, triggering the question: Are we doing this again? As well, each singer had already pissed on their territory, so there’s no arguing over whose going to do which song.

Baekeland explains. “Tom has his list of Merle songs that he’s been doing forever, so for expediency’s sake he does all those, and I have a bunch of Merle songs I do and they don’t overlap with Tom, and same with Tim.”

Thus, they only need one rehearsal to pull the show together, as Williams’ regular drummer Kevin Belzner, pedal steel master Charlie Veilleux (MOCS), and Tim Leacock, who plays in both the MOCS and Phillips’ other act The DTs, will be the backing band that night. Sydney Zadravec, also a member of The DTs, will sing as well.

Although she was playing and singing with Phillips before she was old enough to vote, there’s no word on whether she had to wrist-wrestle any of her chosen tunes away from the gents she’s playing with. As Baekeland says, “I’m jealous as hell of her that she gets to hang out with all these seasoned musicians that are 40 years older than she is and learn. I wish that when I was 17 I was doing that, man! Every time she gets on stage she more than holds her own.”

Phillips, too, is pleased that Zadravec will add her voice to the mix. “Sydney, to me, is such a hard country singer; it’s where she spiritually lies, I think.”

Sing Me Back Home, Remembering Merle Haggard, is at Ironwood on April 5. For reservations please call 403- 269-5581.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who hates writing but loves music, horses, books and whiskey.