Ray Benson Recalls Fightin' Side of Merle Haggard

In the fall of 1969, when Ray Benson began putting together his long-haired country band Asleep at the Wheel, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” was at the top of the charts. “Okie” was a call to arms against exactly the sort of counter-cultural revolution Benson had in mind with the Wheel — and yet that did not keep Benson and Haggard from becoming collaborators, fellow travelers and (yes) dope-smoking buddies later when they met on the road.

Haggard played and recorded often with Asleep at the Wheel over the years, appearing on all three of the group’s Bob Wills tribute albums (including 2015’s Still the King). Behind the scenes, he and Benson were fast friends, as well.

In this excerpt from his memoir, Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel (University of Texas Press, 2015, co-written with frequent Rolling Stone contributor David Menconi), Benson recalls one of The Hag’s more memorable encounters with the dark underside of the Nashville music business.

Shortly after signing our Epic deal, Asleep at the Wheel was on the road coming through Nashville, where we pulled into Shoney’s Inn and saw Merle Haggard’s touring bus. So we went on in there to socialize and smoke a joint. Yes, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee” might be the first line of Merle Haggard’s most famous song, but I’m here to tell you I have witnessed otherwise. So we all got pleasantly buzzed, and after a while Merle got sort of a mischievous look about him.

“Hey,” he said with a gleam in his eye, “how about you come with me to kick a little ass over at the record company?”

Sure, I said, I’m always up for that. So off Merle and I went to the CBS Records offices on Music Row, and we went into Rick Blackburn’s office. Larry Hamby, the head of A&R, was there, too. We exchanged pleasantries for a bit; and then Merle inquired about his latest advance, the size of which he found wanting. Near as I can recall decades later, here’s how the conversation went down.

“How come,” Merle asked, “you only gave me $500,000 and not the $1 million I wanted?”

“Because,” Blackburn said, “your last album didn’t sell shit.”

Ray Benson Ray Benson performs at a country festival in this 1990 photo. David Redfern/Redferns

That was Kern River, which had come out in 1985 and probably sold a few hundred-thousand copies. Not bad numbers unless you compare it to the “Pancho & Lefty” album he’d done with Willie a few years earlier – that one sold well over a million.

“‘Kern River’ didn’t sell shit because you didn’t promote it,” Merle said.

“Well, Merle, it didn’t sell because the songs were lousy,” Blackburn said, and then Merle got mad. Really, really mad.

“And who the FUCK are you to tell me that?” Merle said. “When’s the last time YOU wrote a song?”

It was like watching “Write Your Own Song” come to life. Blackburn said he didn’t write songs, but he’d sold a few. That didn’t impress Merle and they continued going back and forth, growing more and more heated.

At this point, I should mention that Blackburn had spina bifada. That would have taken the edge off of most people. But Merle could not have cared less, and he didn’t hold back.

“Goddammit,” he finally screamed, “I’ll kick your fucking crippled ass with one arm tied behind my fucking back!”

Now that’s the Okie from Muskogee I remember. Yes, another great moment in politically incorrect music history. I’ve seen a few.

This excerpt from Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel (copyright © 2015 by Ray Benson) is used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit utexaspress.com

Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Clint Eastwood remember Merle Haggard. 

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