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Ben and Noel Haggard follow a music legend: Their dad, Merle

Posted on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 at 4:27 pm

By Peter Covino

A&E Editor

Merle Haggard was one of country music’s greatest legends.

Haggard died last year, but his music lives on in both spirit and sound through his sons Ben and Noel, who will be coming to the Runaway Country Music Fest, along with their father’s ever-present band, The Strangers.

Both men have had music careers, but the recent passing of their father, Merle Haggard died last April, pointed them in a direction they could not refuse.

He told us this is what we have to do,” younger brother Ben said in a recent phone interview, so he and Noel will be carrying on that tradition begun by their dad so many years ago.

Even though Ben, 23, is a relative newcomer to the business, he actually began following in his father’s footsteps years ago.

“I went on my first tour with my dad when I was 15,” Haggard said, who is both a singer-songwriter and guitarist. That tour easily brings a flood of memories to the young singer. There are not too many men, or women who can say they played the shrine of country music, the Ryman Auditorium, while still in their mid-teens.

Both guys were hit very hard with their dad’s passing. “Noel is very emotional human being,” the younger Haggard said. “But he has handled it very well, losing the man that meant the most to him. I am very proud of him.”

Singing their dad’s songs, with the band he played with for so many years, original member Norman Hamlet, is part of that original Bakersfield sound, that Merle made famous. Hamlet, a steel guitarist, has been with the band for more than 40 years.

Some of Merle Haggard’s other children, including daughters Theresa and Dana, have also sung backing vocals with The Strangers, but his sisters won’t be part of the upcoming Kissimmee show, Haggard said.

Ben and Noel will be doing some of the songs made famous by their dad. Both sons have a sound and look quite reminiscent of the country icon. Ben played guitar on many of Merle Haggard’s records and he sang versions of “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” on the 2014 Working Man’s Poet: Tribute to Merle Haggard, an album that also featured Toby Keith, Jason Aldean, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley.

Being on tour with the Strangers is very familiar territory for both men, but now they are taking center stage instead of being in the background.

Ben will be seen with a guitar fans of the Strangers have become quite used to, a guitar that has become much more significant in his life in the months since Merle died. Merle Haggard’s name is etched across it’s frame.

“I bought that guitar in California,” Haggard said, “and didn’t like it for some reason.” But his fondness for the guitar grew in time, and it wasn’t long before other performers started carving their names on it. Then his dad carved his name on it.

“It made it 100 times cooler,” Haggard said, and of course now, so much more meaningful.

As with all of the shows Ben and Noel and the Strangers perform on tour, it will be about their famous father.

“It will mainly be a tribute to him, but don’t know if it is attribute so much as paying respect,” he said. “I made him a promise I would not stop. He was proud of his band.”

Playing music that is so closely connected to his father can be emotional, Haggard said. “Sometimes it will be difficult to go through a song. But I get so focused on what I am doing and the emotion is directed into the song.”

Haggard has had some early success, and his natural talent seems to point to big things ahead for the young man.

“It’s humbling to know that they accepted someone this early,” he said, “but I sing the songs in honor of him. We have been accused of following on his coattails, but that is the furthest thing. We do this out of respect for the man we call our dad. He told us this is what we have to do for the time being.”

Eventually Ben Haggard will go his own way musically. “I have been writing for the past year a lot and preparing myself mentally for an album. I think it will develop,” he said.

Runaway Country comes to Osceola Heritage Park, March 17-19. Ben and Noel and the Strangers (Merle Haggard’s Strangers) will perform Saturday night.

at 8:15 p.m.

Today (March 9) is the last day for a chance to win a Runaway Country ticket prize package worth $450. Enter at www.fourcornersnewsleader.com.


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