Merle Haggard joins Norm Hamlet and Don Markham, longtime members of Haggard’s band the Strangers, for a 2012 program at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum dubbed "My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers: A Conversation with Norm Hamlet, Don Markham, and Fuzzy Owen."
The program also features audio recordings, photos, and video clips (including Haggard’s 1967 performance of “Swinging Doors” on the "Buck Owens Ranch Show"), meant to spotlight pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound and those who left an indelible mark on Haggard and the Strangers—Fuzzy Owen, Ken Nelson, Roy Nichols, and Bonnie Owens among them.
Fuzzy Owen participates from the audience (at his request), and Haggard shares many comical stories about the steel guitarist, songwriter, and onetime Haggard manager, including how Owen and cousin Lewis Talley argued for years over whether to sign up-and-comer Haggard to their Bakersfield-based Tally Records.
Haggard points to fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member Ken Nelson’s kindness and generosity—his producer at Capitol Records, Nelson gave Haggard and Owen creative control in the studio, but was steadily on hand to share praise: “Come in and be proud. It’s a masterpiece.”
With its distinct sound and ace players, the Strangers—six-time winners of the Academy of Country Music’s “Band of the Year”—earned a reputation as the “hottest band around.” Haggard recounts how he and guitarist Roy Nichols (already a legend in the Bakersfield scene, with former stints with Maddox Brothers and Rose and Lefty Frizzell) found inspiration for the band’s unique guitar sound from Country Music Hall of Fame member Ernest Tubb (and on Fender Telecasters gifted by inventor Leo Fender).
Strangers Norm Hamlet and Don Markham accompany Haggard on stage and further reminisce on that golden age of California country. Steel guitarist Hamlet, Haggard’s bandleader for more than forty-five years, recalls the early days of the steel guitar and its transformation to pedal steel. Markham shares the tale of winning his Strangers gig after hitching a ride with Haggard back to Bakersfield in the early seventies. (He has played horn on every Haggard recording since that trip.)
Some of the most touching moments of “My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers: A Conversation with Norm Hamlet, Don Markham, and Fuzzy Owen” surround singer Bonnie Owens, Haggard’s former wife and musical collaborator, who came to be known as the “Queen of the Coast” for her role as the female representative of the Bakersfield Sound. Haggard expresses appreciation for Owens, who was always at the ready with pen and pad to jot down his lyrics when he was in songwriting mode. (She captured such classics as “Mama Tried,” “Working Man Blues,” and many others.)
Haggard also shares the story of how his song “Today I Started Loving You Again,” penned on a paper bag, was written for Owens. He spoke the sentiment to her when they finally had a chance to take a break from the road and settle into being a couple again. “What an idea for a song,” she responded.
Presented in support of the exhibition "The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country": March 24, 2012 through December 31, 2014.