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Merle Haggard brings big hits and talented teenage son to Gallo Center

Merle Haggard brings big hits and talented teenage son to Gallo Center

  |   News   |   31 Comments

Story By Lisa Millegan Modesto Bee

Merle Haggard isn’t the only one in his family to have musical talent.

When the 72-year-old country music legend returns to the Gallo Center for the Arts on Sunday, his youngest son will perform with his band the Strangers.

Haggard said 17-year-old Benion is a genius on the guitar.

“You can’t play lead guitar with Merle Haggard unless you’re pretty good,” Haggard said in a phone interview from his home near Lake Shasta. “He’s doing it. It’s not because he’s my son, it’s because he’s good.”

Merle Haggard and son Benion

Merle Haggard and son Benion

Haggard last performed at the Gallo Center in March 2008. As usual, he’ll play a mix of his 1960s and ’70s hits like the anti-hippie ode “Okie From Muskogee,” the patriotic “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Mama Tried,” along with newer works.

“We do a completely ad-libbed show,” he said. “We get on the stage with all the hits we’ve had, new songs and different style. We have swing tunes, country tunes, pop tunes and the whole variety of music we bring to the stage. We do it from the cuff, we don’t plan it. Sometimes, it comes out really good.”

Haggard has racked up 40 No. 1 chart hits, 19 Academy of Country Music awards, seven Country Music Association wins (plus 43 nominations, the most of any artist) and two Grammys. He is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Born in Bakersfield, he had a rough early life, going in and out of juvenile detention centers and frequently running away (sometimes to Modesto). In the late 1950s, he was sentenced to prison for attempting to rob a restaurant, and ultimately ended up at San Quentin.

After he was released in 1960, he performed in Bakersfield clubs and broke into country music big time.

These days, he’s working on a new album for Vanguard Records that will come out in May. It won’t be filled with the pointed political messages Haggard is known for, however.

“We steered away from the politics and went back to writing about our own life,” he said. “We find our own life is more like other people’s than most people in Washington.”

He said the songs reflect his feelings about parenthood and growing older. One song is called “Down at the End of the Road” and is about building a family and seeing children get older and leave.

But Haggard is not averse to sharing his views about President Barack Obama when asked.

“I don’t care for the majority of the people he’s picked,” the singer said. “I don’t see a lot of intelligence around him. I’m worried about him. His numbers have gone down. He hasn’t produced anything he promised yet.”

Overall, Haggard said he’s feeling good. He and his wife, Theresa, just celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary with a private party. His health is fine.

In November 2008, he had surgery to remove part of his lung because of cancer. But he said he feels good now and “95 percent” of his health has returned.

“We got lucky,” he said. “It was just in one place. It didn’t spread. I didn’t have to do any chemo. I feel special that I was able to recover from lung cancer. Not many people do that. All I know is I’m still here for some reason and I do feel good.”

  • Darrell Hunter | Jan 26, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    Hey Merle; Been a few years since I caught your show in Vegas and quite a few more years since I seen you in Alaska. I talk to Dennis Hromek frequently and he keeps me informed on whats happening with you. It sure would be nice if you made it back up here to Alaska and do another show. You have been my Hero forever. Say hello to Biff for me. Hag Fan Forever, Darrell Hunter, Houston, Alaska

  • Dana Paulson | Jan 25, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Im so glad u made a full recovery from your cancer . In my opinion you are a true legend . my father passed away of ALS (lou gherig’s disease) , he was no doubt your biggest fan , not in a way that he ran to all your concerts , or even ran out and bought all your albums . He saw his own life reflected in your songs , he too had quite a rough young life , serving time in jail and leaving his family at an early age for the road . I took care of my father when he was ill , and we would listen to your music and it would start him thinking and sometimes on the verge of tears he would start to tell me stories of his past , things i never knew . This was the hardest thing ive ever had to do in my life, and i believe Mr . Haggard had a hand in that . When he passed away last year there were only two songs played at his funeral that wernt Merle Haggard. Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds (we are from Alberta) and amazing grace) , thats the way he wanted it , I had the task of choosing the songs and i realized how much of him i could see in Mr. Haggard’s songs and i think i chose the ones fitting . I thank you mr. Haggard for your music and your life , cause it has helped me to understand my own father and his life .
    Thank You Dana Paulson

  • phil rishel | Jan 21, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Merl, I was playing at Rose Maddox’s 101 club in Oceanside when I heard “Song of Sadness” on the jukebox. I had been playing in Michigan as a kid and northern California in beer bars. It was My first job where I had to play bass and sing at the same time. 6 piece band and to my dismay I was the only singer.
    I had never heard a voice like yours and I copyed you for many years. If I live to be 100 one of my greatest memories was when a women passing me on the side walk (on 16 ave, nashville) turned around and said ” your the guy who sounds just like Merl Haggard.
    Another Time in Northern California. I was living north of Mt Shasta near Yreka. I had an AM radio and happened to get you doing something like a Christmas benifit. You were low on band members and it seems you had to play lead.
    The mosrite people had messed up your guitar so it couldn’t tune. I could hear the other 5 strings go down every time you tightened another,
    I couldn’t believe how well you took it and kept talking to the audience. The the Mosrite people came out and presented you with a new guitar.
    I bet you remember that. Probably threw that mosrite in the trash after the show. Much love to you forever Phil

  • Denny Haynes | Jan 21, 2010 at 7:17 am

    Hi Merle, I,am so glad your still healty and feelin good, congraulation on your 16 th anniversary,I pray you and your wife many more , I sure wish I could see you again someday in a concert with your son , I,ve always LOVED Your music It all touches my heart, I really like the old stuff I,ve been listing to your music since the 60,s You Merle ,George Jones , Charlie Pride ,Conway Twittie. Keep up with the great music Hope to see you soon in OHIO God Bless You and your Family, #1 FAN Denny Haynes I sure would love to meet you and your family.

  • Bev | Jan 17, 2010 at 8:14 am

    Merle I am with a man who has known you personaly, and has followed your singing for years. He to left Calif when he was
    16 He went to Or. as you did. He spoke to you at the fair in o7 and we danced to you rehersing for your concert. You are
    country music and we are now getting news of Noel & Marty & Benny. Just wanted you to know I live with your # 1 fan

  • Gilbert | Jan 17, 2010 at 5:47 am

    Merle,I am 48 years old.I started listening to you around 1969. I was 8 years old and to this day you are my favorite. You always have and always will be my favorite singer in the world. I have been to only 5 concerts in my life.( All Merle Haggard) I still collect the old albums. I have over 60 Merle Haggard albums. No one ever will come close to being as good at singing or song writing as you. I hope you get back to the louisville ky area some time soon. May God continue to bless you and your family.
    Your friend

  • Brandon | Jan 16, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Hello Mr. Haggard,
    Your son Marty is at our church right now in Acworth, GA. He too is awesome at the guitar. Think you and all your talented boys will ever come together for a few numbers?
    Your son Marty has been a true blessing here at the church!

  • Tina, Mike, & Zeb | Jan 15, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Hey Merle:
    I’m so glad that you came through surgery, My dad wasn’t so lucky I lost him in 2005.
    You are the greatest, Mike and I got the chance to see you in Clarksburg WV some many years ago. It was the greatest. I know your birthday is April 6th, well my husband and will be married 25 years that day this year. Yeah you could say we are BIG fans.
    Yeah, its a big deal when you can say, “Yeah thats my boy.” My son, Zeb, started playing upright bass when he was 3. No kidding, He’s 16 now and plays the fire out of a 6-string, people kid him and call him Tony Rice. I’m pretty proud of him but he takes it naturally, His dad plays anything with strings on it.
    We wish you the best of health, happiness and love in 2010.


  • Fish | Jan 15, 2010 at 8:40 am

    Howdy Merle:

    Looking forward to catching one of your shows with your son. Sounds like he’s re-energized you. That’s a good thing. I ran into some of your old buddies at Trouts, Red Simpson, Lloyd Reading, Larry Petree and a few other guys. Happy 2010, can’t wait to hear your new act.


  • Elbby | Jan 14, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    My gentleman adores your music and my re-introduction to country, which I consider consumate songs of life, was because of Mike and he did it through you to me. I have learned a lot, loved a lot, and been blessed with knowing you both. We are going through our own [sad] song of life but I wanted to gift him with seeing you perform in Houston as a small token of my love and respect for him. I am glad to hear of your own win over recent illness and I am thankful you can continue to grace us. I wish you, Theresa, children and your circle of loved ones all the best. Looking forward to seeing/hearing you soon on-stage. Elbby

  • Mark | Jan 13, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Hey Merle,
    My wife and I look forward to you coming to Boise, ID again in May. We last saw you at the Morrison Center about 5 years ago and have been waiting to see you again. The only country music I can stand is yours because it is the real deal and not some phony commercialized dribble. We wish you good health and look forward to seeing you soon.
    Sincerely, Mark & Katie Wilde

  • Louis McIvor | Jan 12, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    Merle, it has been a number of years now since you paid us a visit here in Kamloops, BC, Canada and I still tell people of the kindness you returned to the Folks that took you and your lead player for a ride in our Stagecoach! We still speak of having “dinner” with the great Merle Haggard!!
    At the time of your visit we didn’t even have a Country Radio Station….I told you I was working on restoring the music in Kamloops….NOW …we just celebrated our 3rd birthday of our brand new country station and I am the Afternoon Drive Home Host!! Dreams do come true! So I going to stay hopeful that Merle will return someday soon for another ride and a tour of our new/old studio offices! We love you Merle….God Bless you and yours and Please take good care of yourself , Theresa and the whole Family!

    Respectfully yours, Louis ” The Big Rig ” McIvor

  • jo-ann Neugent | Jan 11, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Merle , I sure do wish you could come to Greensboro North Carolina,and hold a concert.My husband and i love to listen to your music,you are the best.We pray that you are feeling much better,and can keep up the good work and keep on singing those beautiful songs……..We listen to you every chance that we get you are our favorite. May God be with you and keep you strong,God loves you and so do we,you are always in our prayers…Jo-Ann & Bill Neugent, Greensboro ,nc

  • harold johnson | Jan 11, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    Dear Merle,just a little message of interest i thought you might get a kick out of it.Back in 1961,i got a phone call from my niece,this was at 10 oclock at night.she said she had met this girl and really got to be good friends,she wanted to know if i would like to come out and meet this guy,he was wanting to start up a band and needed a rythem guitar real bad.I asked just who was this guy that i would come out that late for.she said his name was Merle Haggard, I told her –naw,never heard of him and with a name like that wont go far at all,Besides that Portervillie was 10 miles awayand its too late to come out to a nobody.In 1974 my wife and i went to reno nv to a concert and was married that afternoon You can guess who the star was that we came to see Mr Merle Harrard himself.I have kicked myself in my you know where for all these years to let a golden opertunity that i had to go with the master,I love all your songs ,youve been my idol for many a year now.My wife laughs at me from time to time and says she could lived that life as a wife of a band member,congrats on your annivesary,my wife and i wish you and yours many many more
    Harold and Linda Johnson–Chowchilla ca,

  • Rena | Jan 11, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Hello, Mark from OZ,
    Unfortunately I have never had a chance to go to a concert. Either it is to far or I have to work or have noone to watch my kids. But it is the number one thing on my bucket list and one way or another I plan to see him on the stage.

    Merle your music has touched my life in so many ways and I just want to say thank you for doing what you do. Your music has been an inspiration in my life.

  • garry gordon | Jan 11, 2010 at 9:38 am

    I’ve thought Merle was following me around and writing songs about my life! Not only has Merle Haggard brought countless hours of pleasure in his music but he also brought me together with my dearest friend Miss Libby. thanks seems such little to say but since the first time I heard Swingin’ Doors I’ve been a Haggard fanatic. So although seems little to sat thanks “Mr Hag” gg

  • MARK FROM OZ. | Jan 11, 2010 at 1:41 am

    G;DAY, RENA from Florida.
    How have you not seen Merle perform, when you live in America and i got too see the great man in MELBOURNE,AUSTRALIA all those miles away from you.
    If you dont have a Bucket List, then make one and put HAG on the top and you wont need to put anything else under it!
    Merle,please get well and come back too AUSTRALIA,,,,,,DONT MAKE ME COME OVER THERE!!!! YOU’LL ALL BE SORRY!
    M.J.from DOWN UNDER.

  • Norma Dell Jones | Jan 10, 2010 at 8:15 am

    What a fan I have been all of these years! Hope you are going to be at the Horseshoe another date other than February 19. We saved our OLD gymnasium here in Lovelady, Texas, from getting torn down. Noel has been here twice to perform with Curtis Lovejoy. Wish we could afford you. What a dream come true for me. This will be the first time I will miss seeing you in Bossier City in about 10 years. Johnny Bush will be here at the Lovelady Old Gym on February 19–we are kicking off his Birthday Celebration. Anyway, what a blessing you have in your voice, health, and family. By the by, will you be back at the Horseshoe later in the year????? Do “Silver Wings” for me. Later, Norma Dell Jones of Lovelady, Texas

  • Terri Peterson | Jan 9, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    Hello Merle Dont know if you remember me, but Bob Newcome recieved a letter from me about my husband…he made sure you read it. you wanted to see us at the Peppermill Reno NV 1995 anyways, WE LOVE YOU MERLE. Rick and i will forever be die hard fans. We have a son now (13 yrs old) and he loves your songs loves watching you on utube and all of our videos we have of you. You are an inspiration to us all. Glad you are doing better. Cant wait to see you in concert again!
    The Peterson’s
    Menifee, Ca.

  • Rena | Jan 9, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    I am a huge fan and have been for most of my life. It is a dream of mine to see you in concert. Do you think you will do any shows in florida. You have tons of fans in this area that would love to see you perform.

  • Marlene | Jan 9, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Just saw your show at the Pechanga Casino in Temecula,Ca. last night I was in the second row and it was great, your son is one heck of a guitar picker. Your songs bring back lots of memories and I enjoyed every minute of it. Age has not changed the quality of your voice or your show. I am a senior also and it is hell to get older, but we need to enjoy it while we can.

  • WONNIE LOUDERMILK | Jan 9, 2010 at 4:45 pm


  • Margie | Jan 9, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I have been a fan since 1980 and have never had the pleasure of seeing Merle in person. I see that he will be in Cuba, MO in July. You can bet i will not miss this show.

  • ryan hilts | Jan 7, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Merle first off are you coming to new york? Ive been a huge fan of yours for years i go to the tourning stone every time you come. Usually im on the front row . I saw you with the last of the breed at radio city it was excellent i waited to meet you for 2 hours by the bus but i dint get too it would be a dream come true.I did however meet your wife and daughter and ray price. It was an incredible exsperience for me. Im glad to see ben playing with you along with all the other great ones in your band biff, norm ect. I cant waite for you new album keep up the good work someone has to keep it traditional

  • John Gervickas | Jan 7, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    Merle, I’m looking forward to the new album. Vanguard has a cool history (with a lot of classic jazz). I agree that Ben is an excellent guitar player. Some of the videos on You Tube of the shows with you and Kristofferson knocked me out. Ben’s solo (and Kris’ reaction) on “Help me make it through the night” were priceless. Glad you’re all doing well. Happy New Year (John G. age 48, listening since 1970).

  • mark johns | Jan 7, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    Happy to hear that you are well from your surgery.
    My family here in AUSTRALIA, wish you,Theresa and all your family a healthy and prosperous New Year.

  • brett | Jan 7, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Merle we attended your show on the 6th in ST.George Utah, we live in the Bryce Canyon National Park area. My dad and my brothers had a band and we played for weddings and 4th july dances and played in some of the bars in and around our area for about 10 years,we played alot of your music and we had so much fun, while at your show i watched my dad who is about 74 years old and he was in heaven. My dad played rythem guitar and picked ,he couldnt read a stitch of music but he could hear a song and play it very well.Thanks for your show and to your wife and to your amazing 17 year old son for that great night and your sound,your band is so great.By the way NO not no but HELL NO dont go back to drinking i am a past bar room bum to and i will tell you, but you already know to go back to that it means NO BEANS.Thanks to you for your life and your kind heart and your influence on my dad and are lives,we pray for you to continue your life with good health to do what you love to do.

  • cindy rogers | Jan 7, 2010 at 3:35 pm


  • janet madison | Jan 7, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    There just aint no better musician or singer in the world better than MERLE HAGGARD.If youve never had a chance to see this singer in person and see him on stage folks you do not know what you are missing.I have seen him numerous times and have had many priveleges of being backstage and on t he bus and met him in person and several pics with him and got to set and talk with him.Its the most amazing experience in life.
    For the ones who have never ever seen him in person ..folks you better while you can get that chance in life.Times like that dont hardly ever come around.I pray that God gives him the strength and that wonderful voice for another 100 years.There aint no nothing like it whatsoever.I guess you can say if you have Merle for a friend …YOUVE got a friend.He is truly the most wonderful person for sure that I have ever met.I can hardly wait from one concert till the next…….if you ever loved music and excellent quality music then MERLE IS THE MAN.I love you Merle and Theresa.
    Wishing you a very Blessed New Year and many more happy days ahead ..ALWAYS…J.M.

  • Taru Elkama | Jan 7, 2010 at 6:44 am

    It’s great that you’ve recovered lung cancer. You’re voice best thing I ever heard.
    I said my husband that someday I’ll come to your concert. I live in Finland and I think that will be maybe 20 years when I have money enough :)

  • DJ | Jan 6, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Mr. Haggard, my friend Scott,Wilkie and his momma Pette keeps me in formed about hou you are doing. I’m glad that you have recovered from lung cancer. Scott and his momma are very great fans of you and your band. I’m glad that your son has been performing with your band. I was so honored to even get to play the harmonica for you and sit with you for fifteen minutes to talk with you on the bench at Meijers, that was a honor by itself. If I had a job at the time I would have made it to your show. I told Sott, I found out that evening from some friends that say me sitting by you, that it was you. Oh well, in case it was you, I didn’t want to play one of your songs, because that was to show you respect and give you privacy from a lot of people. I was just excited that if it was your bus driver or band member that asked me if I would return a favor and play for that man on the bench, I said why sure, I would. Thanks So much Merle and a Happy New Years to you and your band and family. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to see you all in concert some day. I hope to meet your band too if all possible. Keep on singing
    Best Wishes
    LittleCountry DJ