Swinging Doors (Merle Haggard/a honky-tonk gig)

My first trip through the South was in the fall of 1985. I started hitchhiking from Chapel Hill, planning to hug the coast till I reached Mexico. That afternoon I saw my first roadkill armadillo while walking the last five miles into Southport, North Carolina. On the edge of town I passed a gas station and a skinny old guy came running out, gestured to the guitar I had slung over my shoulder, and asked, “Can you play that thing?”

I averred as to how I could, and he hired me to play at his bar that night. Actually, “hired” is a bit of an exaggeration, but he said if I wanted to play he’d fix me up with a band and give me a few bucks along with a meal and a place to sleep. So that was my first country bar gig. The band was a local guy who played Chet Atkins style guitar and his son on drums, and there may have been a bass player as well by the end of the night. They were all pretty good, and I sang every country song I knew, then got out a harmonica and played “Bright Lights, Big City,” and that tore up the room–apparently they’d ever seen anybody play amplified harp live in a bar.

It was a kick for a kid from Cambridge, Massachusetts — I was way out of my home turf, but they treated me like a country singer, I played the part, and it worked fine. A bunch of guys were there from the military base, an older man offered to take me out fishing on his boat the next day, and sometime around midnight the waitress gestured at the half-dozen tired-looking forty-something-year-old women at the bar and said, “You could have any of them, if you want…” Which I didn’t, but it felt honky-tonk.

I’d gotten into Merle Haggard thanks to Bill Morrissey, who considered Merle one of the greatest songwriters around, and his songs were the foundation of my country repertoire. I’d picked up a greatest hits set, and it was a thrill to play songs like “Swinging Doors” in their native habitat and be accepted as legit. This was Merle’s first top five country hit back in 1966, and I also recall playing “Silver Wings” and “Emptiest Arms in the World,” along with some Johnny Cash, and maybe a couple of Lefty Frizzell numbers.

I crashed on the waitress’s couch that night and considered sticking around a few days, but figured I’d had the best time I was likely to have in Southport, so the next morning I said my goodbyes and hitched on down the coast to Myrtle Beach.

A few years later, I got to meet Merle when we were filming a segment on Jimmie Davis for River of Song, a documentary about music along the Mississippi River. By that time I was a hardcore fan–I’d actually cemented a multi-year relationship by responding to my date’s query, “What do you think about Merle Haggard?” by saying, “Merle Haggard is God.” And I’d amassed a pretty fair collection of his LPs. But nothing prepared me for how good he was live. It was a comfortably loose show, with great playing and singing, and Merle doing imitations of other singers, and Bonnie Owens adding harmony, and since the gig was in Shreveport, James Burton was hanging out backstage. It was a night to remember, and he’s still one of my all-time favorites.