Garth Brooks remembers Merle Haggard: He was 'the greatest country artist of all time' (Exclusive)

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Musician Merle Haggard Has Died


Like millions, Garth Brooks grew up on the music of Merle Haggard. Below, in his own words, he shares some of his memories of the legend, who died April 6.

The first song of Haggard's I remember hearing [was] "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down." That was because of my dad. From the time before you could walk, Haggard was playing in the house.

Merle Haggard on Death: 'Sometimes I Fear It and Other Times It Calls to Me Like a Forgotten Dream' (Exclusive)

I was at the Crazy Horse [Steak House & Saloon, in Santa Ana, Calif.] in the early '90s. It's the first time I'd seen Haggard play live. I'm crying like a baby, standing in the back shadows. He says, "I hear Garth Brooks is in the audience tonight." And my whole throat just tightened up. I was like, "Please, I'll never make it. I'll just bawl like a baby." He said, "I'd love for him and come up here and sing, but the truth is I got enough of my own songs to sing tonight." And the place laughed and I started laughing through my tears and he went into something like "Okie From Muskogee." It was so perfect.

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Merle Haggard and Garth Brooks
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Garth Brooks remembers Merle Haggard: He was 'the greatest country artist of all time' (Exclusive)
Garth Brooks (L), Miranda Lambert and George Strait sing "Happy Birthday" to Merle Haggard (not shown) before presenting him with the Crystal Milestone Award at the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada April 6, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) (ACMAWARDS-SHOW)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Singer/songwriter Merle Haggard (C) accepts the ACM Crystal Milestone Award from (L-R) recording artists Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert and George Strait onstage during the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters) (L-R) Recording artists George Strait, Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert and Merle Haggard attend the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Christopher Polk/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Singer/songwriter Merle Haggard (R) accepts the ACM Crystal Milestone Award from recording artist Garth Brooks during the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: (L-R) Recording artist Merle Haggard, Theresa Ann Lane, recording artist Trisha Yearwood and recording artist Garth Brooks attend the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Rick Diamond/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Singer/songwriter Merle Haggard (R) accepts the ACM Crystal Milestone Award from (L-R) singer/songwriters Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert and George Strait onstage during the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevin Winter/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Singer/songwriter Merle Haggard (L) accepts the ACM Crystal Milestone Award from (L-R) singer/songwriters Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert and George Strait onstage during the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevin Winter/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Singer/songwriter Merle Haggard (R) accepts the ACM Crystal Milestone Award from (L-R) recording artists Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert and George Strait onstage during the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Singer/songwriter Merle Haggard (R) accepts the ACM Crystal Milestone Award from singer-songwriter Garth Brooks (L) onstage during the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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I met him that night. It was surreal. You're looking in the eyes of the guy you'd stared at [on] his album covers forever. It was cool. I actually was proud of myself that I handled it better than I did meeting [George] Jones. I met Jones first and I think how much I embarrassed myself around Jones from just uncontrollably crying and how much I embarrassed Jones by doing it. I think that kind of helped me with Haggard. [I told him] how much he meant to my dad (chokes up). He got my dad through a lot of hard times. If you're going to lead a generation through some hard times, it's going to be because you've gone through hard times yourself.

PHOTOS: Merle Haggard through the years

31 PHOTOS
Merle Haggard through the years
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Garth Brooks remembers Merle Haggard: He was 'the greatest country artist of all time' (Exclusive)
FORT WORTH, TX - JULY 3: Merle Haggard performs a 4th of July concert at Billy Bob's, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Brooks/DAL/Voice Media Group via Getty Images)
CIRCA 1964: Country musician Merle Haggard poses for a mid 1960's portrait. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
CIRCA LATE 1960s: Country musician Merle Haggard poses for a late 1960's portrait. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
American country music performer Merle Haggard smiles as he plays an acoustic guitar, 1970. (Photo by Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Merle Haggard Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Merle Haggard Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
THE JOHNNY CASH SHOW - Airdate: December 2, 1970. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) MERLE HAGGARD
NEW YORK: Merle Haggard performs live on stage in New York in 1978 (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)
Merle Haggard performs at Countryside Opry, Chicago, Illinois, October 31, 1980. (Photo by Kirk West/Getty Images)
Singer and musician Merle Haggard performs, Fresno, California, April 19, 1986. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 01: Merle Haggard performs on stage at the Country Music Festival held at Wembley Arena, London in April 1988. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 28: Merle Haggard attends 18th Annual American Music Awards on January 28, 1991 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Meryl Haggard during Merle Haggard in Concert at Tramps - June 23, 1993 at Tramps in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Steve Eichner/WireImage)
Merle Haggard performs at Tramps, New York, June 23, 1993. (Photo by Steve Eichner/Getty Images)
Merle Haggard on 10/27/96 in Chicago,Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage) *** Local Caption ***
Merle Haggard on 10/27/96 in Chicago,Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)
Country music singer Merle Haggard came to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History today to donate (with his sister Lillian Hoge) personal family items from the dust-bowl era. (Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - 2004: Merle Haggard performs at the Ryman Auditorium in 2004 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)
Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Toby Keith during Willie Nelson and Friends: 'Outlaws & Angels' - Show and Backstage at Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage for NBC Universal Photo Department)
John Anderson and Merle Haggard during 54th Annual BMI Country Awards - Arrivals at BMI Offices in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. (Photo by Rick Diamond/WireImage for BMI Nashville)
MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 14: Musician Merle Haggard performs during the 2009 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on June 14, 2009 in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Gary Miller/WireImage)
Merle Haggard arrives at the 2nd Annual ACM Honors at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on September 22, 2009 in Nashville Tennessee.
Portrait of musician Merle Haggard, Napa, California, 2010. (Photo by Chris Felver/Getty Images)
Merle Haggard poses for a portrait November 6, 2010, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Photo by Dave Einsel For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 05: Merle Haggard poses for a photo during the 33rd Annual Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center Hall of States on December 5, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 3985 -- Pictured: Musical guest Merle Haggard on February 8, 2011 (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
ALBUQUERQUE, NM - OCTOBER 21: Merle Haggard performs one of his many top-selling country songs at Route 66 Casinoâs Legends Theater on October 21, 2011 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 10: Merle Haggard performs at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens on August 10, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Chris McKay/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 26: Singer Merle Haggard attends the 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 11: Singer-songwriter Merle Haggard performs in concert at ACL Live on November 11, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)
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Merle Haggard Dead at 79: Artists React to Loss of the Outlaw Country Icon

Haggard and I talked on the phone. I so enjoyed those talks because it helped me in my career. The last time I talked to Haggard was about [2014's Working Man's Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard], and he was very sweet. He heard I had cut "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" [for Brooks' 2013 Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades Of Influences box set]. He said, "Can I have that [recording for the tribute album]?" I reminded him, "Merle, understand, I know every song you've ever done. Every song. Every album cut. Everything. Anything you want done on this, please let me know." He said, "Nope. That way I don't trouble you and I get what I need." He was a very common sense guy, which I loved. That was Haggard. He wouldn't take up a lot of time. He'd just say what he meant, meant what he said and go on. I cherish those moments with him.

He is the all-around guy. If you score it on songwriting, entertaining, musicianship, records, touring, all that stuff, Haggard is the greatest country artist of all time.

-- As told to Melinda Newman

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 16 issue of Billboard.

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