No one was ready to say goodbye to Merle Haggard when he passed away on April 6, 2016. Not his fans, not his friends and especially not his son, Ben.
His entire life, Ben watched his father make music and country music history. When he turned 15 years old, he took the stage with Merle to begin his tenure in Merle’s band, the Strangers. Now that his father is gone, it’s up to Ben to carry on that shining legacy, and even though it’s been his life’s work, actually stepping into those shoes was not easy.
Because we all know, Merle’s boots are big ones to fill.
In a recent interview with the “Atlanta Business Chronicle,” Ben Haggard doesn’t hold back when he talks about taking over the lead role of Merle’s iconic band at just 25 years old.
“[It was] scary as hell,” he says. “I was frightened. I didn’t know what to expect. Growing up in this atmosphere, you watch it from the stage or watch from the sidelines and it looks so easy because that’s what they’re doing. They’re making it look easy, but it’s not. It’s not easy.”
It may have looked easy because he was watching his dad perform with fellow icons such as Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. You know—no pressure at all.
“For a 15-year-old kid, it was eye opening. It was the equivalent of playing minor league baseball one game and then instantly being thrown into the major leagues,’ Ben says. “You got all these guys that hit home runs every time they play a solo, so they look at you and expect the same. If you’re 15, they don’t give a [expletive]. They’ll say, ‘Hey, go back in the woodshed until you get it and come back later.’ That’s about the best way to describe it.”
So far, Ben has been hitting home runs. All you need to hear is three notes from this guy to know that talent runs in the family and he’s got it in spades. Still, it’s hard not to wonder how he balances his duty to his own art with his duty to his father’s legacy, a question the Chronicle also wanted know.
For Ben, the two seem to be more aligned than we think.
“I think my happiness has been found in not really worrying about the whole picture of getting away from the legacy. I embraced it,” he said. “I embrace where I came from and embrace it wholeheartedly.”
He explains, “I would never want to say that I don’t want to sing ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’ because I get so much enjoyment and people still love to hear that great music. If nobody else is going to do it for the time being, I think that those songs still need to be heard. I think they deserve it. [Merle] put so much work into his music that I don’t think it’s ready to die.”
No one is ready for that to happen, not even Merle. But Merle also wanted his son to feel fulfilled.
Ben reveals in the interview one of the final conversations he had with his father before Merle passed.
“About a week or two before he passed away, he told me two things. He said, ‘Son, I’m going to die on my birthday.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not.’ He said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And for some reason he did.”
Ben further reveals, “He also said, ‘Go play music. It doesn’t matter if it’s my music and don’t let anybody ever tell you that it does. I know what you think and you know what you think. You know what you love to do. We both love to play music and this is the music we love to play. Until the time comes where you may write songs or somebody may come along with a great song that fits you, don’t worry. Don’t let that be a worry because if you do, you’re just distracting your mind in an unhealthy way.’”
And so, the legacy continues. And Ben did say he hopes to release some music of his own in the near future.
“I’ve got some songs right now I’ve written that I’ve got faith [in]. I’m not too eager to put them out just yet until I know it’s right. I got the arrangements set. As soon as it’s in the picture, we’re going to go in and cut it. Hopefully, there will be a Ben Haggard album somewhere in 2018-2019.”
Oh, we sincerely hope so. For now, enjoy this hauntingly perfect video of Ben singing one of his dad’s classics, “Silver Wings.”