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This famous rocker dishes about his “instant friendship” with the legendary Merle Haggard AP Images
Merle Haggard performs on stage during the 2015 Stagecoach Festival at the EmpireClub on Friday, April 24, 2015, in Indio, Calif. (Photo by Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP)

There’s no question what impact Merle Haggard had on country music, but you really begin to understand just how much of a musical giant he was when you hear guys like Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones talk about him.

“I first met Hag about 10 years ago,” Keith told Rolling Stone. “We’re at rehearsal and I’m sitting on the drum riser. There’s a cat sitting to my right, grizzled beard, straw Stetson. A nod and a wink. Then I take a second look, and I know it’s Merle Haggard. I almost lost the bridge on that song! Sometimes you meet somebody and you know instantly that you’re friends.”

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It wasn’t as if the Keith and Merle shared a brotherhood like Merle did with Willie Nelson, but there was something else — a mutual respect and kinship that connected the two.

“Merle was warm. A twinkle in the eye. You knew he’d been around, and he knew I had too. Hence the nod and the wink,” Keith said.

As a guy who has a bit of a checkered history himself, if there was anyone who could relate to Merle’s past, it was Keith.

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“Merle had a troubled past, but he was open about it. His message was, ‘Stuff happens, but you just have to be your own man, and have something to say.’ It’s sad to lose someone like that.”

Keith was so influenced by The Hag that he even covered Merle’s classic 1968 song “Sing Me Back Home,” which Merle wrote about his stint at San Quentin.

Based in Chicago but often in Nashville, Ken Churilla is a contributor for Rare Country. Follow him @KenChurilla and join the conversation @RareCountry.
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