In the summer of 1981, Merle Haggard took a break from recording new music at Britannia Studios in Los Angeles to check in on how his bus driver was doing. By Haggard's own telling, the driver told him: "I hate this place. I'm tired of this dirty old city."
Immediately, Haggard snatched some nearby paper and began to write the song "Big City" — a now-classic country song about rejecting urban life for an existence "somewhere in the middle of Montana."
According to the Madison-area musician Jonathan Knudson, it's an example of how Haggard was able to elevate a small moment from everyday life into beautiful music. That knack for storytelling is a major part of what Knudson wants to celebrate at the Merle Haggard tribute concert he's organized this Thursday at the High Noon Saloon.
"He told really brief stories that really connected across generations," said Knudson.
Haggard died earlier this year at age 79 due to complications from pneumonia, adding to the growing tally of iconic musicians who have passed away this year, along with heavyweights like David Bowie and Prince. Said Knudson, the news of Haggard's death was devastating for him and his younger brother, Ryan, who are both members of the local Americana band the Driveway Thriftdwellers.
"We've loved his music since we were kids," he said. "Losing him was like losing family."
Haggard was a goliath in the world of country music, known for help pioneering a simple, raw subgenre of country music inspired in part by Depression-era folk music that came to be known as the Bakersfield Sound. He was also a supreme hitmaker — 38 of his songs became no. 1 hits on the Billboard country music charts.
According to Knudson, those songs are remarkable for their "simplicity and brilliance." He said he's always admired that Haggard was able to take a simple melody and straightforward chord progression and turn it into a beautiful 3-minute song.
Thursday night's concert which will feature performances by Knudson's band, as well as other Wisconsin artists like Evan Murdock, Nick Brown, Art Stevenson, and the North Country Drifters. They'll be performing a few hours-worth of Haggard covers.
Knudson said that the artists got together to hold a draft to decide who would get to cover what, and that he was pleased to end up landing one of his top picks: "Mama Tried," a song Haggard wrote about the pain and suffering he caused his mother on account of his youthful indiscretion, which ultimately led to his serving jail time.
"Sing Me Back Home" will be held on Thursday at 8 p.m. at the High Noon Saloon. There will be an $8 charge at the door.