Curious and intrigued I must dig deeper. Who is this warrior? Who is this man who defies the Vanderbilt experts with each passing day? Who is this man who manages to write beautiful works, better than most Nashville top 40, inside a lifeless body? How did a soul big enough to shine through the confines of a prison cell body come to be? I return to their home a few days later. Catherine continues, still standing in the kitchen space, too ready for service and care to ever sit down or even lean against the counter. “You will be the first journalist to ever see this footage”, she rattles me, “it’s the roast of Freddy by his best friend, Merle”. The way the names roll in and out of conversation is humbling. She doesn’t use last names. ‘Merle’, ‘Freddy’, ‘Willie’ – she speaks of these idols in this manner because for her they’re old friends, common folk, neighbors down the street because. Her familiarity with them makes me glow. As if they’re somehow within reach, she takes me to them. Catherine moves to the TV mounted in the camper’s wooden paneling above the foot of Freddy’s bed. She slides in a home video that’s labelled with a marker title on masking tape. Zooming into the tiny tube TV in the ceiling suddenly I am there, at the Barton Creek Country club, in the Coach Darell Royal Ballroom. It is Freddy’s 70th birthday. The ceiling is tall and the rows of faces run deep. A grey, jolly Merle Haggard walks slowly up to the podium over what he laughs about is a ‘real touchy mic’. With a mischievous grin, relaxed and giggly, he begins.
“Freddy powers is as good as anyone in the world”, says Merle, picking up his belt, staring out across the room into his old buddies’ faces. “Freddy and I go way back to the early 60’s. I guess the first time I ever remember seeing Fred is in Las Vegas. I think he was playing at the Showboat and I was playing at the Nashville Nevada club. We were introduced and over the years I heard about different things and all the years went by and things got good with me and things got good with Fred and in 1980 both of us found ourselves in Reno.” I picture Reno in all its bleakness and neon light. Haggard moves forward, “I was working at Harrah’s and he was working at El Dorado and he came over, him and Deanie Bird (bassist) and for whatever reason we wound up in a hotel and we played for 18 hours.” Half the crowd gasps, the other half cheers. “And then we looked at the clock and it was time for both of us to go back to work”, Merle finishes abruptly and casually, down playing the miraculous and hilarious feat of picking guitar through the entire day and night and then proceeding, as if they were as rugged as the instruments themselves, to go on and do the very same thing for work, on zero rest. The crowd claps, Merle chuckles reliving it all, I smile. Catherine nods quickly as if to say ‘just wait’. Haggard continues on, “So we went back to work. I did two lil’ shows at Harrah’s and Freddy went and did four shows over there. It was like Fred-omatic then!”, his voice raises, “he was doing all kinds of shows. So we went and did our shows and then we did the same thing again: we played 18 hours. We became really close friends.” I’m suspicious of added ingredients playing a roll in their 18 hour jam sessions but who cares, it’s redeeming to hear a story of such simplicity: two seasoned music veterans, well into their careers and yet still loving the simple pleasure of strumming and singing that they can forget about the world around them, the stardom, the bullshit and play all day and night like two carefree nobody teenagers around a campfire. “He was getting divorced and so was I. Both real happy about it”, Merle delivers calmly to lay on the humor yet he cannot hide his little smirk. “And Lake Shasta seemed like a likely place to go. I went and bought a resort and sunk about fourteen million dollars in a resort there, wound up going to chapter 11 but thats got nothin’ to do with it”, he looks out of the corner of his eye in pretend shame. The crowd whoops and hollers. “It’s not that funny”, he tells them sarcastically, “but Me and Freddy went over there for about seven years.”
Merle breaches the story leading us to its footsteps and we find ours toes in the banks of Lake Shasta, with the silver sunlight dancing off the water, two houseboats floating like empty beer cans, a mansion playhouse behind and two goof ball musician buddies reverting back to adolescence and yet simultaneously beginning one of the most successful, enduring and illustrious country partnerships of all time. “We had one of the greatest runs”, nods Merle, “You know the Rat Pack in Vegas, they were jealous of us”, he gloats, tongue in cheek, “we had more going on over there then they did and they knew about it ’cause they called us every once in a while. Frank Sinatra called me when it was going on and invited me to play on the lawn for the Pres’ but I got out of it cause me and Freddy was busy!” He scowls and raises the last word, feigning seriousness and the crowd bursts again, laughing in approval. Merle chuckles, tickled by his own white lie. “One morning I ran over and beat on his door and said, ‘hey, I got the complete idea, the complete construction for a number one song’, and Freddy says, ‘I…I…I don’t feel good….'”, one hand pinching his head in humorous confusion. With beady eyes and a high pitch, fast and jittery voice Merle mimics Fred’s wince, dodginess and skepticism. Back in his own voice in the conversation Merle boasts, “‘I’m telling ya’! It’s a hit song man! I’m telling ya’, it’s an idea for it! I got the whole premise’. Then Fred said flatly , ‘I’ll talk to ya’ about 12:30′. I went back and wrote ‘Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star’. I figured I’d tell that story on him. I’m not gonna talk about prostitutes or hookers”, Merle adds, attempting censorship and destroying it at the same time. “Coke whores is what they really were”, Catherine chimes in staring ahead unapologetically. My head pivots side to side. I feel as if I’m at the round table with an unusual country music royalty and I love every breath.
Soon Merle begins his story of Freddy’s homemade airplane. We begin to lift over Lake Shasta and all zooms out. “I watched this man single handedly build his own airplane”, Merle prefaces with I and the audience captured. “From the dock out in front of my houseboat I watched with amazement. I have my own pilot’s license, I’m a pilot, understand what it takes to fly and I watched him assemble a homemade aircraft. And I had enough confidence in him to believe in him that he could actually fly that thing and not kill himself cause I watched him do it. And I loved him enough that I would have talked him out of it if I didn’t have confidence in his will to try.” Merle builds up the suspense in Freddy’s experiment. “Before he got his license to fly I watched him learn how to fly on that lake and his theory was, he told me, ‘If I fall I’ll only fall about 40 feet’!”, Merle again voices the frantic freeform caricature of Powers and the folks fill the ballroom with wet eyes and laughter. Merle in his own voice continues, “We had this two way radio from the boat to the airplane. I was the control tower with most of the flying experience”, Merle laughs pointing out, “Most of the knowledge was on the ground. But he took his airplane and got it up in the air and flew it into Box Canyon and I watched him and I thought he really bought it: the pine trees were 100 feet tall and there was a peninsula. He got in there and couldn’t get out! He gave it enough power and I think he touched the top of a pine tree that day and I thought you killed yourself”, he says now staring adoringly down at his buddy Fred who’s sitting front row to his side. “I’m going to hafta’ tell people that Fred Powers has killed himself with an Ultralite air craft he built himself and I watched him do it!”, everyone laughs and Merle rides the wave of laughter towards another flying story. “But he made it back in. He would spot fish. He would say, ‘Hey! There’s a big school of bass located over here!'”, Merle yelps in a loud and frantic Freddy voice, “and we’d go over and catch the bass or he’d say, ‘Hey! There’s a bunch a’ naked women and they’re over by the Jones Bally Cove! Lets move on in!'”. He digs his buddy lovingly, imitating his loud eccentric nasal voice in a manner which Catherine confirms is pitch perfect, painting not only an exuberant, fearless and comedic Powers but also a Haggard who developed that mimicry only through a long, personal and heartfelt partnership with his friend Fred.
Merle slides in another line, “In all the people I’ve met in my entire life in this business, Freddy is one of em. No, sincerely one of my closest friends, some people thought we were homosexuals. We weren’t. We both liked women, I can testify.” Catherine rolls her eyes. Merle elaborates, “I owned a resort and every Thursday there was new people coming to rent the house boats. On Wednesday nights -we’d known the people pretty well after a week you see- we’d have wet t-shirt contests.” Merle starts to twinkle again. “Lewis Tally, my friend gone on to Hillbilly Heaven, was the hoser, he was the guy that did the hosin’. The pride as number one prize was on the trophy board but number two was a trip up the Pit River with me and Freddy in our houseboats”, he says with childlike pride. The crowd giggles, Catherine leans over and whispers with a tinge of humorous disapproval, “Him and Freddy would give one of the lesser girls first prize to make ’em feel good and then give the number two prize to whoever they thought was the best lookin’ so they got the prettiest girl with ’em on their houseboats.” I’m not sure whether to laugh or somehow sympathize but it’s funny to me and I continue to be gratified by how human, honest and humorous these stars are. They live with different priorities, allowing their love for one another to always supersede over things that might cause lesser folks to bicker and break and they live to laugh about it. Merle recounts, “A couple great things came out of that. I met my wife. I came out to see Clint Strong. I took her away from Clint.” Catherine adds in, “Clint took her away from Freddy”. Merle elbows his buddy, “Freddy Powers said, ‘We can’t take a girl like that! You can’t hold a girl like that!’. I think we’ve been married 13 years”, says Merle still jousting his old buddy.
Ending his roast with one final tale, Merle brings the airplane stories full circle detailing one in which he takes the helm and Freddy wearily sits as a skeptical co-pilot. Merle starts, squinting, remembering, mystery in his eyes, “a funny thing happened after all that time of flying- Freddy did all the flying but I finally got out there one time and revved it up and got it up to taxi speed and something got pulling my neck and I said, ‘I don’t think I wana’ fly this tricycle without any air speed indicators or anything””. The crowd shakes their heads laughing, awed by the danger and the calm way Haggard makes it all seem so funny and casual. He continues, “I came back around and said, ‘Freddy you’re going to have to fly.’ Freddy didn’t know if I could fly or not. He knew I could talk pretty good. But one day years after the parties were over, mid 90’s, he came up to my house flying a lil’ 157 or 180 Cherokee -we’re not gonna get into size differences are we?”, Merle’s eyes dart around the room devilishly. “We were at the airport and I told Freddy, ‘I wana fly over my house to see some building I got going on. I wana locate a certain thing.’ We drove up there and I said, ‘let me see your airplane.’ He’d never seen me fly. He didn’t know if I could fly or not. He said, ‘you sure you know how to fly this thing, it’s got a funny brake on it'”, Merle again in his accentuated, slightly neurotic, high pitched Fred voice and the crowd stirs in laughter. “Fred says, ‘you’re not as fast as you come.’ I said, ‘I can fly this plane Fred.’ We got up there and he had a brake you pull with your hand. I said, ‘what do you do when you land?’ And he said, ‘No! You don’t do that! You keep it down!'”, Merle’s eyes go wild creating an electric, comical, panic stricken Powers. “So I went over the house real close and scared him to death. We never left the TCA (Terminal Control Area: airspace surrounding an airport which requires permission to enter) and he kept yelling, “You’re too low! Get outside the TCA!'”, Merle reenacts Freddy in a voice of war-zone like urgency then returns in his own low relaxed voice. “‘I wana look at my house. Tell them we’re gonna land.’ ‘We’re inside the TSA! We gotta move out fast!’, yelps Merle in a fiery Fred screech that would make you believe enemy combat fighters are shooting at their tail. Merle, the calm antithesis offers, “‘Tell ’em we’re taking pictures. We’re gonna land right now.’ So we went over and landed on the wrong run way.” The room laughs in unison. “I kinda’ let it go down fast and spooked him and he said, ‘you have scared the shit out of me.’ The crowd, erupting in laughter, soon whistles in celebration of their magical and animated friendship. Merle lays it out perfectly. His humility tied with that cool delivery, just as it works in his songs, creates a soft swagger, subverting ego and glory, leaving only the real, the relatable, the rocks smoothed out and offered by the sea. A brotherhood was shared between Haggard and Powers as deep and as large as the waters they walked on but also an adventure and likewise a million stories like these that may never be told but in remote settings and closed quarters.
“He was there when my newest daughter was born. He was there when I went bankrupt, when my son was born”, “when his mother died”, Catherine chimes in from the trailer. Merle continues his list, “I performed the wedding, married Deanie Dird, married him. My child Vanessa was born when we were out there. I’ve worked for Freddy as a guitar player in his band and he’s worked with me as a guitar player in my band. I agree with what’s been said about his guitar playing. I think he’s one of the greatest.” Merle can’t resist though, even in honoring his friend he adds, “If he could just learn straight 8’s. He can’t play straight 8’s!” Then he resolves, “but to be able to hang wit this guy and actually associate with him as a neighbor for about seven years is one of the greatest pleasures of my life.” Soon after, the tape ends. The click of the reel stopping and the sudden static noise wake me. I come down from the air, out of Lake Shasta, out of the ballroom where the story was told and I’m sitting back in the camper in Nashville, early afternoon. Freddy is motionless to my left. Catherine returns the tape to its safe keeping and answers a phone call.
Things weren’t always so rough for Freddy Powers. In the 80’s he and Haggard became best friends, breakfasting at noon on Lake Shasta aboard their houseboats. Freddy went on to write over 40 songs for him, including the unique and sophisticated, and some say a chord lesson in one song, “I Always Get Lucky With You”, as well as “Looking For A Place To Fall Apart” and “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”. In 1985 Freddy became one of the rare recipients of the highly coveted CMA Triple Play award, given to songwriters who pen three number one hits within a twelve month period. In many respects these were Freddy’s glory days. And when asked how he got all his cuts with Merle, Fred would answer simply, “I bought a houseboat and moved next door.” To boot, it was in this time that he met the love of his life Catherine Powers who has since been his saving grace, biggest fan and sweetest friend. In the 80’s Fred also wrote chart songs for George Jones and in December of 1984 he played his first full length Austin City Limits feature. In that concert he played a song he wrote about Merle called “Silver Eagle”.
Though they can hardly communicate anymore, no words need to be said to express the admiration they feel for one another for it is rooted, it is strong, a constant, it has become an anchor in their lives. Catherine called me just a few days ago saying that Merle read part one of this article. Again shifting between his humor and compassion he joked with her saying, “put some damn clothes on Freddy would ya'” but he also admitted to having a tear in his eye. The man has heart -to be so bright while working through this pain is pure strength and wisdom concieved. Few know what this wrestling of pain and joy feels like better than Hagg who can compare the Fred now inflicted with disease to the energetic man he can still see flowing in his prime in California. Only Freddy and Merle will ever know the true extent of what happened out there on those shimmering waters, below those great mountains mirrored by Lake Shasta and inside those late nights of endless possibility. Freddy’s keeping his vote of silence and Merle, putting his arm around him, signals his love and commitment to that mystery.
My tribute song to Freddy Powers:
Lyrics to the song are posted here if anyone would like to follow along.