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Guitarist Kenny Vaughan Tells The Wild Story Of The Only Time He Saw Merle Haggard Wasted

Merle Haggard was unique.

Of course we’ve all heard plenty of wild stories about the country legend, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard one as funny as this one.

Guitarist Kenny Vaughan, a longtime fixture in Marty Stuart’s band, spent a lot of time with Merle in his early years as a guitarist in Nashville.

And back then, in 2017, he shared a great story about Merle and his then-wife Bonnie Owens and the time they got absolutely obliterated before a show and almost missed it entirely:

“One night the promoter threw things at me from the side of the stage to get my attention. And I look over at him and he’s like, ’20 minutes to go! 20 minutes left! Tell her 20 more minutes!’

So I told the lead singer 20 more minutes and she looks at me like we’re done. And I said, ‘Well, he wants another 20 minutes!’ So we gave him another 20 minutes. We came out and we were like, what’s up?

And he said, “Well, Merle isn’t here. The band is here, but there is no Merle.”

By this time, Merle’s band The Strangers had taken the stage and had just started playing without him, and Kenny left to load his guitar and amp onto the bus so he wouldn’t have to do it later:

“The buses were down in this parking garage so I had my little Fender amp and my guitar so The Strangers went out and started playing, I think it was Kenny … he fronted the band at the time, sang harmony parts and We would open the show.

And he’s out there doing ‘Heartaches by the Number’, ‘Wine Me Up’ or whatever, you know, just stock country covers. Merle Haggard’s show, you know?”

And while he’s stowing his stuff down there, he hears a car horn and a man shouting at him, trying to get his attention for help.

And it’s the limousine driver who asks Kenny if he can take a very drunk Merle Haggard up the stairs to the stage…

“So I go downstairs to load my amp on the bus with my guitar and I’m down there, I open the bay and hear that horn honk, you know?

And this guy gets out of a limousine and says, “Hey! Can you help me here?’ So I close the bay and go up there, and Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens are drunk in the back of the limousine.

And he’s like, ‘Can you help me get this guy up the stairs to the stage? Can you show me where the stage is?”

So they literally carried Merle up the stairs, and while he’s a little embarrassed by the situation, he shrugs it off and goes straight to the center of the stage and starts singing “Folsom Prison Blues” while his band is already in the middle of a song is :

“So we carried Merle Haggard up the stairs, me and this guy, right? And I brought him to the side of the stage and he wipes us, you know?

Adjusts his hat and shakes it off a bit and he walks out, they’re in the middle of a song, and he goes on stage and he picks up his guitar and he hits this big ol’ E chord that the band stops… and he starts singing “Folsom Prison Blues”.

As Merle does this, Kenny realizes that after all the commotion he might have forgotten to lock the bus back up, so he ran back down to make sure he was safe.

Only this time he bumped into Bonnie Owens, who also needed help climbing the stairs. Bonnie was Merle’s second wife and they were married from 1965 to 1978 and she often sang for him on the road.

As it turned out, she was just as miserable as her husband, and this time Kenny carried her up the stairs alone:

“I said, ‘Oh shit,’ I couldn’t remember if I locked the bus or not. So I ran back down the steps…made sure the bus was locked. And this lady is trying to stagger out the window, it’s Bonnie Owens, and she’s like, ‘Young man, can you please help me onto the stage?’

So I say, “Yes, Mrs. Owens,” so I carry Bonnie up the steps, a long flight of stairs, and she stumbles up there and she kind of giggles and looks a little embarrassed, you know?

And so I pointed to the stage and she walked out and took her place at the mic and clapped along.”

But the absolute best part of this whole story?

“And he’s still singing ‘Folsom Prison Blues’.”

Classic… you can’t imagine something like that.

This particular tour was sponsored by George Dickel Whiskey and they had two guys walking around backstage at all the shows with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of George Dickel and had people comparing both whiskeys the whole time as part of their routine.

Kenny thought that was a big part of why Merle and Bonnie were so drunk on the tour, but added that it was actually the only time he saw Merle so drunk (although I believe Willie Nelson would see it differently):

“I quickly realized that maybe that’s why everyone’s a little drunk on this tour, you know? It was a good tour, but that was the only time I saw Merle Haggard drunk anyway.

That was the only time I saw him like that. He wasn’t a big drinker, he smoked a lot of weed, but he wasn’t a big drinker.”

It seems only right to address this one now…

You can listen to Kenny telling the whole story himself here, and this story starts at the 0:38 mark:

https://www.whiskeyriff.com/2022/08/04/guitarist-kenny-vaughan-tells-the-wild-story-of-the-only-time-he-saw-merle-haggard-wasted/ Guitarist Kenny Vaughan Tells The Wild Story Of The Only Time He Saw Merle Haggard Wasted

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