Mighty Merle

Photo by Heather Scheer Moore

I was out of the army and back in the world. I moved to California and put together a four piece band. The year was 1970. I was playing joints in the Coachella Valley. After a gig one night at the Desert Bar in Indio, I told the guys in the band that I was going to head off up to Bakersfield and try and meet Merle Haggard. I had first heard Merle a couple years back when I was in the army. I became a follower of Merle Haggard the first time I heard him on the radio. Mighty Merle had now reached the status of super star. He was the hottest act on the planet.

The guys in the band laughed at me and said there was no way in Hell that I was going to meet Merle Haggard. I said well, I may not, but I am going to Bakersfield and give it a try. I had read in a magazine that Merle had started a Music Publishing Company called Shade Tree Music. I knew that Merle was under contract to write for the Buck Owens company Blue Book. I figured since Merle was starting a music company that he couldn’t write for that he would be looking for songs to publish.

I had been out of the army for a year. Now it is 1971.  I rolled into Bakersfield and pulled up to a phone booth. I searched through the Yellow Pages and found Shade Tree Music Publishing on Niles Avenue.

I drove to the address on Niles Ave. I parked and walked in. The receptionist was a cute little baby doll named BJ. I told her that I was there to play some songs for Merle’s company. She informed me that I needed to meet with Ms. Betty Asuvito, the lady who ran the company. After talking with the Lady in Charge, she told me that I needed to meet with Roy Nichols. He was the man who listened to new material and made the decision on which songs to turn down and which ones to publish.

I couldn’t believe that I was going to meet Roy Nichols. Roy was Merle’s guitar player. And now that Merle had become a superstar, Roy was everyone’s hero who played a Telecaster. He was a big part of Merle’s sound.

I met with Roy. He was very nice. He listened to my songs and said, “yeah, I think we can publish this.”  He got the receptionist on the phone and asked her to make to single song contracts for us to sign. He then asked if I would like to meet Merle. I said yes, that would be very cool. Roy said Merle is here, he is in his office with Bill Woods. Roy said he would call Merle and see if he was busy. I knew the name Bill Woods-he was a piano player in Bakersfield and Merle wrote a song called Bill Woods of Bakersfield on one of his albums. After calling Merle, Roy said we should go see him.

We walked into Merles office and I will never forget that it was the great Roy Nichols who introduced me to Mighty Merle Haggard. This was the greatest day of my life at that point. Merle autographed for me his two Capitol albums. We talked about where I was from and my band. Merle introduced me to Bill Woods. Merle said,  “Hell, Bill. You should call Jimmy and get him on the TV show this afternoon.”  Jimmy was Jimmy Thomason who had a show on Channel 23 in Bakersfield. Bill called him and in just  a couple of hours later, I was singing on television for the first time and Merle and Roy were watching from Merle’s office. Thank you Roy Nichols, Bill Woods and (of course) Merle.

Photo Courtesy of Billy Don Burns Collection

None of us knew it at the time,  especially me,  but some eighteen odd years later I would get to produce several sides on Merle and Johnny Paycheck inside of Chillicothe State Penitentiary. Jim Brake called me about a week ago and told me he went to see Frank Mull and Merle Haggard somewhere in Missouri and gave Merle my latest cd, Nights When I’m Sober.  Jim said that Merle thanked him and said to tell me hello.

~ Billy Don Burns



Read Billy Don Burns, Gladiator With A Guitar Vol 1: Waylon Jennings HERE.

Read Billy Don Burns, Gladiator With A Guitar Vol II: Playing Hank Sr. At Opryland HERE

Billy Don Burns is a true Country Music Warrior. He wears his battle scars with honor, depicting the stories of his life in his songs with brutal and beautiful honesty. He’s respected far and wide for his long career in songwriting and performing, and he’s still out there.  He’s traveled the world playing his music. He has played mostly clubs and smoke filled honky tonks and he has played thousands of them. He ‘s performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He unseated his hero, Country Music Icon Johnny Cash, who had been number one for fourteen weeks on the Gavin Americana charts and received a letter of congratulations from the Man in Black when he did. His songs have been record by many artists, including Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Johnny Paycheck and Sammy Kershaw.  His new album is now available, Nights When I’m Sober: Portrait of a Honky Tonk Singer

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