Liner notes for “Meet the Strangers” in Hag: The Capitol Recordings 1968–1976 (Concepts, Live, and the Strangers), Bear Family Records
Originally published in 2007
An extraordinary number of musicians have passed through the ranks of the Strangers through the years. Here we have attempted to list the players who actually toured with the band during the Capitol years as well as important session players. It is by no means complete, but rather a rough guide to the musicians who supported Merle Haggard from the beginning of his career until he left Capitol Records in 1976.
ROY NICHOLS (lead guitar, 1963–87)
One of the finest guitar players ever to walk the earth, Roy Ernest Nichols, was born in Chandler, Arizona, in 1932. After moving to Fresno, California, as a young boy, Nichols took up the guitar and by the age of 16 was proficient enough to play on a local radio show hosted by DJ Barney Lee, where Nichols’s prowess on the strings was heard by Fred Maddox, bass player and leader of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Maddox offered the youngster a job and Nichols began what would be a lifelong career in music.
Nichols’s job with the Maddox Brothers and Rose didn’t last long (he was fired by mother Lula Maddox for sneaking out of his hotel room at night, a strict no-no in the Maddox family code of conduct). In his short stint with the band, however, he recorded some phenomenal solos that show his influences to range far beyond the country radio hits of the day. Many of his great live radio transcriptions are readily available on the Arhoolie label and well worth seeking out.
Nichols’s style was twangy yet jazzy, and he claimed Django Reinhardt as his major influence. He also was clearly influenced by Bob Wills’s bluesy jazz guitarist Junior Barnard, who played with Wills in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Wills was touring and living in California. It’s quite likely that Nichols absorbed quite a bit from seeing Barnard playing in person.
Nichols played with many local San Joaquin Valley acts, but his next major touring job was with Lefty Frizzell, who by the time Roy joined the band in 1954 was a huge star but already hitting a downward arc due to his extreme drinking problem. In fact, when a young Merle Haggard asked Nichols with stars in his eyes what it was like working for Lefty, Nichols famously replied, “Not worth a shit!” While this statement is undoubtedly true, Nichols was a huge Lefty fan and in the liner notes to the Frizzell’s 1969-76 studio years box set, Workin’ Man Blues (BCD 16749), you will read that Nichols was nearly inconsolable after Frizzell’s death in 1975.
Nichols found considerable work as a sideman and recorded a few sides with the Farmer Boys for Capitol Records in Hollywood. His flashy solo on the Farmer Boys’ 1955 recording of “Charming Betsy” is one of the fastest country guitar solos ever recorded, and in fact may equal or outdo anything that Jimmy Bryant ever recorded—a weighty achievement, since no one could touch Bryant at the time.
After his stint with Frizzell, Nichols joined the Cousin Herb Henson’s Trading Post television show in Bakersfield, where he remained lead guitarist until Henson died in 1963 of an aneurism. During that time Nichols rubbed shoulders and played with everyone from local Bakersfield stalwarts Buck and Bonnie Owens to Billy Mize and Cliff Crofford as well as nearly every artist who toured through Bakersfield and appeared on the show.
Nichols took other jobs to supplement his income, and in 1961 he began a long association with honky-tonk legend Wynn Stewart. Nichols performed with Stewart at his Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas for several years, where he famously asked the visiting Merle Haggard to get up and play a few songs on Stewart’s intermission (a chance meeting that resulted in Merle’s first break, playing bass with Wynn Stewart and using Stewart’s composition “Sing a Sad Song” as his first hit record).
Nichols would record and tour with quite a few acts in the early 1960s. Between 1961 and 1964 he recorded quite a few sides with Rose Maddox (many of which also featured future Stranger Norm Hamlet on steel guitar), including the entirety of her Big Bouquet of Roses LP, the Alone with You LP, and several single releases.
In 1961, possibly through the Maddox connection (Rose Maddox joined the Johnny Cash road show in 1961), Nichols toured with Johnny Cash and was the lead guitarist on Cash’s hit “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” recorded at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Nichols recorded many sessions (some with Merle Haggard on rhythm guitar!) for Bakersfield stalwart Tommy Collins between 1960 and 1964, also for Capitol Records. Collins’s sessions were literally a breeding ground for young Bakersfield talent, giving valuable early studio experience to Buck Owens, Lewis Talley, Fuzzy Owen, Nichols, and others.
Nichols also recorded with Wynn Stewart extensively between 1962 and 1965, though he does not appear on either of Stewart’s big hits, “Wishful Thinking” from 1961 (right before Nichols began recording with Stewart), and “It’s Such a Pretty World Today” from 1966 (right after Nichols left to tour with Haggard full time). Nonetheless, Nichols contributed some wonderful solos to many of Stewart’s records, such as “Donna on My Mind,” “Halfway in Love,” and “Take It or Leave It” (which can be found on the highly recommended Bear Family Wynn Stewart box set, BCD 15886).
Roy Nichols is famous for his use of the Fender Telecaster guitar, a guitar that he (as well as James Burton) used to create the trebly, biting “twang” that defines 1960s country. Roy also had a custom-made Mosrite doubleneck guitar with his name on it that he used quite a bit in the early 1960s. In fact, Haggard remembers that when he sat in with Wynn Stewart’s band for the first time at the Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas, Roy Nichols handed him his rather large and unwieldy Mosrite doubleneck to play—and Roy had taken the top neck off the guitar in an attempt to cut down the weight! As legend has it (and proof of Nichols’s eccentric character), Nichols got so disgusted with the doubleneck’s size and weight that he left it behind in a bus station. When the guitar surfaced many years later with a guitar dealer, who tried to return it, Nichols replied that he didn’t want it—that he had left it at the bus station for a reason!
Capitol Records recorded a live album in September 1963 at the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium in honor of the tenth anniversary of Cousin Herb Henson’s Trading Post, released under the inappropriate title Country Music Hootenanny (a title Capitol A&R man Ken Nelson fought against and lost). Nichols was the lead guitarist in the house band, appearing on tracks behind such acts as Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, Rose Maddox, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, and Merle Travis. The album also represents the only track ever released under Roy Nichols’s name, a virtuosic instrumental version of the old-timey standard “Silver Bell,” incorrectly listed on the cover as “Silver Bells.”
The Bakersfield Civic Auditorium show was memorable not only because of the album recorded that night, but also because it was where Ken Nelson first approached Merle Haggard about recording for Capitol Records. Merle turned Nelson down flat, declaring his loyalty to Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley of Tally Records, who had just started releasing Merle Haggard singles a short time earlier. But Nelson persevered, and within a year and a half Merle Haggard was recording for Capitol with Fuzzy Owen as his manager and Roy Nichols as his first call session guitar player. When Merle put together his road band in 1966, now known as the Strangers, Roy Nichols was the lead guitar player. It was a legendary association that would last for twenty-two years.
The partnership was not without its ups and downs, however. In the early stages of Merle’s career, Nichols took work with other, better-paying artists when Haggard’s bookings were down (which is why Phil Baugh played on “Swingin’ Doors”—Nichols was working a well-paying gig up in the Lake Tahoe area and couldn’t make the session). As time went on, Nichols’s copious alcohol and drug abuse got so bad that it couldn’t be ignored. In 1976 Nichols had a reaction to a mystery drug he took in Europe that was so severe, he essentially lost his ability to play the guitar and had to learn the instrument again from the ground up. Although Nichols did continue to play, he never fully recovered from this incident, which led to him leaving the Strangers in 1987.
Nichols retired from playing, with his poor health being a major factor. He did appear in the PBS documentary The Bakersfield Sound, playing guitar behind Fred and Rose Maddox, and he appeared live for one last star-studded night of legendary Bakersfield musicians at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in 1992. In 1996 he suffered a major stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, and on July 3, 2001, he died—an event sadly unreported in most newspapers and the media, largely due to Chet Atkins’s death only days before.
RALPH MOONEY (steel guitar, 1963–67)
One of the most legendary steel guitar players of all time, Ralph Mooney, was born in 1928 in Duncan, Oklahoma, but moved to California as a teenager in the 1940s. He began playing steel guitar after hearing Leon McAuliffe of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys. Based around Los Angeles in the 1950s, Mooney had an easily recognizable bent-single-note style on the pedal steel that made him a very in-demand player. He became the in-house steel guitarist for Capitol Records, where he cut a staggering array of sessions.
Wynn brought Ralph Mooney to that first Capitol session to augment Nelson’s session men. In an interview with Colin Escott, Mooney remembered: “Ken Nelson just about taught me how to play on sessions. I had been recording with Skeets [McDonald], but Ken was like a conductor in the control room. He’d been a professional musician, and he’d tell me when to bring it up and bring it down. And it was Wynn who really invented my sound on steel guitar. He wanted a different sound. I was using the [pedal steel guitar] by then, and we were doing a Cajun number. I was trying different things, then I hit that rolling sound, and he said, ‘That’s it! Stick with that!’”
In 1955 Mooney wrote the hit “Crazy Arms,” which became a sizable hit for both Ray Price and Jerry Lee Lewis. His pedal steel began to be heard on records by Wanda Jackson, Skeets McDonald, Wynn Stewart, Rose Maddox, the Collins Kids, and especially Buck Owens; his style on Buck’s early hits became part of the signature Buck Owens sound. Mooney’s association with Haggard began in 1963, when he played on the “Sing a Sad Song” session for Tally Records, which was essentially the Wynn Stewart Nashville Nevada Club house band backing Haggard. Mooney then played on all of Merle’s early hits, including “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” “Swingin’ Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and many other tracks in the 1965-67 period.
Ralph Mooney’s tenure as a full-time member of the Strangers was short-lived, however. The band really only assembled and began touring in 1966, and by 1967 Mooney was gone after an incident where he tried to steal the bus and drive it home in the middle of a cross-country tour. Mooney was sent home, Fuzzy Owen (himself a more-than-competent steel guitarist) finished the tour, and the search was on for a permanent replacement.
Mooney released an album with James Burton, Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’, for Capitol Records in 1968. He found a permanent job with the Waylon Jennings organization in 1970 and stayed until his semiretirement in 1992. Today “Moon” lives in rural Texas and steps out occasionally to play and record.
NORM HAMLET (steel guitar, 1967–present)
Norm Hamlet hails from Farmersville, California, a small town off Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Fresno. After seeing Roy Acuff with “Bashful” Brother Oswald (on Dobro) at a fair appearance, Hamlet became interested in what was then known as Hawaiian-style guitar. Eventually Hamlet got a Rickenbacker electric steel guitar and began playing in local informal country bands. When he found out that neighboring Visalia actually had a school-sponsored country music band, he transferred there and made learning steel guitar a top priority. The school band (which also had guitarist Gene Breeden on guitar and future Capitol singing star Jean Shepard) backed up Capitol recording artist Skeets McDonald (see Bear Family box set BCD 15937) on a tour of the Pacific Northwest, and the music bug was firmly planted.
Highly influenced by western swing music, the high-school-aged Hamlet would make frequent trips to Fresno to see Billy Jack Wills’s band, with Vance Terry on steel and Tiny Moore on electric mandolin. Both players used custom-made, top-of-the-line instruments made by Paul Bigsby in Los Angeles, and when Terry informed Hamlet that the waiting list for a Bigsby steel guitar was a year long, Hamlet put a down payment on his own Bigsby steel the following week. Originally Hamlet’s Bigsby steel was a non-pedal model, but after Bud Isaacs’s pedal work on Webb Pierce’s “Slowly” changed the way the instrument was played, Hamlet returned the instrument to Bigsby to be retrofitted with pedals.
After stints with Billy (aka “Hill-Billy”) Barton and a few other local acts, Hamlet got his first taste of the big time as a session player with the Farmer Boys, who hailed from his hometown of Farmersville. The Farmer Boys were cutting great hillbilly and novelty records for Capitol down in Hollywood, and Hamlet accompanied them to their last session for Capitol in February 1957, which resulted in the phenomenal “Flash, Crash and Thunder” / “Someone To Love” single. Hamlet’s solo in the former was an early showcase of the new pedal steel technology and a strong forerunner of the new Bakersfield sound, dominated by the pedal steel.
Hamlet was playing locally around the Visalia-Farmersville area with a group called the Desert Stars, fronted by Gene Breeden, a talented guitarist that Norm had known since the Visalia high school band days. The group cut a single for Crest Records under the Desert Stars name, “Ridin’ the Frets” / “What I Like Most Of All,” the former a great guitar and steel instrumental in the style of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.
Hamlet’s next trip into the recording studio was with Rose Maddox, who had recently signed to Capitol Records following the breakup of the Maddox Brothers and Rose act. Hamlet recorded the entirety of the Big Bouquet of Roses LP along with the great “Down Down Down” single and several other tracks released only on 45s. These sessions are also significant because of the guitarist who sat next to Hamlet in the studio—none other than Roy Nichols, who would play a big role in Hamlet’s career a few years later, when Haggard’s Strangers needed a full-time dependable replacement for the departed Ralph Mooney. While this marked the first time the two had recorded together, they had actually known each other since the Farmer Boys days, when Nichols had played on some of their earlier recordings.
Hamlet spent the early 1960s working for Dave Stogner, a popular western swing fiddle player who had a television show in Fresno and then Bakersfield. The job was so lucrative, in fact, that when Merle Haggard first approached Hamlet about joining the Strangers, Hamlet turned down the job because Haggard wasn’t paying well enough or playing often enough to convince him to quit Stogner’s band.
By 1967, when Ralph Mooney left the Strangers (following the famous incident where Mooney tried to drive the bus home one night in the middle of a tour), Haggard had established himself enough to convince Hamlet to join up. Hamlet joined the Strangers in fall 1967, and his first recording session with Haggard was the huge hit “Sing Me Back Home.” Hamlet played on every session and every hit record after that date, up until the time of this writing, which makes him the longest-running Stranger and, next to Fuzzy Owen, the person longest associated with Haggard’s organization.
“FUZZY” OWEN (steel guitar, various times 1962–66)
Charles “Fuzzy” Owen was and is one of the key players in the Bakersfield music scene, having made the first Bakersfield-area record in 1952 (the original version of “Dear John” by Fuzzy and Bonnie Owens on the Mar-Vel label), played steel guitar and bass on numerous country recordings, including Ferlin Husky and Tommy Collins’s early hits, co-owned the Tally label and recording studio, and of course served as Merle Haggard’s manager from the beginning of his career to the present.
“Fuzzy” was also a well-regarded steel guitar player and on several occasions played steel guitar for Merle Haggard. He was the steel guitar player on Merle’s first recordings for Tally in 1962 and 1963 and then filled in at various times, most famously after Ralph Mooney’s dismissal from the Strangers in 1966, until Norm Hamlet established the permanent steel guitar position in the band in 1967.
PHIL BAUGH (guitar, 1966)
Phil Baugh was never a full-time member of the Strangers but is still an important footnote. Merle’s first recording session at the Capitol Tower in April 1965 featured both him and Roy Nichols. Later, Baugh recorded with Haggard on the “Swingin’ Doors” session in 1966, playing a signature solo that is still copied note-for-note today.
Baugh, a legendary guitarist, hailed from Northern California. In the late 1950s he moved to the Los Angeles area, where he played guitar for just about every country act around. He had a hit in 1965 with “Country Guitar,” which showed his prowess on practically every style of country guitar picking. When Roy Nichols took a job in Lake Tahoe in 1966, he recommended Haggard use Baugh, with “Swingin’ Doors” being the result.
Baugh also recorded quite a bit with Bonnie Owens, Rose Maddox, and others before moving to Nashville and becoming an oft-used session man in the 1970s and 1980s.
JAMES BURTON (guitar, 1966–69)
James Burton was never a full-time member of the Strangers, but his role as session guitar player for Merle Haggard is so important that he must be included on this list. Burton hailed from Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was a teenage electric guitar prodigy. He played on his first hit, “Suzy Q” by Dale Hawkins, when he was only 15 years old. From there he played on the Louisiana Hayride behind a number of acts, eventually joining Bob Luman’s band when they moved to Los Angeles. Luman was signed to Imperial Records, where Ricky Nelson had also recently been signed, and when Nelson heard Luman’s band rehearsing at the offices, he stole them away, forming a core band that would record and tour until the mid-1960s.
James Burton’s solos on the Ricky Nelson records were so influential that when he left Nelson’s employment, he became a very in-demand session player around Hollywood as well as appearing on the Shindig television show every week as a member of the house band, the Shindogs. He became somewhat of a first-call session guitarist at the Capitol Tower, playing on sessions by just about every Capitol recording artist in the mid- to late 1960s.
Burton recalls hearing Haggard’s 1963 single “Sing a Sad Song” while doing some sidework for Fabor Robinson of Fabor Records, and was knocked out by his voice. Haggard became aware of Burton’s playing not only with Ricky Nelson, but also on records by Buck Owens and others. It was because of a Ricky Nelson record called “You Just Can’t Quit” that Burton was eventually called in to play on Haggard’s sessions beginning in June 1966 (the first session produced “The Bottle Let Me Down”). At first Burton was brought in because Roy Nichols was unavailable (Nichols had temporarily left Haggard’s band to take a good-paying gig up in Lake Tahoe), but even after Nichols joined Haggard’s touring band, Burton continued to play on nearly all of Haggard’s sessions until he left to join Elvis Presley’s band in 1969.
A great deal of debate has ensued over the years over who played what, but the styles of Burton and Nichols are different enough that trained ears can distinguish them. Burton played most of the lead guitar parts on the early hits, but not all of them, for example “Mama Tried,” which features Burton on Dobro fingerpicked rhythm and Roy Nichols on the electric lead. Nichols, for his part, didn’t mind the secondary role, learning to reproduce Burton’s licks in concert.
Burton’s last Capitol session with Merle was in December 1969, as he had been offered the job of lead guitar player with Elvis Presley. Burton played on several of Merle’s MCA sessions after Presley’s death in the late 1970s and has continued to be an in-demand session guitarist in Nashville and Los Angeles, touring with John Denver and Jerry Lee Lewis among many others.
James Burton told this author in an interview for this box set that his playing with Haggard was some of his favorite work.
GLEN CAMPBELL (guitar, banjo, vocals, 1966–68)
Glen Campbell hailed from Arkansas, but his teen-idol good looks and virtuoso guitar abilities brought him to Hollywood in the early 1960s, where he made an unsuccessful string of teen pop singles while earning his bread and butter as a session guitar player.
Campbell was doing a lot of work for Ken Nelson at the Capitol Tower (including sessions for the Beach Boys, with whom Campbell toured with for a time after Brian Wilson’s nervous breakdown) and was brought in for Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” session in June 1966. Campbell’s vocals blended so well with those of Haggard and Bonnie Owens that he was invited for nearly every session from then until February 1968, playing rhythm guitar and singing harmony vocals.
Campbell played banjo on “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde.” Haggard thought the song called for banjo, and someone ran down the street from the Capitol Tower to a music store to obtain a banjo, which Campbell learned quickly enough to record on the session. Merle thought enough of Campbell’s talent to include Campbell’s Capitol single “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” inside the promo mailings of his “Today I Started Loving You Again” release. Soon Campbell was a massive success in his own right, and his schedule was too busy to include sessions with Haggard.
BOBBY WAYNE (guitar, 1970–73)
Born Robert Wayne Edrington in Oklahoma, Bobby Wayne moved to California in 1947, where he established what would become a long history in California country music. He played with various groups starting in the late 1950s, then met Dennis Hromek, with whom he started a group called the Smith Brothers, based out of the Modesto area, in the early 1960s. Bobby and Dennis Hromek, in the minds of many historians, have more or less been thought of as a pair, as they traveled together from group to group.
Around 1965 Freddie Hart offered the Smith Brothers a road gig as his band the Heartbeats. They toured with Hart until the bookings dwindled, then joined Wynn Stewart in 1966, becoming members of his road band the Tourists. The first session Bobby Wayne recorded with Stewart resulted in the smash hit “It’s Such a Pretty World Today,” the biggest of his career. Bobby would record many sessions with Stewart in 1966 and 1967 and even recorded an unreleased instrumental called “Spittin’ Guitar,” showing his lead guitar prowess, which was eventually released on Bear Family’s Wynn Stewart box set. The Tourists eventually wound up joining Buck Owens’s roadshow and recording with Dick Curless, without Wynn. When that fizzled out, the pair of Bobby Wayne and Dennis Hromek split up for a while, with Bobby forming Bobby T. Adams and the Common People at the Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas, and Hromek joining the Palomino house band, Red Rhodes and the Detours, in North Hollywood.
Bobby eventually moved back to Los Angeles and joined the Palomino house band, where he recorded on the Red Rhodes and the Detours Live at the Palomino LP for Happy Tiger records. The entire band, except Bobby, quit the Palomino to tour behind the record. Bobby re-formed the house band with Tony Booth and remained there for a short while until Dennis Hromek and Biff Adams, who were both members of the Palomino house band that were now playing with Merle Haggard and the Strangers, got Bobby to join the Strangers in early 1970.
Bobby remained a solid core member of the Strangers for three years and played on many hits, including “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man),” “Carolyn,” “Grandma Harp,” “If We Make It Through December,” and the album The Fightin’ Side Of Me—“Live” in Philadelphia.
His contributions to the final four Strangers solo albums were many, in addition to singing and writing several songs (including “Harold’s Super Service,” “Just Sit Down and Cry,” “Repeat Performance,” and “Sing a Happy Song”). Capitol Records had enough faith in Bobby to release a few of these vocals on singles bearing his own name. The pair of Bobby Wayne and Dennis Hromek became known for some legendarily wild behavior, and as a result they were released from the Strangers in 1973, breaking up what is considered by many to be one of the classic incarnations of the group.
LEWIS TALLEY (rhythm guitar, 1962–69)
Lewis “Louie” Talley was never a member of the Strangers officially, but he was on Merle Haggard’s payroll from the beginning of his career until his death, in a capacity that even Merle himself couldn’t exactly define. Suffice to say that everyone liked having Louie around.
Talley was a hugely influential figure in the early years of the Bakersfield country music scene. He was a singer with an uncanny resemblance both visually and vocally to Hank Williams, and he had a great deal of local success as a performer on the Cousin Herb Henson Trading Post television show. He also started the Tally Records label in Bakersfield, which released numerous local discs in both the country and rockabilly styles.
Talley released a large number of records under his own name, including an insanely rare live album called Lewis Talley and the Tally-Whackers on the Tally label sometime in the mid-1960s.
Known by all as a lovable drunk, Talley was part of the Haggard organization from the outset (Merle’s first three singles were on the Tally label), and when the money began coming in, Merle kept him on the payroll for decades. During this period, from the start of Merle’s career until the new Strangers lineup was unveiled in 1970 featuring Bobby Wayne on rhythm guitar, Talley was a constant background rhythm guitarist on Merle’s records—nearly every single session from his first, “Skid Row,” until “Workin’ Man Blues” in 1969.
BILLY MIZE, “RED” SIMPSON, and TOMMY COLLINS (rhythm guitar, 1964–69)
Like Lewis Talley, these venerable Bakersfield stalwarts were called in to play acoustic rhythm guitar on numerous Merle Haggard sessions over the years. None were ever proper members of the Strangers, but they were all close friends and part of the Bakersfield scene’s inner circle.
Billy Mize was a singer and steel guitar player who also occasionally played “regular” guitar. He was the steel guitar player on the Cousin Herb Henson television show until he left to play steel guitar on the Town Hall Party television show in Los Angeles following Marian Hall’s departure. Mize released numerous records on his own, from the wacky “Planet Named Desire” rockabilly obscurity to a number of classic honky-tonk numbers on Decca in the 1950s, followed by a string of successful albums on Imperial in the 1960s and 1970s. Mize wrote the honky-tonk classic “It All Depends (On Who Will Buy the Wine),” which was covered by Jerry Lee Lewis and, later, Merle Haggard.
Mize appeared on a number of Haggard sessions during the 1960s as a background acoustic rhythm guitarist.
Joe “Red” Simpson was a Bakersfield singer and songwriter who goes back to the early 1950s. He wrote many songs covered by Bakersfield artists, including Merle and Buck Owens. Most famously, he and Merle cowrote “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go” for Merle, and “Sam’s Place” for Buck Owens. Later in the 1960s and early 1970s Simpson recorded a string of truckin’ albums for Capitol and had a top 10 hit with “I’m a Truck.”
Simpson played quite a lot of sessions for Merle Haggard on background acoustic guitar, most importantly on “Mama Tried,” and he was the uncredited rhythm guitarist on the “Live” in Muskogee album.
Leonard Sipes, aka “Tommy Collins,” has a long and storied history in Bakersfield country music, completely documented in the Bear Family box set Leonard (BCD 15577). Collins was one of the first to befriend the fresh-out-of-prison Merle Haggard and eventually wrote a ton of songs for him, including “Sam Hill,” “Carolyn,” and “Roots of My Raising.” Haggard had a hit in 1981with a song about Collins, simply called “Leonard.”
In the early years of his career, Merle Haggard played acoustic rhythm guitar on several Tommy Collins sessions. Collins returned the favor for Merle and appeared on many sessions as a background rhythm guitarist.
AL BRUNO (guitar, 1970–71)
Born Al Bruneau in Canada, Al Bruno was a young guitar whiz kid who joined Conway Twitty’s road band in 1959. After moving to the United States, he toured with many name pop and soul acts before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. He became one of the Capitol first-call guitarists, along with James Burton, and appeared on many sessions for Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and others.
Although he was never a full time member of the touring Strangers, Bruno did a lot of work with Haggard, both in the studio and in concert. Bruno played on some Haggard vocal sessions, but his chief contribution was as a player on the Strangers’ solo records, most notably “Stumbling,” where Haggard calls out Bruno’s name in the introduction.
JODY PAYNE (guitar, 1971)
Alabama-born Jody Payne toured with the Strangers in 1971, and even though it was a short association, Payne is featured on the Land of Many Churches album. Payne came up through the ranks of Wynn Stewart’s Tourists, following the lead of Dennis Hromek and Bobby Wayne, before he joined the Strangers. He is perhaps best known as the lead guitarist for Willie Nelson, a job that he took shortly after leaving Haggard’s band and has held ever since.
MARCIA NICHOLS (guitar, 1972–73)
The Marcia Nichols story has been described as a good story with a bad ending. Marcia Lynne Ashcraft was a talented young guitarist who married Roy Nichols and became a member of the Strangers in fall 1972. Although she mostly played rhythm guitar, she has been described as a gifted lead guitarist as well. Her time with the Strangers was brief. Having Marcia tour with the band turned out to be a disaster, as Marcia and Roy were always fighting. Eventually Merle had to tell Marcia that “One of you is leaving, and it won’t be Roy!”
She appears on the Strangers’ solo album Totally Instrumental—With One Exception, where she is touted as the first female Stranger (despite the fact that “Peaches” Price had played drums for Haggard in the early years). She also wrote “Come Into My Arms” for Merle, which appeared on the If We Make It Through December album.
After leaving the Strangers, Marcia continued playing in country bands around Bakersfield. She died in 1976 in a fatal car accident, driving home drunk after a gig.
ELDON SHAMBLIN (guitar, 1970 and intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s)
Eldon Shamblin was of course the legendary long-term guitar player for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Merle has often called him “the best rhythm guitar player in the world.” Merle reunited Shamblin with the rest of the Playboys when he recorded his Bob Wills tribute album in 1970. Shamblin would tour and record with Haggard intermittently over the next two decades. His loping style of rhythm guitar can best be heard on the 1964 album The Roots of My Raising and the remake of “Cherokee Maiden” that became a number-one single that same year.
RONNIE RENO (guitar, mandolin, vocals, 1973–82)
Ronnie Reno is the son of the legendary Don Reno, of Reno and Smiley bluegrass fame. Ronnie had recording experience dating back to the 1950s, when at age 10 he was a member of the Reno and Smiley act. After a decade with Reno and Smiley, he joined the Osborne Brothers for a five-year stint, where he and the Osbornes perfected the harmonies for which they are now famous. Ronnie’s vocal harmonies caught Merle’s ear, and he was invited to join the Haggard roadshow as an opening act. Eventually Ronnie proved so popular that he was invited to join the Strangers, where he remained a solid member for nine years. Reno’s soaring vocals were his trademark, but he also played guitar, mandolin, and other stringed instruments.
Ronnie played on many hit sessions, including “Movin’ On,” “Always Wanting You,” “Roots of My Raisin’.” He also wrote songs for Merle, including “Union Station,” cowrote “After Loving You,” and was featured as a guest vocalist on “Travelin’” on Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album.
Reno produced Haggard’s fall 2007 bluegrass album for Del McCoury’s label and has a popular television show on the RFD network called Reno’s Bluegrass Hour.
HOLLIS DE LAUGHTER aka RED LANE (guitar, 1970, 1972, 1973)
De Laughter, another auxiliary session rhythm guitar man, appeared on quite a few sessions, including “No Reason to Quit,” “Jesus Take a Hold,” “Shelly’s Winter Love,” and “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad).” He also wrote (under the name Red Lane) the songs “One Row at a Time” and “Somewhere to Come When It Rains.”
DAVE KIRBY (guitar, 1973–76)
Dave Kirby played rhythm guitar on a large number of sessions between 1973 and 1976, including “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore,” “Kentucky Gambler,” “I’ve Got a Darlin’ (For a Wife),” “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today,” and “What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana?” Kirby also played into the Haggard history books when he married Merle’s third wife, Leona Williams, after her divorce from Merle.
JERRY WARD (aka HOWARD LOWE) (bass, 1965–69)
Little is known about Jerry Ward, the first official bass player of the Strangers, except that his real name was Howard Lowe—and that Merle refers to him as “that dang crazy guy!” Nonetheless, Ward was the bassist on nearly all the sessions between December 1965 and February 1969, except for a period when Haggard’s childhood friend Leon Copeland filled in. Ward was the bassist on the first instrumental Strangers LP, and he wrote many songs, including “Mary’s Mine” for Merle and “Best Part of Me” and “Don’t Tell Me” for Bonnie Owens. That last was covered instrumentally by the Strangers.
BOB MORRIS (bass, 1965, 1968)
Robert “Bobby” Morris was well-known around Bakersfield, and he played with a lot of different groups, most notably Buck Owens’s Buckaroos—in fact, he is the writer of Buck’s theme song, “Buckaroo.” While never a member of the touring group, he wrote a ton of songs and played bass and guitar for both Buck and the instrumental Buckaroos albums. He played bass on some of the earliest Merle Haggard sessions for Capitol in 1965, then reappeared in 1968 for several sessions, including the hit “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.” He also wrote songs that Haggard recorded (“If You See My Baby,” “What’s Wrong with Stayin’ Home”), and cowrote “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” with Bonnie Owens.
Morris wrote several other hits, including “Made in Japan” for Buck and “It Takes a Lot of Money” for Warner Mack, and later went on to run Buck Owens’s music publishing company.
LEON COPELAND (bass, 1967, 1969)
Leon Chase Copeland was a childhood friend of Merle Haggard and briefly a member of the Strangers, but he recorded on quite a few sessions in 1967 and again in 1969. Copeland wrote at least one song recorded by Haggard, “I’m Free,” and, in addition to playing on several of Bonnie’s sessions, wrote “Lead Me On” for her. The song was as close as Bonnie Owens ever came to a national hit, and it wound up being an oft-covered hit for other artists, including Loretta Lynn with Conway Twitty, who took it to the top of the charts in 1971.
CHUCK BERGHOFER (bass, 1969)
Charles “Chuck” Berghofer was a session bass player who spent several years in the mid-1960s touring and recording with the Everly Brothers. It was through this association that he met James Burton, who recommended him for sessions with Merle Haggard in 1969. Berghofer played on several hit sessions, including “Workin’ Man Blues,” “If I Had Left It Up to You,” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
GENE PRICE (bass, 1969, guitar, 1970)
Gene Price was another short-lived member of the Strangers, but he appeared on the Okie from Muskogee live album, where he sang “In the Arms of Love.” When Dennis Hromek was brought in on bass in late 1969, Price moved to rhythm guitar for a short while before being replaced by Bobby Wayne. Gene is credited with cowriting “Huntsville” with Buck Owens, but oddly enough the same song is credited to Merle Haggard and Red Simpson in other discographies.
DENNIS HROMEK (bass, 1970–73)
Dennis Hromek was the mainstay bass player for three solid years with the Strangers, where he played on a multitude of hits and the last four Strangers solo albums. Often paired by historians with guitarist Bobby Wayne, the two had a long and storied history together, starting with their first combo the Smith Brothers, based out of Modesto in the early 1960s.
Hromek and Bobby Wayne joined Freddie Hart’s Heartbeats in 1965 and toured with them until the bookings dwindled, at which point they were drafted by Wynn Stewart and his Tourists in 1966. The first session that Hromek and Wayne played on with Wynn Stewart was the biggest hit of his career, “It’s Such a Pretty World Today.” The pair continued with Stewart for two years, cutting many records with him, eventually touring as the Tourists without Wynn Stewart, as part of Buck Owens’s roadshow, until that fizzled out sometime around 1968.
The pair split up for a while, but Hromek and Wayne eventually wound up in the Palomino Club house band, Red Rhodes and the Detours, based in North Hollywood. During this time Hromek cut a budget album under his own name, It’s Such a Pretty World Today and Other Country Favorites, for Custom Records, and played bass on the classic live LP Red Rhodes and the Detours Live at the Palomino for Happy Tiger Records.
After leaving the Palomino house gig, Hromek joined the Strangers, with Bobby Wayne following soon after. Hromek would go on to sing several songs on the Strangers’ solo albums as well as write and cowrite several songs for Haggard, including “Sing a Happy Song” and “Day Happy.” Hromek played bass on many of Haggard’s hits, including “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man),” “Carolyn,” “Grandma Harp,” and “If We Make It Through December” as well as the album The Fightin’ Side of Me—“Live” in Philadelphia.
Eventually Hromek and Bobby Wayne’s wild lifestyle caught up with them, and after a series of wild incidents they were let go from the Strangers organization in 1973, breaking up what many consider to be one of the classic incarnations of the Strangers.
JOHNNY MEEKS (bass, 1973–74)
Johnny Meeks hailed from South Carolina, where he was a young guitar and steel guitar prodigy. He was asked to join Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps in 1957 and had the thankless job of replacing guitar virtuoso Cliff Gallup, but he admirably held his own, bringing a new stinging and trebly sound to Vincent’s recordings that is instantly recognizable. Meeks stayed with Vincent for less than two years, but that stint is still his biggest claim to fame.
After leaving Vincent’s band, Meeks played with the Champs, of “Tequila” fame. Eventually he fell into the country music scene around Los Angeles, where he played with the Palomino house band, Red Rhodes and the Detours, in the late 1960s. It was from this Palomino house band that Haggard drew sidemen Dennis Hromek, Bobby Wayne, and Biff Adam. Meeks was asked to join the Strangers following Dennis Hromek and Bobby Wayne’s sudden departure from the band in 1973, and he stayed with the organization for a little more than a year. Meeks played on quite a few Haggard sessions around this time, including the hit “Movin’ On.”
Johnny Meeks recently moved back to South Carolina and still plays country music on a regular basis. He also occasionally plays Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps reunion shows.
JAMES TITTLE (bass, 1974–76)
Ronnie Reno brought James “Jimmy’” Tittle to the Strangers, introducing him to Merle at his home in Bakersfield. Tittle appeared on quite a few of the later Capitol records, including “Always Wanting You,” “The Roots of My Raising,” “Cherokee Maiden,” “Here Comes the Freedom Train.”
HELEN “PEACHES” PRICE (drums, 1963–66)
“Peaches” Price was a well-respected female drummer in the Los Angeles area who began playing in the mid-1950s with various local acts. She is probably best remembered as the drummer for Wynn Stewart, playing on nearly every session he did from 1961 to 1965, and again in 1968, part of the classic lineup of the band that included Ralph Mooney on steel guitar, Roy Nichols on lead guitar, Bobby Austin on bass, and Gordon Terry on fiddle.
In 1963, as a member of Wynn Stewart’s band, she played drums on one of Merle Haggard’s earliest sessions for Tally Records. She then played on every Haggard session for the next two years, which included the hits “Sing a Sad Song,” “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” and “Swingin’ Doors.” When Roy Nichols’s wife, Marcia, joined the Strangers in 1972, she was billed as “the first female Stranger,” sadly glossing over Peaches’s contribution to the world of country drumming.
JIM GORDON (drums, 1966, 1969)
Jim Gordon was a well-known Hollywood studio musician who spent several years recording and touring with the Everly Brothers in the mid-1960s. It was through the association with the Everlys that session guitarist James Burton came to know Gordon, so when Haggard needed a session drummer following the departure of “Peaches” Price, Gordon filled in until the Strangers found a regular drummer in Eddie Burris. He returned for a pair of sessions in 1969. Gordon played on such hits as “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” and “Workin’ Man Blues.”
EDDIE BURRIS (drums, 1967–69)
Roy “Eddie” Burris was the road drummer for the Strangers for two years and recorded many sessions with Merle as well as the first instrumental Strangers album. He appeared on “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” “Mama Tried,” and of course “Okie from Muskogee.”
“Okie from Muskogee” would be Eddie Burris’s dubious claim to fame. He received 25 percent of the song for coming up with the “roman sandals” line in the song as Merle was struggling to finish it on the tour bus. Burris immediately sold his 25 percent of the song, twice, to two different people, for $2500 each, causing a legal action. The two different “owners” of his percentage ended up taking half of 25 percent each, and both have had comfortable lives since then thanks to Burris’s short-sighted decision. Eddie Burris was the drummer on the Okie from Muskogee—Recorded “Live” in Muskogee, Oklahoma album, which was recorded shortly before he left the band in late 1969.
TOMMY ASH (drums, 1969)
Tommy Ash was a well-known drummer around Bakersfield who played on a lot of Capitol recording sessions. He joined the Strangers as the road drummer for a very short time in late 1969. During his short tenure with the band he appeared on two recording sessions, but no hits.
RONNIE TUTT (drums, 1969)
Ronnie Tutt was another drummer brought in by James Burton to fill a recording date. He played on only one session, resulting in the hit “If I Had Left It Up to You.” Tutt’s inclusion in the Haggard legacy is worth mentioning, if only because he and James Burton later became core members of Elvis Presley’s band.
BIFF ADAM (drums, 1970–present)
Biff Adam, the namesake of the instrumental “Biff Bam Boom,” was another member of the Strangers who came up through the ranks of the house band (Red Rhodes and the Detours) at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. Along with fellow Palomino Club expatriates Dennis Hromek and Bobby Wayne, Biff Adam was the bedrock for the next classic lineup of the Strangers—and the next, and the next after that. In fact, after all the turmoil surrounding the Haggard organization, Biff Adam is still the man on the drums nearly 40 years later.
Biff joined the band just in time to record the second Strangers solo LP, where he contributed his classic drum solo number “Biff Bam Boom.” He was the drummer on “If We Make It Through December,” “Movin’ On,” “Carolyn,” “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man),” “Grandma Harp,” and several dozen other number-one hit records, continuing to the present day.
GEORGE FRENCH JR. (piano, 1963–70)
George French Jr. was a well-known piano player around Bakersfield. He was an early member of Buck Owens’s Buckaroos and appeared on some of Buck’s earliest Capitol Records. Merle Haggard was introduced to French when he was playing for Wynn Stewart at the Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas in the early 1960s. Eventually the gig ended and the entire band, including French on piano, joined Merle Haggard in the studio and on the road. French recorded a staggering number of sessions in the six years he was in the Strangers, all the early hits, from “Sing Me a Sad Song” and “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” up to “Mama Tried” and “Silver Wings.” He was on the first Strangers solo LP but was gone by the time Haggard made the Okie from Muskogee—Recorded “Live” in Muskogee, Oklahoma album in late 1969. He came back for most of 1970, including the Bob Wills tribute album and the third Strangers solo LP, Getting to Know . . . The Strangers. By November 1970 he had left the group. According to stepdaughter Gaylyn Yanke, George French died of an aneurism in 1992.
GLEN D. HARDIN (piano, 1969–70)
Hardin, another consummate session man around Los Angeles, had played in the post–Buddy Holly Crickets lineup and was a member of the Shindogs with James Burton. It was probably Burton who brought Hardin in for several sessions in 1969 and 1970, when Burton brought in Chuck Berghofer and Jim Gordon to replace Haggard’s departed rhythm section.
The first session Hardin did with Haggard was “Workin’ Man Blues” in May 1969. He also played on the hit singles “Okie from Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and the fourth Strangers solo LP, Honky Tonkin’. Hardin was another one of the cadre of musicians that James Burton would take with him to Elvis Presley’s band in the 1970s.
EARL POOLE BALL (piano, 1970)
Earl Poole Ball was working as a session pianist and staff producer at Capitol Records when he began working on sessions for Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens. In addition to playing on Haggard’s “Tulare Dust” and the second and fourth Strangers solo LPs, Introducing My Friends—The Strangers and Honky Tonkin’, Ball would produce Haggard’s Bob Wills tribute LP and Bonnie Owens’s Mother’s Favorite Hymns gospel LP for Capitol in addition to the aforementioned Strangers Honky Tonkin’ LP.
Ball played on many of the influential country-rock records of the late 1960s, including the Byrds’ seminal Sweethearts of the Rodeo LP, the Flying Burrito Brothers LPs, and Gram Parsons’s International Submarine Band LP.
Ball found his most permanent gig as Johnny Cash’s piano player, a job he held for more than twenty years. Currently he lives in Austin and still plays with many local groups, including Heybale, which also features fellow Haggard alumnus Redd Volkaert.
HARGUS “PIG” ROBBINS (piano, 1971–75)
Hargus Robbins, forever known in country music lore as “Pig,” became blind at the age of four. He was something of a child prodigy on the piano, and after an early career as a solo artist (witness the manic “Save It,” a Jerry Lee Lewis–styled rocker, that he recorded for Chess in the late 1950s), became Nashville’s busiest session piano player.
Robbins played on literally thousands of sessions, including Merle Haggard sessions from the early 1970s following George French Jr.’s departure from the group. Haggard would often schedule sessions in Nashville so he could get Robbins (and Johnny Gimble, who also lived in Nashville). Robbins played on the hits “Carolyn” and “If We Make It Through December” as well as a number of songs on the Strangers’ fourth and fifth LPs, Honky Tonkin’ and Totally Instrumental—With One Exception.
After Mark Yeary joined the Strangers as the permanent piano man in 1973, Robbins continued to play on Haggard sessions, on piano and electronic keyboard, for several more years, especially at sessions done in Nashville.
BILLY LIEBERT (piano, 1971–72)
Billy Liebert was a Los Angeles–based piano and accordion player who came to prominence in the late 1940s as a member of the Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree television show. He would go on to have a long association with Capitol Records, appearing as a session man on all of Cliffie Stone’s projects, including Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Molly Bee, and many others. Liebert played on a few Haggard sessions in late 1971 and early 1972, including the number-one single “Grandma Harp.”
BILL WOODS (piano, fiddle, 1972)
Bill Woods was one of the legendary figures in Bakersfield, with a long history that went back to the late 1940s. Originally a local radio disc jockey, he was also leader of the house band at the Blackboard Café with his group Bill Woods and the Orange Blossom Playboys, a job he held for many years.
Woods was also one of the great record men in Bakersfield, launching such labels as Bakersfield, Fire, and many others that released dozens of seminal early Bakersfield country, rockabilly, and novelty records. He helped many people around Bakersfield with their music careers, inspiring Red Simpson to write “Bill Woods from Bakersfield.” Merle Haggard recorded the song in 1971 for his Let Me Tell You About a Song LP after hearing Simpson perform it live on the radio in Los Angeles. Perhaps as a result of the song’s popularity, Woods himself was invited to join the Strangers. Although he played piano with the Strangers on the road, he never recorded with the Strangers on piano. He played fiddle on several sessions, but no hits. Four songs from an unissued session turn up on this box set, including “Fiddle Blues,” a number that features Woods prominently.
Woods had to leave the band after medical troubles forced him off the road. He had sustained major injuries in a racing car crash (automobile racing was the other great passion in his life).
MARK YEARY (piano, 1973–92)
After George French Jr., Merle Haggard had several short-lived piano players running through the ranks of the Strangers. Mark Yeary would prove to be one of the longest-running members of the group, with close to twenty years under his belt by the time he left the group in 1992.
Yeary was born in Los Angeles and moved with his family to Bakersfield when he was fifteen years old. After the initial culture shock, he began playing in local rock and roll and soul groups. Eventually he landed a job on the Jimmy Thomason television show, where Merle Haggard first saw the shaggy-haired youngster with promising talent. Merle liked the idea of hiring a young piano player he could mold to his liking, and he offered Yeary a job with the Strangers. Yeary accepted, and his very first gig with the band was playing at the White House for President Richard Nixon.
Yeary would play on every session from July 1973 until he left the group in 1992, including the last Strangers solo LP Totally Instrumental…With One Exception. He played on the hits “Movin’ On,” “Always Wanting You,” “It’s All in the Movies,” “The Roots of My Raising,” “Cherokee Maiden,” and many others. He also wrote “It Don’t Bother Me” for Haggard, released on the Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album LP.
GORDON TERRY (fiddle, 1970 and intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s)
Gordon Terry was a young prodigy and fiddle champion from Alabama who moved to Nashville in the early 1950s and toured with Faron Young before moving to the Los Angeles area in the late 1950s and joining the cast of the Town Hall Party television show. Terry recorded a string of good, but unsuccessful, singles under his own name (collected on the Bear Family CD Lotta Lotta Women, BCD 15881), and eventually he became a fiddle player extraordinaire for many country stars, including Merle Haggard.
He joined Haggard’s band during the recording of the Bob Wills tribute LP in 1970 and continued to tour with them on a semiregular basis throughout the 1970s. Terry semiretired in 1983 due to ill health and bought a farm south of Nashville in Pulaski, Tennessee. He died at his daughter’s house nearby on April 9, 2006.
JOHNNY GIMBLE (fiddle, 1970s)
Johnny Gimble was yet another alumnus of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys that Merle became acquainted with during the recording of his Bob Wills tribute LP in 1970. Subsequently Gimble became a fixture on Haggard’s records, recording and occasionally touring with Haggard whenever his schedule allowed. Often Haggard would arrange a recording date in Nashville in order to have Gimble (and “Pig” Robbins, who also lived in Nashville) on the record.
Gimble also wrote for Merle, including “Guide Me,” “Lord” on the Land of Many Churches LP, and “Slow ‘n’ Easy” on the Strangers’ Honky Tonkin’ LP. He left Nashville in 1978 to return to Texas and has occasionally worked with Haggard since then, most recently on the 1999 Live at Billy Bob’s Texas album. Gimble still performs with his son and granddaughter as the Gimbles throughout dance halls in Texas, and he appears at selected Texas Playboy reunion shows.
TINY MOORE (mandolin, 1973–76 and intermittently through the 1980s)
Tiny Moore was another alumnus of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys who appeared on Merle’s Bob Wills tribute LP in 1970. His style of electric mandolin is legendary, influencing many guitar players as well as jazz mandolinists, and he brought an exciting presence to Haggard’s band. Moore lived in Sacramento, where he had settled after playing with Billy Jack Wills’s band at Wills Point, a West Coast club owned by Bob Wills.
Merle Haggard appeared on one of Tiny Moore’s solo albums, Tiny Moore Music, playing guitar in the style of Bob Wills’s guitarist, Junior Barnard. Moore taught music lessons at a store in Sacramento until his death in 1986.
DON MARKHAM (saxophone, horns, 1974–present)
After Merle’s foray into Dixieland music in the early 1970s, Don Markham was invited to join the Strangers on saxophone, trumpet, and other horns, a position he still holds to this day. Markham’s history goes much further back, to many of the house bands around Bakersfield in the 1950s and 1960s. An interesting footnote is that Bonnie Owens’s 1960 single for Del-Fi Records in Los Angeles was a split session with Markham, who was recording a sax instrumental for Donna Records the same day. As of this writing Markham is still in the Strangers, making him one of the longest-running members after Norm Hamlet and Biff Adam.
THE DIXIELAND EXPRESS (horn section, 1973)
The Dixieland Express was a three-piece Dixieland ensemble based out of Reno. Merle had performed with them at Harrah’s Casino in Reno and asked them to accompany him to New Orleans to record his next live album in March 1973, resulting in their appearance on the I Love Dixie Blues . . . So I Recorded “Live” in New Orleans LP. Members on the recording included John McCormick, Gene Bowen, and Dale Hampton.
The band’s name derives from a bus line operated by Carolina Coach, called the Dixieland Express because of its fast service between Raleigh, North Carolina, and Dallas. It was a fairly common name for Dixieland bands, and currently there are several bands using the name, none of which have any connection with the group that played with Merle Haggard.