I'd been working on a documentary on
Jimmie Rodgers AKA the
Father of Country Music for years, and
some years back Willie
Nelson told me, "If you want to know
something about Jimmie
Rodgers, you need to talk to Merle
Haggard. So the Saga begins.
After a number of decades in the
entertainment business I knew
how to follow the trail and find the
responsible agents and managers
of about anybody in the biz, and had
enough credentials myself to
get to the responsible parties to work
After starting the hunt for the great
Merle Haggard I'm led to Frank
Mull. Frank went way back with
Merle to when Moby Dick was a
minnow. After some months of
talking on the phone with Frank I
was invited to one of Haggard's
concerts...thereafter a 12 year
friendship and working relationship began
centered on the life and
music of "The Singing Brakeman" one of
Merle's biggest influences
For the first year that I was around Merle on
various tours and at a number of shows in California,
Frank and I would talk, and
I began to meet the guys in the band, the
road crew and bus drivers, let's call it a vetting dance.
A number of months later,
and after several meet ups with some dates in
California Frank told me to meet them at a show off the 210 near
LA, I met
Frank at a hotel, where he was checking in
the band he said, "Merle is out in the parking lot on his bus,
why don't you go
say hi to him." I got butterflies in my
stomach as I began to walk out of the hotel into the parking lot
headed for the Super Chief
his famous bus. I boarded the bus and
Merle looked at me and said, "Come on in Banford." He
called me Banford, instead of
Benford...hell I didn't care Merle Haggard
could call me whatever he wanted, and from that point on a great
friendship and a
working relationship began and grew year by
year as the number of projects of his and mine we would work on,
talk about and
film. He encouraged me to take pictures
but I was smart enough to know he did not want to be posed.
Merle Haggard is a Pioneer Troubadour if there ever was one.
Willie Nelson's ole stage
manager Poodie Locke and I were talking about Merle and Willie with
Buck Page, founding
member of the Riders of the Purple Sage (formed 1936) and called
them "road warriors"
In 2015 we were
out on Hag's ranch working on a project that came to me to pitch to
I would not take
many things to him, in that he and I had enough going but this made
both some money
and got some recording done for our project during the shoot.
interview with Merle and me on the Jimmie Rodgers Saga, Chuck Banner
leave the room and he sat down with Haggard and the following was
Merle, when did you meet ole Benford?
“I have been knowing him about 10 to 12 years. When I ran into
Benford, I realized that he was in a search for all the information
he could find. Seems like every time we get together we end up in
the same area, something about country music history. He is a
history buff and I guess I am too...I enjoy digging out the truth of
what really occurred. Benford is one of those kind of people also.”
Have you learned much from Benford? He has been chasing the stories
and his life sounds a lot like Jimmie's Rodgers life himself.
“I've learned a lot from Benford. He knows stories about Jimmie
Rodgers that leads to other people. Hank Snow and Earnest Tubb,
Lefty Frizzell. I don't know why my passion level is as a child. I
am still interested in finding out something about my heroes, and he
is in the same business (laughs). When I see him coming I know what
we are going to be talking about. I know he is a history buff and a
interesting person and he has worked awful hard to prepare this
chunk of history.
Merle, you don't let a lot of people just come on the bus, or go on
tours with you?
“No, that's right.”
How come Benford made it into the mix?
Well, I could tell immediately that he was (pause) “Knowledgeable”
about what he talked about and that was interesting to me. I didn't
know if he was there to tell me something or find out something but
it is always interesting to talk to Benford.”
It's a passion with him...
“It sure is, you can see that, not hard to tell that.”
Norm Hamlett and Frank Mull talking talking on stage during
sound check in
Carmel, Ca., where there was some talk Clint Eastwood might
worked for Merle wearing a number of different hats for 40 +
years... I know
Merle and Frank saw each other as brothers. Hag held
Norm in very high
regard and had been with him since 1965, and he would
introduce Norm as
the Music Director of the Strangers during most shows...
Frank Mull & Merle Haggard leaving the stage, Frank was
with a flashlight so Merle could see what side of the stage
to exit, and
Frank would lead him back to the bus. Merle did not
like to stop after
a show and visit, or sign autographs, he just wanted to get
to his bus
and take his boots off, only a few people had the luck to
get to come
on Hag's bus and talk to him...That I had that freedom was
wild to me.
Over the next decade plus, I would become
a friend and partner, and was one of the selected few that
got to spend many
times with him on his bus talking Jimmie
Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills and on and on...
For the first year we would
meet up at different venues in
California, sometimes I would follow the busses from town to
town. He told me one time that
Johnny Cash called him and said "Merle
where are you?" Merle said, "I don't know." Cash
told him, "Call room service
and ask them." Merle loved to
tell stories about his great friends, more than talk about
himself, even told me one time
he would love to do a television show
where he told stories about guys like Bob Willis, Johnny
Cash, Roger Miller, Lefty
Frizzell and hundreds of the greats that
Based on our love of Jimmie Rodgers,
"The Singing Brakeman" and his desire to help me with the
became one of the central elements of the
friendship, and out of the deep passion we both shared to tell
the story of "the
man that started it all". We were
both always amazed that no one ever make a movie or a
documentary about his
incredible life. And, Willie was
right..."If you want to know something about Jimmie Rodgers...
talk to Merle Haggard.
Merle's songwriting was very important to him. One
time he told
me one of his biggest thrills was that "Today I Started
Again" had been recorded by over 420 artists." Then a
He said he had these stories that must be told and music was
CUT TO: BOOK STORY LINE AND
It is known in film and literature as the
"protagonist" and by some is called the "hero" usually
by the readers or audience.
It's said that the word arrived from
the Greek language and was used in Greek drama where it referred
to "the person who led
the chorus"... In my narrative Merle
Haggard is the "hero."
Enter Merle Haggard. In his DNA
is a ramblin' fever. His father was part of the Okie
migration to California, where he settled
his family in an old Santa Fe railroad
refrigerator boxcar, known as a refeer, in Oildale, California,
a bedroom community of
Bakersfield. Merle was born in 1937, in the Bakersfield
hospital then brought back to Oildale to be raised in the
a railroad track only blocks away. Merle said he began to
know loneliness when his dad would leave to work on the railroad
line, then when Merle lost his dad to a brain tumor when Hag was only 9
years old he said he became scared and angry, and
grew deep, and the ramblin' fever took over the rest of his
CUT TO: the setting for my dozen years with
Merle Haggard was the road...
Enter the "antagonists" for there will
be many for The Hag. In an interview with Dan Rather, Mr.
Rather asked him, "You
don't have to work anymore. Why do you
do it? Why jump on the bus and drive a thousand miles to
another date? Merle
said, "I'm scared of the loneliness.
It would be awful quite awful quick. If you want to be
left alone, they'll leave you alone.
I don't want that. We want to
continue...we don't ever want to die. You know that is the
next big event once you retire.
Loneness is a terrible thing."
The ramblin' fever was adding fuel to
hit the road throughout his life, and not two years after the
death of his father he
hopped a freight train at 11 years old, and
began a life of running away and life on the road. By age 16,
and because of his
truancy and "ditching" school he began his
many incarcerations in California Youth Authority Detention
Centers and jails
that led to his 17 escapes...all leading to
being put behind the bars of San Quentin Prison.
Running from that box car house in Oildale,
running from those small school rooms, jails and dentition
where his spirit was locked away, running to
and from the small back stage rooms to the hotel rooms and that
rooms on his bus always with leaving on his
mind. Running from four marriages and families, record
labels and hucksters,
photographers, journalists and fans...Merle
was the runnin' kind...
At 16 years old he played for his idol Lefty
Frizzell, and Lefty had him open a show with his band...Merle
said, "I was hooked,
I knew I could do it, then in San Quentin
Prison he was in the audience when Johnny Cash played...this
locked in his desire to
be a musician... When he got out of prison
his life on the road would be forever.
The ramblin' fever, the road and his bus
were antagonists. His
memories that became his songs and the
passion and his deep desire to tell his
life in song so others could learn became his antagonists.
in the songs he sang up and down the
highways of the country for six decades.
I was born the running kind, leaving
always on my mind. Home was never home to me at any
And I got to keep goin' I can't lay
down Sleep won't hardly come Where there's loneliness all
Listen to the train that stops in our
town, Sliver Wings shining in the sunlight. Sing Me
Where The Lonely Go Too Many
Bridges to Cross Over I'm a Lonesome Fugitive
The darkness of
the night catches me crying A whistle
soon will blow a lonesome sound. No matter where I am
I've got to tell them where I've been, or
they will send me back to prison if I fail. A canvas
cabin in a crowded labor camp stand out
in this memory I revived. I'm tired of this dirty old
Big city turn me lose and set me free
Won't be long before my shoes touch the ground Down
road there's always one more city.
I'm on the run, the highway is my home. I'm a hunted
with just two ways: Outrun the law or
spend my life in jail. Within me there is a prison,
me alone As real as any dungeon with
walls of stone I know running is not the answer, but
been my nature And part of me that
keeps moving on...Sing me back home with a song I used to
hear Make my old memories come
alive Take me away and turn back the years. Well
town forever kiss an old boxcar
goodbye...SING ME BACK HOME BEFORE I DIE and KERN
RIVER BLUES...he sang to me as we
held hands on this bus before his next to last show...
CUT TO: the BOB DYLAN & MERLE HAGGARD
Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens backstage before
performance. Buck took Dylan one of his red, white and
I walked in the room with Buck and Merle standing shoulder
and you should have seen the look on Bob's face when he saw
legends of the Bakersfield sound walk in...His jaw actually
Like two historic gun/guitar slingers just walked through
doors...I could write a chapter on this night in Portland,
Merle and Buck Owens on Merle's bus talking about Jimmie
Such a great catch for me to have my film camera with me and
get these two ole friends talking about the guy I am doing a
As told by Benford
To the right is me talking about the
Jimmie Rodgers Saga that I was working on over
a number of years with Haggard. We both had a great interest in the life
and music of Rodgers and he made it known to me that he wanted
to help in anyway that he could on the doc. We
had a nod and handshake agreement and understanding between
to men to work on "somehow" telling more of his story
laced with Rodgers and intertwined with Lefty Frizzell, Bob
Wills, Johnny Cash, Willie and Kristofferson.
I plan on being the Story Teller
in this Saga about The Hag.
Back in 2005, Merle told me that Bob had
called him to tour the United States, and was wanting him to
tour with him as an
opening act on 39 dates across the United
States. Merle told him, "No." "Hell!" Merle
said, "He wanted to go out at the
wrong time of the year for me to want to cross the U.S. North
to South to West to East...And, Merle looked at me and said,
"I'm not an opening act...maybe for Willie." Then he said, "And
the money was not that good."
Days after I got the first phone call from
Frank Mull that this had all come down... Frank calls back and
tells me the tour is on!
Later Merle tells me, "After the call I told my
ranch hand to go to town and get me some Dylan CD's". The
story from Frank
and Merle is that after listening to the CD's he called
Frank and said, "Call Dylan...tell him I will do the show.
bitch is a GENIUS!". Let's say Merle Haggard just discovered Bob
1969 Merle released his tribute to Jimmie Rodgers
DIFFERENT TIME and in 1997 Bob Dylan released
THE SONGS OF JIMMIE RODGERS: A TRIBUTE
that the prior year I'd been not only running down Haggard for
interviews to have him in the Jimmie Rodgers documentary,
but I had already run down Bob Dylan, and had already started
talks with his management for his involvement and had his
interest, I could not help but feel some fate, destiny and
synergy going on with the call of this tour coming together.
1969, Merle released a tribute album to Rodgers titled SAME
TRAIN A DIFFERENT TIME, and in 1997, Dylan released a
tribute album to the Jimmie titled THE SONGS OF JIMMIE RODGERS:
A TRIBUTE. In short Dylan and Haggard's boys gave
permission to be the only video and digital camera on the tour.
A month plus on the road and 39 shows sold out across
Nation. I started taking notes and serious video of the
tour itself, the busses, the roadies, the load ins and load