Tribute to a Legend

The 2023 MusicFest Artists Tribute to a Legend Honors Merle Haggard

The Hag left an indelible mark on country music that’s paved the way for today’s MusicFest artists

This year’s Artists Tribute to a Legend will be Jan. 10 at 2 p.m. in the Grand Hotel Ballroom
(complimentary tickets required; see info at end of story)

Few artists throughout any genre of music reach a special class of fame: the “first name only” level of recognition. Entertainers and writers whose first name alone evokes an entire era of style and artistry. Madonna. Elvis. Bruce. Beyoncé. 


When an artist is as emphatically influential in a genre as Merle Haggard was, listing off their awards and accomplishments can seem almost trivial. At least compared to understanding their lasting impact on their peers and fans. Still, racking up 38 No. 1 singles, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Center Honors, and a litany of other pinnacle honors is nothing to sneeze at.

And then of course there’s the fact that Merle Haggard may be the most name-checked artist in all of country music. From contemporaries to artists that Haggard admittedly wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. If Merle Haggard influenced your music career—and if you play any brand of country music, he did—honoring “The Hag” in a song is basically tradition. 

But beyond Merle Haggard’s more obvious contributions to the country fabric, there’s a much more subtle way his influence spread far beyond the confines of country radio.

Austin City Limits was still in its early years when Merle Haggard took the stage in 1978, bringing over a decade of hits and country music’s top honors to the stage. And while the show had certainly already booked plenty of the day’s notable talent, Haggard was in another stratosphere. 

Haggard appeared nine times on Austin City Limits throughout his life, but his inaugural appearance is considered one of the finest episodes in the show’s history. For many in Texas’ growing outlaw country scene, Haggard represented the final bridge to Nashville, where the major label machine had embraced a “countrypolitan” approach—but where Haggard continued to win with his own style.

A style that, above all, was buoyed by honesty.

At a taping of The Johnny Cash Show in 1969, Haggard and Cash were talking about prison songs when Haggard told Johnny the first time he saw him perform was at San Quentin prison. When Cash responded that he didn’t remember him being on that show, Haggard responded, “I was in the audience, Johnny.” 

Cash actually encouraged the interaction, even though he knew it could be controversial. Indeed, ABC received floods of angry letters from viewers clutching their pearls at the notion of an ex-convict appearing on television. But the brief moment—only four years into Haggard’s recording career—proved a pivotal moment for a singer who was teetering on the edge of superstardom. 

Haggard says his chance prison encounter with Johnny Cash inspired him to clean up his act, make parole, and pursue music. It’s not hard to see how Haggard’s commitment to his craft over the next 50 years inspired waves of likeminded musicians.  

Haggard always found a way to have his cake and eat it too, somehow marrying a “rough around the edges” style and brash demeanor with a gentlemanly charm. He was at once a model of the “clean yourself up” counter counter-culture and a former convict winning awards for songs about prison. It earned him the respect of the national country establishment to the tune of 38 No. 1 singles. It also made him a model for future generations of Texas Country and Red Dirt artists who believed commercial success, candor in songwriting, and critical acclaim didn’t need to be exclusive. 

It probably helps that despite being an architect of “California country” and the Bakersfield sound, Haggard paid homage to Texas’ influence myriad ways. His 1970 album A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World was a masterpiece ode to Bob Wills that featured many of the original Texas Playboys and reignited a love for western swing around the world. He collaborated with George Jones and Willie Nelson, the latter a version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” which became one of country music’s most enduring anthems and a cultural staple. (Townes Van Zandt is a previous MusicFest Tribute honoree.)

When some of Texas Country and Red Dirt’s finest gather to celebrate Haggard at the 37th annual MusicFest’s Artists Tribute to a Legend, you’ll see his influence on full display. “We’ve been paying tribute to Merle for years behind closed doors,” says Matt Hillyer. “It’s ’bout time to share our favorite show with everyone.”

Hillyer says Haggard perhaps played the biggest influence on him as an artist and that it’s impossible not to be fascinated by his career, including his early years “stealing cars and hopping trains.” But ultimately it’s all about the music. “Especially as a songwriter,” Hillyer says. “Very few said so much with just the right amount of words.” 

In addition to Hillyer, this year’s Tribute to a Legend show features artists like Cody Canada (a previous honoree), Jamie Lin Wilson, Courtney Patton, Jason Eady and Mike Harmeier of Mike and the Moonpies. MusicFest artist and SiriusXM on-air personality Sunny Sweeney will emcee the event.

“These artists are first and foremost, music fans,” says tribute organizer Liz Foster McGillis. “The Tribute is a unique experience where MusicFest artists show their appreciation for a legend that has paved the way for them—and who has affected who they are both on and off the stage.”

It is perhaps the most fitting way to honor any musician, but an exercise made all the more special when you consider the extraordinary setting of The MusicFest at Steamboat and the dedication of every artist and fan who makes a point to be there. Merle Haggard joins a growing list of songwriting royalty receiving the MusicFest Artists Tribute to a Legend honor, from Guy Clark and Lee Ann Womack to Dean Dillon and Jerry Jeff Walker. 

“It’s all about appreciation, the love of music, and an unyielding desire to keep exceptional and genuine music alive and thriving,” McGillis says. 

—Jeremy Burchard

Guaranteed Access to the Tribute
Free tickets for the tribute show are available exclusively for MusicFest attendees on a first-come, first-served basis. Claim your ticket The MusicFest General Store in The MusicFest Village (mountain base near the Outdoor Stage) starting at noon on Jan. 9. (Limit 4 tickets total per person; every tribute ticket holder must be a registered MusicFest attendees—no exceptions.)