Say What? – Merle Haggard

hagToday’s Say What? comes courtesy of country music legend Merle Haggard, who recalled a salty conversation with a label executive in the 1980s. The memory was prompted by Emmylou Harris performing “Kern River”, a Haggard classic that is also a highlight of her most recent album, All I Intended to Be.

Since the comment is definitely nsfw, it’s embedded after the jump:

As reported on

“I want to say that there was this other guy — I can’t remember his name — he was head of CBS, and he made fun of my song. He said, ‘Who in the hell knows where Kern River is at?'”

Someone in the audience shouted out the name Haggard had apparently forgotten — Rick Blackburn, who helmed CBS Records (of which Epic was a division) from 1980 to 1988.

On another occasion, Haggard recalled that Blackburn said, “I’d like to tell you one more time. I don’t like ‘Kern River.'” Haggard continued, “And I said, ‘That’s about the third time you’ve told me that.’ He said, ‘It’s more like five times.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m about five times short of telling you to go to hell.'”

By now, the crowd was roaring with laughter. But Haggard wasn’t through yet.

“I said, ‘Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.'”

Somehow I knew that our readers would love this one!


  1. That’s awesome! I happen to like that song and Emmylou did a gorgeous cover of it on her last album.

    I also happen to be very familiar with Kern River. My parents were both from Bakersfield. As referenced in the song, it’s a notoriously dangerous river. There’s a big sign near it that warns you not to swim in it and tells you how many people have died making the attempt. People do boat/swim in parts, but watch out!

    (btw. I can’t help but think of Haggard every time I’m in Bakersfield. I can’t get to my grandparents without taking Merle Haggard Drive!)

  2. I heard Merle and Ray Benson (who was apparently in the room during this discussion) talk about this on TV some years ago. Ray seemed to think that Merle was going to come across the desk at the guy. It was funny to me that great big Ray Benson was trying not to do anything to make Merle any more angry.

    I love Kern River and I also love that some of the old dogs of country music are still around to try and put people in their place. I don’t know how effective it is, but I love it that Merle still tries.

  3. It’s hilarious, but I can’t help but feel a little bad for Blackburn. Dumping Cash basically set him up to be a public punching bag among the country music community for the rest of his life, and few people probably know exactly what considerations went into the decision (at least, I don’t). That’s gotta suck for him.

  4. Yeah, I don’t know the details and behind the scenes considerations either, but ya gotta love Merle! Never afraid to speak his mind :)

  5. Somewhere along the line record labels forgot the value of “prestige artists” — great artists who might not sell a gazillion records but make other artists (who do sell a gazillion records) want to be on the label.

  6. Chris N. makes a good point – a label should have a balance of current artists alongside ‘prestige artists’ like Cash was. It always looks better to me when I see a label’s roster and they still have artists who might not go platinum with every record, but has made enough contributions to the label – and the entire industry in Cash’s case – to justify still being signed. I hate it that so many of our greatest artists have had to go the indie route later in their careers. Fortunately for us, most of them have made some killer albums that way – but it’s just not fair that our veterans don’t have the major label backing they deserve.

  7. Truth be told, I really like the veterans of country because they have seen more and know whereof they speak in song. Mr. Haggard is obviously one of those, as are Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and the other legends. They’re just more believable; they don’t hide the way they feel.

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