By the time Ben Haggard was 15 years old, he was already playing lead guitar in his dad's band, the Strangers. Being the son of Merle Haggard, he grew up with one of the greatest country legends in history as his teacher, mentor and friend.
Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were regular fixtures around his home. Standing just a few feet from his father, he learned the art of leading a band and captivating a crowd of thousands every night. But even that couldn't prepare him for last month's all-star Merle Haggard tribute concert. Held on the one year anniversary of Merle Haggard's death, the show featured everyone from Willie to Keith Richards to Ben himself paying tribute to The Hag.
"It was somewhat like a dream for me," Haggard tells Wide Open Country. "It was like you're dreaming of standing next to Keith Richards and all of these incredible people that show up. I have to remember they're showing up to see this guy that I grew up with. You don't soak it in until you get home that night and think 'What did I just go through?' It was really neat to see that happen for my father."
When Ben and the Strangers launched into Merle's 1983 hit "What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)" it was clear that the Hag's legacy was in good hands. But being a singer wasn't always on Ben's radar.
"I was just focused on playing guitar for Merle Haggard for the rest of my life," Haggard says. "But reality sets in and nobody's immortal."
Passing the Torch
Since their father's passing, Ben and his step brother Noel -- who Ben jokingly calls his "brother from another mother" -- have carried on the family business, playing the tour dates that remained on Merle's calendar. Ben says Merle made it clear that he supported Ben singing his songs while making his own way in the music business.
"Before he passed away he sat me down and said 'Don't feel weird or bad about playing my songs until you have your own. Don't let nobody tell you that you can or you can't. Because if they say you can't, they're wrong. Nobody ever put in the rule book that somebody can't do that.' He kind of put some words in my head like that. But he was always very strong and adamant about trailblazing your own way."
And Ben is steady blazing his own trail. His renditions of country classics posted on social media have garnered thousands of views.
And while Ben's voice has drawn comparisons to his dad's deep, quivering, tear-stained voice, he suffered from stage fright and spent years gathering the courage to step up to the mic.
"For me, it was just a constant battle. After about eight years on the road playing guitar, I finally got to the point where it didn't really bother me and then we started all over again with the singing," Haggard says, laughing. "So I'm having to re-learn how to get comfortable on the mic."
Though Haggard received his first guitar at the age of six, he didn't become seriously interested in music until he was 12.
"It kind of hit me in a different way then," Haggard says. "I started to really pay attention to these records that my dad was playing and started to learn about them. He was telling me about them, and I was like, 'Wow, what is this life that happened before I was even in this world?' That really sparked my interest as far as music. It was just fire."
As Merle's youngest son, Ben remembers when he started realizing the profound impact his dad had on people.
"It was a reality at a young age -- like four or five years old -- being on the road and going out and watching dad walk out to four or five thousand people a night and they'd all stand up and cheer for him. I thought that was a reality," Haggard says. "As I got older I started to really understand what actually was going on. My dad is something very unique and different that's not a very common thing."
A New Path
Now the 24-year-old is setting his sights on recording his own music. He recently signed a songwriting deal with BMI and hopes to release a solo album sometime in 2018.
Like his father, Ben is determined to create fiercely independent music that sounds like no one else.
"The hardest thing to find is a good song that hasn't really been thought of and written -- something that's not too common to hear in this day and age," Haggard says. "I feel like it's almost harder for an artist to come along and really hit something and catch somebody's ear because there's a chance everybody's heard just about everything. I'm taking my time and seeing if I can't find something that turns somebody's ear. I'm not going to force anything."
Haggard says the album will be "traditional sounding with a new, fresh sense of what country music still is." While the record is in the very early stages, Haggard says he already has a producer lined up in close friend Sturgill Simpson.
"We're text buddies and we kind of talk back and forth about different things and different musical theories and different sounds that they had in the '60s," Haggard says. "I just thought, 'Hey, you need to be on board when I go in the studio. You need to be a part of what I'm trying to portray.' He gladly accepted when I'm ready."
The country music world has certainly changed since Merle Haggard released his debut studio album Strangers. In the aftermath of the "bro-country" phenomenon, country music is at a crossroads. While a slew of new, young artists have made leeway in bringing traditional country back to the forefront, getting radio play is still a challenge.
But Haggard says there's still a hunger for pedal steel and fiddle-driven country, and it's something he's eager to deliver.
"I don't want to bash anybody in the newer realm of things but it has changed," Haggard says. "But I think there's still a vast majority of fans who have a craving for that sound--the old sound. I think a lot of my generation hasn't really had a chance to understand what that sound is. There's something very special, something very unique, something that shouldn't be forgotten."
You can currently catch Ben Haggard on tour across the U.S. For a full list of tour dates, click here.
Now Watch: Remembering Merle Haggard