Acting gigs for Merle Haggard, a country music legend and key cog in the Bakersfield Sound, range from an appearance alongside then-wife Bonnie Owens in Dick Clark's Killers Three (1968) to a role in Wag the Dog (1997). Yet those big screen appearances probably impress country folks less than Haggard's trip to Walton's Mountain.
Haggard plays country singer Red Turner in The Waltons' season five episode "The Comeback," which debuted on October 7, 1976. The Turner character first appeared in season two's "The Gift" and was originally portrayed by Ken Swofford. In "The Comeback," Turner's still reeling from the death of his son, who'd been played in "The Gift" by another favorite of classic country fans, Ron Howard.
According to the website All About the Walton's episode synopsis: "Jason needs to find $300 to cover his tuition at the Kleinberg Conservatory of Music. He gets a job playing piano at the Dew Drop Inn. He also convinces Red Turner to pick up the guitar and perform again after the death of his son Seth."
Jason Walton's played by Jon Walmsley, a real-life musician and composer.
"I was thrilled to have (Haggard) come on the show as a guest star, and even more so that the main plot of the show was the relationship between our two characters," Walmsley told Billboard in 2017. "We spent a lot of time together during that six or seven days away from the camera. We did a lot of playing guitar on the set between takes. In fact, the assistant director had to tell us to shut up because they couldn't concentrate on their work. What a nice guy Merle was. We all know how talented he was, but he was really a sweet, genuine, and down to earth man. He came onto the lot, on his bus, with his tour manager and those people. It was interesting, because he seemed so humble and shy. He wasn't a real showbiz personality. He struck me as being a little bit like Elvis - where he had his guys who were around him all the time. I think he felt most comfortable at home on the stage. I would have loved to have gotten to know him away from Hollywood, and hung out. Unfortunately, that wasn't to be, but what a great memory."
"It wasn't long before Red was playing again, pleasing audiences with his old skill and a new, more mellow kind of song," went "The Comeback's" epilogue. "Jason had earned enough to scrape together a first downpayment at school, but making those tuition payments remained a constant problem and a challenge for him."
Walmsley made his Grand Ole Opry debut two years before his on-screen collaboration with Haggard aired.
"I first did the Opry in 1974, and it was shortly after they moved to the new Opry House," he told Billboard. "What a wonderful experience. That vibe - backstage alone - is just unbelievable, walking past all the dressing rooms, and all the acts are there, talking and jamming away with each other. I remember meeting Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Hank Snow and Roy Acuff. I actually got to sing with Roy Acuff in Opryland on another trip. I also remember meeting Marty Stuart. He was still playing with Lester Flatt at the time, and we're about the same age. We hung out a little bit. That was a great night."
"The Comeback" also featured guest stars Pat Quinn (Wilma Turner), Cissy Wellman (Cissy Walker), Jay Robinson (Professor Thaxton), Dorothy Shay (Thelma), Joe Conley (Ike Godsey) and Robert Donner (Yancy Tucker).