Charlotte, NC - Country music fans across the country were devastated to hear of Merle Haggard’s passing Wednesday morning.
"It was a heart-breaking day,” said Phillip Tabakelis, a DJ for Charlotte’s country radio station 103.7 FM and emcee at Coyote Joes. Better known by his listeners as “Big Sexy,” he says it was his father who got him interested in listening to Haggard from a young age.
“You could hear his emotion in the music,” said Tabakelis. “He wasn’t afraid to hide his emotions and he really didn’t care if the record label liked his music.”
Haggard has performed in Charlotte, including at Coyote Joes where he took the stage twice in the late 90's. He played as recently as last year at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Joes’ co-owner Alan Presley describes the sing-songwriter as a “slice of Americana.”
“Merle was an icon and people from all ages, old people, young people, they all came to see him."
Some describe Haggard as an outlaw in the industry, doing things his way.
"He would say, ‘People love my music and they're going to pay to heart it and they did, they came to places like Coyote Joe's and packed the house."
His portrait hangs at the entrance of Coyote Joe's along with a number of other artists he's influence over the years.
“We've got Hank Jr. up there,” said Presley as he points to his photo on a wall above the front doors. “We got lots of big artists that have played in this room or have signed autographs for us.”
Tabakelis gives some examples of such artists. “Dierks Bentley, Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban,” he said. “You can hear Merle Haggard's influences in every one of their songs and all over country radio.”
Presley says he was a promoter for Haggard back in his hay day.
“I saw him back when he was in his prime and also when he was cutting back on his dates and doing smaller venues so it was quite an experience.”
"He's definitely going to be missed, that's for sure.” said Tabakelis.
But fans expect his music will continue to live on for generations.
Haggard was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. He recorded his last song in 2015 along with his friend, Willie Nelson.