If I Could Only Fly: Merle Haggard Covers Blaze Foley
Country legend was recording an LP of Foley songs when he died
By Doug Freeman,
8:47AM, Thu. May 4, 2017
Merle Haggard initially encountered Blaze Foley’s music when he cut “If I Could Only Fly” with Willie Nelson in 1987, after which the country icon became one of the late Austin troubadour’s biggest fans. Yet like much of Foley’s career, Haggard’s championing of his music was riddled with missed opportunities.
At the point that “If I Could Only Fly” became lead single from Seashores of Old Mexico, the cover appeared poised to do for Foley’s career what “Pancho and Lefty” did for Townes Van Zandt’s. When a change in label management pulled marketing support for the tune, it stalled at No. 58 on the Billboard Country charts. Even so, the song turned into a Haggard live staple on the way to becoming the title track to his 2000 album on alternative indie label Anti- and helped mark the singer’s late career resurgence.
“If you listen to the album, the whole tenor of that album is different from anything that Merle had done up to that point,” attests Austin musician John Casner, who helped introduce Haggard to Foley’s music. “It’s much more acoustic and more like Blaze’s music than the standard country.
“Even after he and Willie recorded ‘If I Could Only Fly,’ Merle had never heard Blaze, or heard his version,” continues Casner. “I got Merle a copy of the Outhouse Recordings and he was just floored. He had been doing a recording project at Bismeaux with Ray Benson [in 1998], and I left a copy at the studio. A couple weeks later Merle called and he wanted everything he could get his hands on – any videos or any recordings.
“So anytime he came to Texas, I would try to get him some more recordings.”
When Haggard passed away last year, he was in the process of recording a new batch of Foley material. He’d worked out a deal with Foley’s sister, Marsha Weldon, who holds the rights to her brother’s estate, and had recorded a couple of songs in 2015. According to Weldon, the contract was terminated with his death, and whether Haggard’s family will do anything with the recordings is unclear.
“At one point, Merle wanted to know if the Austin Outhouse was still open because he wanted to record there,” offers Casner. “An album of Blaze Foley songs recorded by Merle would have had every singer, producer, and A&R guy in Nashville looking for more Blaze Foley songs. Another potentially big deal that would have really gotten Blaze’s songs out there that I don’t think will happen now.”