A new CD, aptly titled A Man and His Music, is marking Don Haggart’s half-century in the music business.
Launch party behind him, he will be performing a few selections from the new CD at the Pictou County Christmas Fund Telethon at the deCoste Centre Sunday. Although he has never stopped songwriting, it is 10 years since he last recorded, but he is now thinking of releasing another collection of songs and a Christmas album, possibly for next fall.
Spending a couple of hours with Haggart, in his antique-filled sitting room, guitar within easy reach, is a virtual trip down the rocky and tangled trails of country music history. Back in the 1970s, he was making the acquaintance of - and in many cases becoming on a first name basis with - many of the industry greats.
It was heady stuff for Haggart who grew up on Mountain Road. His father worked at the Trenton carworks and his mother was a crane operator during the war years. He was the youngest in a large family and as he sings in one of his new songs, If You Have Love, his family worked hard and prayed hard to have enough to get by.
“If you had any more than that, you shared it with the neighbours who had less.”
He was 13 years younger than his brother Jim, the oldest in the family.
“Jimmy and I always had music in common, but the two of us took it really hard when our mother died. I think that’s when we really bonded over poetry and songwriting.”
Haggart was the teenage lead singer of a Trenton-based band, The Country Senators, when Jim, who’d had earlier success, particularly with the New Glasgow-based band The Blue Cats, came to hear him one night.
“I was working with terrific musicians and falling in love with country music. Companies like Scott Paper would hire us for a night and we’d make a couple of thousand dollars. I was just a teenager and I thought we had it made, but Jimmy had bigger ideas.”
With a loaf of bread, a chunk of cheese and $120 between them, they hitch-hiked to Toronto and finagled or finessed their way into playing the city’s best bars.
“Jimmy had some experience in the music business, but he’d also worked in retail management. He was a promotional whiz and he could really negotiate. The audiences liked us and within three months he had us a recording deal with RCA’s Arpeggio Records.”
When they released I’m Coming Home in the summer of 1972, it shot to first place on the Canadian charts and a few months later the Haggarts were thrilled to have the cover of the industry’s RPM Magazine.
“We packed the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto over and over again and it was fantastic. The place would be at least half full of Maritimers, including a good many from Pictou County.”
It was through the famed Horseshoe Tavern that they got a coveted invitation to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
“I was 18, going on 19, when we made it to the Grand Ole Opry, so you could say I got there before Elvis did,” joked Haggart.
He vividly remembers the thrill of watching a still younger performer, Tanya Tucker, belting out What’s Your Momma’s Name in the Opry’s old Ryman Auditorium.
“She was just a kid, but what a feisty kid she was. She’d just had a big hit with Delta Dawn and she was on her way, an incredibly powerful performer at 14.”
He also remembers being told the long-haired, black jumpsuited Haggarts would appear on stage immediately after Marty Robbins whose long career was highlighted by hits such as Streets of Laredo, Ribbon of Darkness and My Woman, My Woman, My Wife.
“A couple of brothers from Mountain Road, New Glasgow, going on stage right after Marty Robbins performed? I could hardly imagine it, yet there we were.”
Another memory is of a particularly welcoming female singer who walked up and called him by name.
“I’d seen photos of Tammy Wynette, but I had no idea this warm, friendly woman calling me by name was the actual woman.”
That night he and Robbins were among the last performers to stay behind and sign autographs.
“Marty was a competitive race car driver and he only performed outside the race season. I remember him telling me he felt he owed it to the fans to be willing to meet them after a show.”
Haggart said it was their signature song, Pictou County Jail, which also became a number one hit, that confirmed them as a country singers.
“We didn’t fit solidly in any one category, like a lot of other performers at the time and rock music was coming on strong. Jimmy’s argument was that country fans would stay with you but rock fans were apt to be here today and gone tomorrow. I was fine with it because I liked country, but looking back, a different song might have taken us in a different direction.”
Haggart is quick to admit he was too young to fully appreciate what he calls “the four explosive years,” that saw them come back to the Opry twice and headline the Wheeling, West Virginia, Jamboree where Charlie Rich (Behind Closed Doors and The Most Beautiful Girl) got second billing.
“Jimmy was as much a father as a brother and he told me we had to put something aside because it might not last.”
After Nashville, they continued to tour, performing for Queen Elizabeth and then prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. They also appeared on Tommy Hunter, Ian Tyson and George Hamilton IV’s music shows, recording many more songs including The Nashville Girl, He, The Balladeer, I Can’t Stand to See an Angel Cry and Follow Your Heart.
Haggart actually wrote the title song for this latest CD decades ago. He thought it might interest Johnny Cash so passed it on to his mother-in-law, Maybelle Carter of the Carter family.
“Later on I got a note back saying he liked the song, but was not in a position to record it. I didn’t know what that meant until many years later when I learned he didn’t have a recording contract at the time. That’s how much the music industry was changing.”
The brothers parted ways when Haggart came home to Pictou County and Jim headed for the Canadian northwest.
“I was exhausted, totally exhausted, and I wanted some different things from life. I’ve done a lot of things since then but never found anything I had the same passion for as music.”
In the mid-1990s Haggart wrote and recorded one of his favourite songs, Pictou County Christmas.
“It is my own memories of Christmas and if I drive back up to the mountain and play it, it takes me right back to my happy childhood.”
A few years later, after Jim had returned to New Glasgow, the brothers reunited to release a greatest hits album. A few years after Jim’s death in 2006, Haggart released a gospel CD, titled Prayers and Promise.
“This new one has been a while in the works. I had to find someone I was comfortable with and I’m lucky to have George Longard as producer. I’m also very lucky to have Amanda MacIntosh of New Glasgow, a classically trained singer, doing beautiful backup vocals.”
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer. She seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you know someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org