Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen has always had a great capacity for spinning yarns in song, but it was a tale straight from real life that he shared over the weekend about his meeting once upon a time with Merle Haggard.
"We were both playing some festival in Texas," Keen, 60, recalled backstage a few minutes before his performance Friday at the 2016 Stagecoach Festival in Indio, where he'd headed after wrapping up some recent tour dates with Lyle Lovett.
"It was in the '80s or '90s, and at one point he walked up to me and said, 'Well.....tell me about Blaze Foley'," Keen said, referring to the esteemed Arkansas-born, Texas-reared songwriter perhaps best known for "If I Could Only Fly," which Haggard recorded around that time.
The chorus is a haunting statement of yearning to be with a loved one from whom he was separated:
If I could only fly, if I could only fly
I'd bid this place goodbye to come and be with you
But I can hardly stand and I got no where to run
Another sinking sun and one more lonely night
"He asked me, 'Did you know him? What was he like?'" Keen said, expressing surprise at the depth of Haggard's interest in a fellow songwriter known for his eccentricities. During the "Urban Cowboy" craze in the early-'80s, he put duct tape on the tips of his boots to mock those who suddenly started sporting western boots strictly as a fashion statement.
After his death in 1989, when the son of a friend shot him in the chest and killed him, Foley's life became the stuff of legend. (The shooter was acquitted on grounds that he was acting in self-defense.)
Fellow songwriter Townes Van Zandt wrote "Blaze's Blues" in tribute to him, and Lucinda Williams composed "Drunken Angel" in honor of Foley on her 1998 album "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."
Foley's own recording career is checkered, as several recording projects disappeared under mysterious circumstances. A documentary on his life, "Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah" was released in 2011.
"Merle wanted to know if he really was strange," Keen said. "I told him, he was strange in every sense of the word."
One of the best descriptions of Foley came from Van Zandt, who once said of him: "He's only gone crazy once. Decided to stay."