In January, Jeff Ingraham played drums with Merle Haggard for the last time.

Ingraham, who grew up in Bend and resides between Sunriver and La Pine, recorded two new songs with Haggard at the country singer’s studio in Redding, California. At the time, Haggard had cut a tour short after contracting pneumonia, so the session was impromptu — Ingraham was actually there to record with another artist. He returned to the studio a few weeks later to help Haggard rehearse for another tour that also ended up being canceled.

“He just put on a brave face, and he sang and stuff and was in good spirits,” Ingraham said. “But I guess he never really fully recovered. … You know, I’ve seen him sick before, and he always pulls out of it. He’s a tough, tough, tough man, very tough.”

Haggard, the outlaw country singer best known for pioneering the “Bakersfield sound” with hits such as “Okie From Muskogee,” “Pancho and Lefty” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” died of complications from pneumonia at his Redding home Wednesday. It was Haggard’s 79th birthday.

Ingraham, 52, met Haggard in 1986 and began touring with him in 2002, logging a little more than four years on the road with the singer from 2002 to 2004 and again from 2010 to 2012. His drumming also appears on at least three Haggard albums: 2003’s “Haggard Like Never Before,” the 2007 Cracker Barrel release “Working Man’s Journey” and 2011’s “Working in Tennessee.”

He met Haggard through fellow Bendite and bassist Kevin Williams, who died in January 2014. Williams and Ingraham, best friends since childhood, attended Mountain View High School together, graduating in 1981. Williams actually joined Haggard’s band first, in 2000, and played with the singer for 10 years.

Ingraham has been a fan of Haggard’s since at least age 15, when he discovered the Grateful Dead’s covers of “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home.” But he was familiar with songs such as “Okie From Muskogee” dating back to childhood.

“One of the songs that really got me kind of hooked was listening to (former alternative country station) KICE, and the song is ‘Holding Things Together,’” Ingraham said. “Merle’s singing and then Norm Hamlet’s steel guitar just sucked me in, and I was a fan when I was 15.”

Williams hooked up with Oregon country singer Marty Davis a week after graduating high school, eventually recruiting 19-year-old Ingraham as drummer. Soon after Ingraham joined, Williams left the band and began playing with Redding-based musician Randy Sloan. That group, with Ingraham, would become the backing band for Haggard’s son, Noel Haggard, in 1986.

“I was always like, ‘Kevin, do you need a drummer, do you need a drummer?’” Ingraham said. “Well, a year later in ’86, they needed a drummer, so I went down there and put a band together with Kevin and Randy. The night I showed up in Redding, we went to a jam session and we backed up Noel Haggard, Merle’s son. So at that time, Noel needed a band, and we needed a place to live.”

Noel Haggard was able to convince his father to let the band stay at the Haggard ranch in Palo Cedro, California. Ingraham, Williams and Sloan lived there for almost a year while playing as the Noel Haggard Band. Whenever Merle Haggard was off the road, he’d sit in with his son.

The first time Ingraham met Haggard was at the Silverthorn Resort on Lake Shasta.

“I might have been in Redding maybe just a few days, and we were hanging out on Freddy Powers’ houseboat, which is one of Merle’s best friends,” Ingraham said. “We would go down there and do a lot of night fishing, and it was quite fun. And they would always be picking and jamming. I remember … you could hear somebody walking down the dock, and it wasn’t somebody barefooted or in tennis shoes, because you could hear it from a long ways. I remember somebody going, ‘Oh, that’s Merle.’ And you could hear him walk up for quite a few — for a half a minute before he walked in the door, and that’s what I remember. He had some cowboy boots on. I met him on Freddy Powers’ boat. In awe I was; it was awesome.”

Not long after that, Merle Haggard sat in with the Noel Haggard Band at the now-closed Saddlehorn Saloon in Redding — Ingraham’s first time playing with the country legend.

“We played ‘Big City,’ and it was awesome,” Ingraham said. “I felt like I was 10 feet over my drums looking down. It was a surreal moment.”

Ingraham stuck with the Noel Haggard Band through the early ’90s before moving on to other projects, but he remained in touch with the Haggard family. Williams once again led the way into Merle Haggard’s long-running band The Strangers, joining in 2000; Ingraham got the call in 2002.

“(Haggard) is kind of like a musical father figure,” Ingraham said. “He’s all ears. It’s really cool listening to his stories. He doesn’t tell you what to play; he expects you to know what’s supposed to be played. … If you can play and you’re good enough, then they give you the chance to be there and play. They don’t have to say too much because they like to watch you hang yourself — I don’t know if that makes any sense. You just kind of have to fall in.”

Ingraham’s friendship with Haggard remained strong even after Haggard fired him from the band twice. The first time Ingraham was dropped, in 2002, was because longtime drummer Biff Adam had returned to the fold after an illness; in 2013 he was replaced with Dwight Yoakam drummer Jim Christie.

“We’re kind of family friends even before he was my employer,” Ingraham said. “Like I say, I’ve been fired (by) Merle twice, but way more than being bummed about that is how grateful and thankful that I am to the man for the chances and opportunities he’s given me.”

Ingraham was in fact scheduled to go back into the studio with Haggard in about a month.

“It’s the total opposite of how I pictured it when I first started with him. The studio is relaxed and no pressure pretty much — you just kick back — and the road is complete opposite, stress and hard work,” he said.

Despite the stress, Ingraham said he learned a lot from Haggard while touring with him.

“I think the hardest thing was — I don’t know if this makes sense, but just imagine (Haggard saying), ‘Always keep your eyes on me, but never let me catch you looking at me,’” Ingraham continued. “… One of the biggest lessons I learned from Merle was you’ve gotta play for the room. So one night you might be playing a wooden opera house that you could hear a pin drop in, and then the next night you’re playing a stadium that’s a rock concert. … I remember the first show I did when I got rehired in 2010, and he did one of his shuffles, and he turned around and gave me a look, kind of, ‘You’re dragging!’ And it scared the crap out of me, and it was kind of a rough show, and that night was rough. The next night we nailed it.”

—  Reporter: 541-617-7814, bmcelhiney@bendbulletin.com

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