How Sturgill Simpson & Merle Haggard Wrote “Hobo Cartoon”

Those who’ve studied the career of Sturgill Simpson don’t need a lesson of just how close he was to country legend Merle Haggard later in Haggard’s life. The cross-generational friendship formed not from the fawning of Sturgill, but from a sincere appreciation from Merle for what Sturgill was doing for country music, and what it meant moving forward.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the only one out there,” Merle said of Sturgill back in 2015—one of many times Merle publicly touted Simpson. “The rest of them sound like a bunch of (crap) to me. He comes out and does a great show.”

As Sturgill explained in a recent interview on BBC, Merle Haggard used to call him all the time, just to chit chat. One time when Sturgill was doing a solo tour in Europe, Merle would pretend he forgot the time difference, and call Sturgill at ungodly hours. Sometimes Sturgill would answer. Other times he’d be asleep and it would go to voicemail. Sturgill still has those voicemails on his phone.

Later Sturgill Simpson returned those favors Merle did early on, lashing out at the ACMs for a planned Merle tribute in 2016, and Garden & Gun magazine for disrespecting Merle by promising him the cover of the magazine, and taking him off later after he passed away. “If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard, they should drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they’ve been pumping down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years along with all the high school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit and start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music.”

So it shouldn’t come of too much of a surprise when Sturgill Simpson’s second installment in his Cuttin’ Grass bluegrass volumes that he surprise released on Friday, December 11th included a song co-written with Merle Haggard. It’s actually not the first time Simpson has revealed an unreleased Merle Haggard song. In January of 2019 at a huge Willie Nelson tribute at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Sturgill debuted a song called “Red Headed Rounder” that Merle wrote in tribute to Willie.

Then here comes “Hobo Cartoon,” which is the final track on Sturgill’s Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 (Cowboy Arms Sessions), co-written with Merle Haggard.

“We got to know each other in the last two years of his life,” Simpson says. “He would call a lot, we’d talk on the phone. When he got sick, he was still writing songs, even in his hospital bed. This just popped up one day in the inbox. He sent me these lyrics in a text and he said, ‘From one railroad man to another.’”

Merle Haggard was born and raised in a home converted from a boxcar, and was primarily influenced by the “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers. Sturgill Simpson worked for the railroads in Utah for years before pursuing music full time.

Recorded with what Sturgill is now calling the Hillbilly Avengers (Stuart Duncan, Mike Bub, Sierra Hull, Scott Vestal, Tim O’Brien and Mark Howard), Simpson is also not leaving out the possibility of doing a more electric country version in the future. “Maybe I’ll recut it with a hard country band one day, but it just seemed like a beautiful way to end this chapter,” he says.

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