It is with an extreme sadness that we learned of Ernie Hagar's passing on April 10, 2006. His longtime friend, Ed Guthero, who was responsible for the wonderful design of his 'Man Of Steel' CD, broke the news on April 13 :
'It is a shock to everyone as Ernie was still living at home and had been working, but had long been dealing with lung cancer that had been on hold for eleven years. He just didn't want anyone to know or feel sorry for him. Recently he sent me an e-mail saying, "I think the cancer decided it was time to get serious . . . I had much more fun in life than I deserved. Mentally I'm in a good place. No worries, none!"
Ernie appreciated greatly the way you respected his music and honored him on your website. In the last few months, Ernie was actually practicing his steel in the hopes of coming to Nashville in summer to do some studio sessions with my friends Kathy Ballie and her band, Ballie and the Boys. We talked about doing 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' and some other swing-style songs including a music video. Recently Ernie wrote and said that he didn't feel he could do the sessions, but he really wanted to and he told me he was going to tell you he was planning on going to go back into the studio if this worked out.'
The funeral service was conducted on Saturday, April 15, 11:00 am in Caldwell, Idaho at the Canyon Hill Cemetary. During the service, several tributes were read, including mine and Ed Guthero's which follows :
'Ernie Hagar ranks as one of the all-time great steel guitar players. He’s graced the stage with Roy Rogers & the Sons of the Pioneers, Ringo Starr, Merle Haggard, Don Everly, Larry Hosford, Freddy Powers, Willie Nelson, Bobby Bare, Roger Miller, Frank Sinatra, and many other legendary names. He’s recorded in the studio with Beatle George Harrison. Ernie played on an estimated 1,400 recording sessions and began his career as a 15-year-old musical television star in his native Ottowa, Canada.
In the mid 1970’s, as a member of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, the seminal country/rock/swing/jazz fusion band, Ernie played in huge arenas seating many thousands. Music critics wrote things like, “Hagar may have the shortest hair in the band, but he also has the hottest licks,” and "Hagar has his own style . . . I don’t know how to describe it, but the result is beautiful, tasteful . . . its still difficult not to be in awe of Hagar.” Guitar Player Magazine, the ultimate musician tribute, wrote a story on him calling his unique stylings a “breath of fresh air.” He was featured in filmmaker Robert Altman’s heralded rock documentary “Starmaker Machinery” and the acclaimed book by the same name. He was an exceptionally gifted musician, producer, and instrumental songwriter. In a demanding field, Ernie Hagar was a mega talent.
I met Ernie in 2000 when he asked me to design a new double CD package compilation of his precious instrumental vinyl recordings. He was 61 at the time. I remember sitting across the table from him at an office in Nampa, Idaho as he handed me a scrapbook that his wife had compiled. Inside were article clippings and photos. I took one look at them, and being a guitar player myself, realized that I was sitting across from the real deal. He was wearing his familiar captain’s hat, jeans, cowboy boots, and his beard was close-cropped. There was a dignity and quiet enthusiasm in his manner.
When he realized I was familiar with the publications and groups he’d played with, he smiled and seemed surprised. We ended up having a great conversation, and the CD turned out to be one of my favorite design projects. It was a joy to work with Ernie Hagar and I made a long-term friend that day.
Ernie originally told me he just wanted to use the older photos, where he appeared younger, on the CD folder. I kept telling him he looked pretty cool now with the beard and captain’s hat. Finally he let me take some new photos following a recording session at Cunningham Audio in Boise. The new photos ended up on the back and inside the new CD—“Ernie Hagar: Man of Steel, the Classic Stylings of a Steel Guitar Master.” Some classic country radio stations started playing Ernie’s music again, and once again the praise came. Also a great CD Ernie had co-produced and played on by Nevada singer Ross Lewis began to get chart action in 2002. Ernie continued to live quietly in Caldwell, Idaho and drive the Union Pacific route out of Nampa. Few people realized his background.
The Ernie Hagar I knew the past 6 years wasn’t playing sessions with George Harrison or touring the country in concert. It would have been fun to see him play back then, but Ernie Hagar was much more than a world-class musician. He was a true friend, someone that did his best toward the task at hand. He liked his job at Union Pacific, and enjoyed the camaraderie of his co-workers. As a kid in high school, Ernie was an old ice-hockey goalie back in Ottawa, being a fellow Canadian that was something else I liked about him.He had a wonderful sense of humor, and irony, and he could always look on the bright side of things. He was an encourager. He kept keeping on.
About 3 ½ years ago my business had some tough breaks and after 18 years in Idaho I took a teaching job in Tennessee. It was a difficult time of transition, but Ernie wrote a number of times and encouraged me. We kept in touch by exchanging letters, books, and music. These letters meant a great deal to me. He cared.
Last summer Ernie confided that he had cancer, that it was in a holding pattern, and he was able to work and felt no pain. He didn’t want people to know and asked that I not tell anyone. He didn’t want people to feel sad for him. Yet Ernie kept keeping on and it seemed like he would go on for a long time. Ernie was sensitive and a keen observer of life. Life fascinated him even through the tough times. He seemed to see the blessings in everyday things and quietly hung in there. He had a background in civil engineering and electronics. He had a sharp mind and intellect.
In January and early March we visited and had dinner while I was on trips to Idaho. We talked about the possibility of Ernie playing steel guitar on some upcoming spring Nashville recording and video sessions with singer Kathie Ballie and top session players. Ernie was very open to the idea, smiled and shook my hand—that old enthusiasm twinkled in his eyes. He quietly went back to taking out his steel guitar at home and “woodshedding” licks (as he called his practice sessions). Ernie was 67, but there always seemed to be a touch of that boyish, enthusiasm about him. The Canadian kid who left Ottawa and arrived in Los Angeles on a Greyhound bus in 1960 following his dreams. He got off the bus, went to a phone booth and called steel-guitar maestro, Speedy West--his idol. West came down and picked up his young prodigy; within two weeks Ernie was recording and touring with Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers.
Last month when we had dinner in a Nampa restaurant, Ernie was still amazed at it all as he told me the story. He laughed and said, “I’ve been a lucky guy.” In an email last week, Ernie wrote, “I don’t want you, or anyone, to feel bad for me. I had much more fun in my life than I deserved. Mentally I’m in a good place. No worries—none.”
Ernie was a wonderful conversationalist with a wisdom about him that I appreciated. He had seen a lot of life, had done a lot of reflecting. He felt his life was a rich one. He spoke fondly of his music, his wife, and all the years he’d had. Ernie was a special person, a true friend.
One of the best ways we can remember and honor Ernie, is to listen to the wonderful music he’s left us on records and CD—intricate, highly-energized, focused, and sophisticated music. It has a sense of joy, makes you feel good. It is very much a reflection of the man.
Thank you, Ernie. God bless Ernie Hagar.'
Ed Guthero * Collegedale, Tennessee * April 12, 2006
Another friend of Ernie's, Ernie Cody, sent me this e-mail on April 16, 2006 :
'My name is Ernie Cody. I have been a good friend of Ernie Hagar's for the past three years.
In my many conversations with Ernie he was so appreciative of what you have done for him on the internet and to help convey his talented career. As you know, he was a colorful character yet rather shy about promoting himself.
He spent Thanksgiving with me and my family last year. I am glad to have had the chance to know Ernie. We went to some musical performances and told many a big tale over a cold beer. He will be missed greatly by the people here who knew him. His CD plays at the Dutch Goose here in Caldwell. It is his favorite watering hole.
He made a picture book of articles and rare photos of his career and a VHS tape of some of his early performances for me. As per his request, I will write to the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and ask now that they consider his induction. He was too proud to have it done while he was around and even chewed me out when I suggested it.
I hope you will also say a prayer for this great man. He brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of people through his music but mostly through his great love of other people. God bless.'
Gary Stutz from Edmonds, WA, wrote in June 2011 :
'I just found your site and learned of Ernie's death. I am saddened as he touched my life in 1973. On February 7 that year, I turned 21 and walked into a club in Santa Cruz CA called the Sail Inn and saw Ernie playing steel with the Allen Brothers band. I was playing guitar in a blues band at the time and had never seen a steel or heard one played like that. He had a Sho-Bud and was playing through a black face Twin Reverb with a single Altec Lansing 15 inch speaker in it. I loved it. I got to talking with him, and it turned out he was giving lessons and selling steels at the local guitar store. I bought a double 10 Sho-Bud from him and took a couple of lessons. A year later, Ernie left the Sail Inn, a six night a week gig. I had been hanging out in the bar and knew the band. I got hired when Ernie left, not because I could play, but because I was the only guy in town who had a steel and could tune it ; besides, I worked cheap ! I played the club six nights a week for a year. I got better, but I always heard Ernie in my ears. I knew I would have to work very hard to even get close to his playing. He was a great steel player who was very kind to a young kid, and very generous with his time and knowledge.'
Mike Gotcher wrote in December 2011 :
'I knew 'Burnin' Ernie' from Sanat Cruz when he played The Sail Inn with Jack allen and The Rhythm Riders in the early 70's. Worked with Ernie and Larry Hosford here in Reno in the 80's. I just recently found out he passed away. Sorry to hear it. A great guy and amazing musician. I still have original tracks we recorded. Thanks for the site.'
I'd also like to thank his wife, Jopie, for her unfailing support, Mr. Richard Robinett (who used to work for Ernie as a gardener) and Pastor James Porter (of Caldwell Free Methodist Church) who provided me with the photo of Ernie's grave hereafter.
Says Richard : 'Ernie is buried on a hill overlooking the Boise River with foothills in the distance. It is a lovely setting.'
As you all know, Ernie's official site is part of The Big V Jamboree - a privilege I'll forever be proud of. I must say that Ernie's death dealt me a terrible blow because, like Hank Penny and Speedy West, Ernie had that 'something special' about him that made his talent even more impressive : he was humble, friendly and full of humor. His music was pure magic ; it went directly to one's soul. Like all those great artists & musicians, he could not imagine how important his Art was to us but was so happy to hear all the positive feedback that these web pages generated over the years. He replied to everybody who sent him e-mails and believe me, I did forward him a nice bunch ! He used to tell me : 'You are now my connection to the rest of the world !' Ernie Hagar was like a member of the family ; he never failed to inquire about my wife and children in his messages. He had told me about his cancer way before he informed anybody else - including his own family. His humanity was as huge as his musical talent : to me, that's the ultimate compliment. Ernie, we'll always keep you in our prayers.
© Paul Vidal * Privas, France * Spring 2006/Spring 2019