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“Biff’s a tough old boy. He’s got some legs that are incredible.

He can stay in tempo and keep the beat


longer and steadier than any drummer in America.” - Merle Haggard

Although Biff Adam is one of Merle Haggard’s Strangers, after thirty-six years as drummer he’s very familiar with
the music. Biff and Merle first met in Hollywood, California (at the Palomino Club) in the late sixties, and they’ve
been together ever since.

Bandmate Norm Hamlet remembers his first impressions of Biff: “It was almost like he could read your mind. He
just went with everything. Whatever you wanted to play he was right there with it.” This is an essential skill for
a Stranger, because Merle, like his idol Bob Wills, is famous for spur-of-the-moment changes during live shows.

And Merle’s musical tastes are broad. His music is a combination of jazz, western swing, folk, country, and rock.
That’s why Biff’s background and love of big band music was great preparation for such an eclectic band. And his
drumming efforts certainly contributed to the Strangers’ success. During Biff’s tenure the group received eight
Touring Band of the Year awards from the Academy of Country Music.

But it’s time to let Biff show us how it’s done…

Classic Drummer: Let’s start at the BA: Well, I was really interested in the big BA: Yeah, I was in the Navy for four years.
beginning and talk about your early life. bands. Glenn Miller and that kind of stuff. I was out on liberty in Long Beach,
Where were you born and raised? I didn’t play any country until I was in the California, and I used to go to clubs and sit
Biff Adam (BA): I was born in Reading, service. in. Bobby Bare was working at a club
Pennsylvania. My mother and father both called Hollywood on the Pike, and I
died young, so I went to an orphanage CD: So, what drummers did you like in played with him and with Roger Miller. I
called the Milton Hershey school in high school? got to know them pretty good.
Hershey, Pennsylvania. I went there from BA: Well, of course Gene Krupa and When I got out of the service I met a lot
about fifth grade until I graduated. And I Buddy Rich. And Ed Shaughnessy was of country musicians out in Long Beach.
started playing drums there at the school. getting hot then. They said when you get out, come back
and we’ll put you to work. Big band music
CD: Oh, really? Did they have a band? CD: Did you ever get to meet those guys? was not happening at all – maybe you
BA: Yeah, I played in the marching band. BA: I never got to meet them. But Merle could work one night a month.
They had a dance and swing band called did an album called I Love Dixie Blues, I went back to Pennsylvania and there
the Spartans. And I was in that for four which we recorded in New Orleans. Merle was nothing happening as far as drums
years. I took lessons from the fifth through was in his office and said,”Hey Biff, come goes, so I told my brother I was going back
the seventh grades. After that, I actually in here. Someone wants to talk to you.” I to California. I loaded up my drums and
taught drums there until I graduated. went in there and it was Gene Krupa on my gear and went out there and started
the phone, and he was complementing playing.
CD: What year was that? Merle on the album. He told me I really
BA: I graduated high school in ’54. played good. It was a thrill for me just talk- CD: So you’re back in California. What
ing to him on the phone. happens next?
CD: So, coming from a swing band back- BA: When I went back, Bobby Bare and
ground I take it you were interested in jazz CD: So after high school you went into Roger Miller weren’t there anymore, but
early on? the service? some of the other guys that I had met

40 CLASSIC DRUMMER
found me a spot out there. I started BA: It’s not much to get used to. I

barronphotografix.com
working at the Palomino Club in was doing that at Disneyland since
North Hollywood with a band that was mostly shows out there. The

Charlie Wilkins
called Red Rhodes and the Detours. sound is a little bit different and you
I worked there for about six years - have to play a little bit harder. Now
six nights a week from 1962 to 1968. they mic almost everything on the
I did quite a bit of recording at show; they’ll have about eight mics
Central Songs and Capital Records. on the drums, which I didn’t have in


I was also in the house band at clubs.
Disneyland on Sunday afternoons.
Sunday was the country day and we CD: Let’s talk about one of your
were the house band. It paid good tricks of the trade–the double shuf-
and I met an awful lot of people. fle. You started that and other
drummers picked up on it?
CD: How did you meet Merle? BA: That’s what Paul English, Willie’s
BA: He came in the Palomino one drummer, told me. I started playing
night after he’d been recording at the shuffle with the right hand on
Capitol. He was looking for a the high hat and the left hand on the
drummer and a bass player, and he snare drum. That was 35 years ago
asked me if I’d be interested in going but I think everybody’s doing it now.
on the road. I had a daughter in
high school and I said,“‘I don’t think CD: What’s the key to successfully
so but I appreciate the offer.” After drumming in Merle Haggard’s band?
about two weeks, he came back and BA: Merle never does the same show
said, ”I’m going to make you an twice. We’re always loose up on the
offer you can’t refuse.”And my wife stage. He doesn’t even play songs in
said, “He can try it for a little while the same key or the same tempo. So
but I’m not sure I want him to be on it’s almost like jazz. He keeps every-
the road that much.” But it worked body on their toes because we don’t
out…that was 35 or 36 years ago. have any idea what’s going to hap-
pen. Like last night–some of the
CD: Tell me about life on the road. I endings we played I don’t think
assume you traveled by bus. Southern Junction Club, Rockwall TX we’ve ever heard before.
BA: We had one bus at that time. Now I think he got that from Bob Wills. That’s
we’ve got three. It’s the only way to travel. we’d work on Sundays. There used to be the way his band was. He’d just point at the
You’ve got all your clothes and your hundreds of them but there are only a cou- guy he wanted to play the turnaround.
equipment right there. If you’re flying, ple of them going anymore.
you’ve got stuff scattered all over the place. CD: So Merle’s song selection is based on
Merle and I were both interested in flying CD: How have the crowds changed over reading the crowd?
and we thought about flying a lot, but it the years? BA: Yes. If he’s got a young crowd or out-
just didn’t work out.You’d get to a town and BA: Our crowds still range from the old to side beer-drinking crowd, he’ll do a lot of
you had to rent cars and trucks. Plus we the new. We just did a three week tour in uptempo songs. If it’s an older crowd or a
couldn’t get a plane big enough to fly Canada, and the audiences up there were nice theatre, he’ll do some nice ballads.
everybody. And you just couldn’t take a really young. I could see the kids all lip-
chance in bad weather. You couldn’t lose a syncing the words along with Merle. I think CD: You talked about some of the shows
job on account of a rainstorm, where in a satellite radio is helping a lot. where Merle added strings and horns. I
bus you could get through that kind of presume Merle kept it spontaneous. How
stuff. CD: Merle is often identified with the did the musicians react?
Bakersfield sound. What in your mind BA: We played Harrah’s and they always
CD: What was your work schedule like makes up the Bakersfield sound? used to have a house orchestra. The orches-
then? BA: One writer referred to it as a tra guys would say ‘we can’t do this–we’ve
BA: Back when I first started, we were combination of Telecaster guitar and the got to know what’s happening because
working three weeks and having two or shuffle feel. everything is written out.’ Merle would still
three weeks off and then going back out. never do the songs in the right order. After
You schedule the tours so you don’t have to CD: You mentioned developing your craft. about two nights, the orchestra players
travel more than 300 miles a day.You’d have How did you approach drumming for a loved it.
Mondays and Tuesdays off and work show versus drumming in clubs? Does it
Wednesday through Sunday. Back then, require anything different from a drum CD: Merle is a great ballad singer–and
they had these country music parks that point of view? some drummers have trouble with slow

CLASSIC DRUMMER 41
steel guitar CD: Did you play double bass drums on
player. He’s Merle’s shows?
been here a year BA: Yes, but not for too long. To be truthful,
and a half Merle doesn’t do a whole lot of stuff that I
longer than me. could use double bass on. But it sure looked
Kevin Williams good!
is the bass
player. He’s CD: Now you endorse Taye drums. How
been with the long have you been with them?
band about a BA: I have been with them two years.
year and a half.
Doug Colisio is CD: What’s in the kit you currently play?
the piano player. BA: I’ve got three mounted toms and one
Scott Joss plays floor tom. A 22-inch bass drum, and a snare
mandolin and and two cymbals. I use Zildjian cymbals.
fiddle. And Don
Markham is on CD: You played on The Promiseland, one of
horns and sax. Willie’s albums. How did that come about?
We have a guitar BA: Merle was set to record at Willie’s
player named studio in Texas but he had a sore throat.
ballads because there’s a lot of wide open Tim Howard. And Merle’s wife Theresa is Willie came walking in and asked what the
space. Is it harder to accompany a singer on singing harmony right now. matter was. We told him Merle couldn’t
a ballad? record, and then Willie asked if we wanted
BA: I’ve never had a problem with it. I’m CD: Earlier this year you finished a highly to record. We said sure, we’re all set up. So
not a solo artist, so I’m always back there acclaimed tour with Bob Dylan. What was he turned the machine on. A couple of
trying to hold the band together. When I that like? months later the album came out. Richie
played sports in school I was always the BA: We’ve been getting great reactions to Albright, Waylon’s drummer, played on one
tackle or the catcher. Never the fancy stuff. our shows. We’d open it up and do 45-50 side and I played on the other.
Keeping everything together. minutes. One writer in Chicago said the
Strangers are Merle’s secret weapon. Lots CD: Legend has it that Ringo Starr was
CD: Merle’s latest recording consists of of people came to see us: Paul Newman, after your job. Tell me about that?
older standards such as Unforgettable and Ringo Starr, Bruce Willis, Jack Nicholson. BA: He came to our studio up in Redding
Pennies from Heaven. Tell me how that came Jack is quite a guy–he really loves country one time. And he told Merle that if I ever
about. music. got sick he wanted the job. So, Merle
BA: Merle has always liked standards. And So everything was just great. Dylan does always kidded me that I better not get sick,
some of the songs on the standards album some Merle songs on his show. And he had or he’d get Ringo. It was a standing joke.
were cut six years ago. In the studio he’d a good band with him. I understand we Ringo came down to see us in L.A. when
say, ”What do you guys think of this song? might do some more touring with Dylan we were down there touring with Bob
Let’s record this and see what it sounds next year. Dylan. Ringo was really a nice person.
like”, and it would be something like
Pennies from Heaven. But we knew eventu- CD: Tell me about the drums you’ve played CD: The Academy of Country Music recog-
ally he was going to put an album of over the years. nized the Strangers as the ‘Touring Band of
standards out because he likes all those BA: When I first started out with Merle I the Year.’ And the CMT (Country Music
songs. One of his favorite singers is Bing played Rogers drums. Then I played Pearl Television) Network recognized you guys
Crosby. for a while. Pearl wanted me to be one of as one of the top country bands of all times.
the first country drummers to play double BA: We got the Academy of Country Music
CD: Who is in the band now? bass drums. Then I went to Slingerland and award eight times. The CMT award was
BA: Norm Hamlet is the bandleader and then Taye got hold of me. about a month ago or so on a show featur-

Paul English talks about Biff was a great drummer–I’d pay to go other.
Adam… see him myself! We became friends CD: I understand Merle and the
CD: How did you meet Biff? then and are friends to this day. Strangers are going to open for the
Paul English (PE): I’ve known Biff CD: Tell me about that lick he Rolling Stones. Do you think Biff
Adam since about 1967 or 1968. does–the double shuffle. can keep up with them?
When I met him he was working at PE: (laughs) I stole it from him. He PE: I’m sure he can! Biff will get a
the Palomino Club. They had one of plays it very well. But that’s ok; we big kick out of it and they’ll get a
the best bands in California. Biff don’t mind stealing from each kick out of him too.

42 CLASSIC DRUMMER
ing the Top 20 Country Bands of all time. CD: I understand

photo taken at Henry Schofield Studio


And we were number four. It surprised me. you did concerts
I watched hoping we’d be in the top for other presi-
twenty. It’s pretty nice because there were a dents as well.
lot of great bands in the last fifty years. It BA: We played for
was a real compliment to us. Reagan out here at
the Western White
CD: Merle and the other Bakersfield artists House in Santa
always wanted their own band to play on Barbara. That was
the albums–rather than studio musicians. really nice.
BA: That’s right. Sometimes we’d get one
guy to sit in with us like James Burton to CD: Was Reagan a
play guitar. It was a good feel. country fan?
BA:Yes, he was. He
CD: So you’ve done a lot of recording with was the one that
Merle? pardoned Merle
BA: I have played on a bunch of records. when he was gov-
I’ve got five gold albums here on the wall. ernor of California.
Some of them are Best Of compilations. My
daughter figured out that I played on CD: How do the
something like 70 albums. audiences differ in
other countries?
CD: Where is Merle’s studio? Is that in I’ve always heard that Merle & Biff
Bakersfield? audiences in other
BA: No, he had a studio in Bakersfield but countries are quieter than in the USA. drummers can play for a few minutes. But
now his studio is in Redding, California. It’s BA: That’s true about Canada. The first time they fail when they have to play for an hour
called Tally. we played Canada, I said I don’t think these or two. But Biff’s a tough old boy. He’s got
people really like us. Then when the show legs that are incredible. He can stay in
CD: Merle was greatly influenced by the was over they just tore the building down. tempo and keep the beat longer and stead-
great Texas Swing bandleader Bob Wills. And Australia is almost the same. I love ier than any drummer in America. So Biff’s
Did you ever meet him? Australia. We were over there for about a doing it better than the young guys. Young
BA: I did, and in fact that was one of the month. They just sat there and were real guys come out and play pretty good for ten
best weekends I ever had. Bob was in a polite. And at the end of the show they just minutes. After that they can’t even find the
wheelchair and he had the Texas Playboys went crazy. tempo.
down in Fort Worth and his drummer did-
n’t show up. So he asked Merle if he could CD: So what’s next for the band–where do CD: I understand you have other interests
use me. I got to play the last show he ever you go from here? in common.
did. Then the next week we went and BA: I found out we’re going to open for the MH: Over the year, he and I learned to fly
played in the White House for President Rolling Stones on November 29th in together. He’s a pilot and so am I. He
Nixon. That was a pretty interesting week- Dallas. I really like the Stones and I’m anx- turned out to be my navigator. We flew all
end. ious to meet Charlie Watts. That should be over America. We know a lot about each
fun for us. other, because there’s nobody to help you
up there.
After interviewing
Biff, I was lucky CD: You learned to trust him?
enough to speak to MH: I learned to trust him. He’s a great
Merle Haggard to friend. But I also told him ‘if you weren’t
get his account of playing the best drums, I wouldn’t have
their long-term part- you. I’d have the guy that’s the best.’
nership. Here’s some
of what Merle had to CD: You’re famous for keeping your musi-
say: cians on their toes. Have you ever caught
Biff off guard?
CD: Biff has MH: He’s pretty quick. He screws up once
worked with you or twice a year–like we all do. I really can’t
for 36 years. What say anything bad about his drumming. But
makes him special? I don’t want to brag on him too much
Merle Haggard because he’ll read this!
(MH:) A lot of
Paul & Biff
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