They say that all the events in your life contribute to who you are. Joy, sorrow, love and loss are part of the fabric of every living person. To turn those emotions inside out, paint them in different colors and hand them back to society, is the gift of the artist. The artist knows the four corners of the soul, and whether or not he’s afraid to visit them is irrelevant because visit them he must – the artist is compelled to share the journey, to tell people what it’s like inside his own dark recesses.
In some ways, the country music artist has the toughest job. To create a country song, like a TV jingle for mass consumption, is easy – the hard part is coming up with a line, an image or a musical reality that won’t slip away, because it speaks to something deep inside the listener. And when the songwriter has himself walked the walk, and talked the talk, it seems like so much more than a nice melody and a clever turn of phrase.
Merle Haggard has managed to turn his thoughts, beliefs and experiences into songs – hit songs – for more than 30 years. Restless, stubborn and plagued by self-doubts, his journey has not always been an easy one, and many times he’s been sidelined by his own frailties both emotional and physical. His track record is not perfect.
It is, however, astonishing. Haggard released 38 No. 1 singles between 1966 and 1987, nearly all of them self-penned, and they echo the dreams and journal the anguish of the working man, the branded man, the wounded lover, the patriot and the poet. He is all of them.
For Merle Haggard, it’s never been about stardom, although he’s certainly had his share. It was never about conforming to someone else’s vision of what a singer/songwriter should be, especially in country music, where the roots run underground all over America.
“I guess I didn’t do my homework,” Haggard shrugs. “Had I known more about quote-unquote country music, maybe I’d’ve went to Nashville. But country music wasn’t centered in Nashville in my mind. Never was.
“I grew up in Oildale, California, and the only thing that connected me with Nashville, Tennessee was WSM and the Grand Ole Opry that came on once every week, on Saturday nights. We got an hour of it – I didn’t know that the show went on all evening. But we’d listen to Roy Acuff and Red Foley and those people back then, my Dad and I at 7:30. But every night of the week, and every day of the week, several times during the day, we had Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys.
“I grew up as a small kid loving Bob Wills and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and there was this hillbilly show that came from Nashville on Saturday night. I liked that too. But I didn’t hear any singers on there that I wanted to sing like. Bing Crosby had probably the best voice at the time of anybody I’d heard.”
Merle Ronald Haggard was born April 6, 1937, the third child and second son of Okie immigrants who went west to seek a better life, away from the Dustbowl poverty that choked the life out of so many back home. James and Flossie Haggard settled in Oildale, a nondescript suburb of Bakersfield in Southern California, and Merle’s father found work with the Santa Fe Railroad. The family lived, not dirt-poor but on the lower end of the middle-class spectrum, in an abandoned refrigerator boxcar that Merle’s father converted into a cozy house at 1303 Yosemete Drive. Mother planted flowers in the front yard.
“My family was a musical family,” Haggard says. “They didn’t concentrate on one particular type of music. They liked mainly gospel music; they were a religious family and all that, but they were into the popular music of the day and they bought records of that type. I heard ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and all the classical stuff.”
Among the mainstream country crooners of the ’50s were Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Young Merle was partial to the nasal honky-tonker Lefty Frizzell. “The thing that made me like Lefty more than Tennessee Ernie, was Tennessee Ernie sounded refined,” Haggard recalls. “He sounded like a very good singer. My mother would’ve said ‘Tennessee Ernie has a much better voice than Lefty Frizzell.’ I was pretty sure that most people probably agreed with her. ‘Cause a lot of people would say well, Lefty sounds like he’s singing from his nose. And I’d say I don’t give a shit if it’s comin’ out his ass, it sounds good to me.
“When I was a kid, and there was Eddy Arnold and Bing Crosby, Tennessee Ernie Ford and all those great singers, my mother listened to all that. Well, she bought an album of Hank Williams. An album in those days was like four 78s. With eight songs. It included ‘They’ll Never Take Your Love From Me,’ “I Can’t Help It,’ ‘Lovesick Blues,’ ‘Never Again Will You Knock At My Door’ and a couple of other ones – ‘A House Without Love is Not a Home.’ And I actually learned to play the guitar, I think, open chords, with Hank Williams and Bob Wills music. I had 78 records of Bob Wills, 78 records of Hank Williams, and I learned all those songs.”
Merle’s father died when the boy was 9; with no discipline to speak of, his adolescent years were full of increasingly serious run-ins with the law. He ran away from home and rode the rails, hanging out with hoboes, getting drunk and stealing cars. He spent months at a time in juvenile facilities, and by the time he staggered out of public school for good he had a serious criminal record. No one, except maybe his mother, thought Merle Haggard would ever amount to anything.
Always, though, there was music. “Many was the time I’ve wondered if I could’ve written songs better had I listened to my English teacher and learned all those things,” Haggard says. “They try to teach you a description of what you’re saying. They’ve got a name for the line I’m using right now. And I never have found any use for it yet. I couldn’t understand the use for it then. It’s like the stack on top of the stack of the stack, it just kept on making no sense to me.”
He put together his first song at age 12. “I was actually writing earlier than that,” he says. “I was unable to put it into a song until I learned a few chords on the guitar. Eleven or 12 was the years I learned to play a few chords on there, and until then I couldn’t really structure it and call it a song.
“Even in my third or fourth grade classes in school, in my report cards – I look at ‘em now and I know what it was – they said ‘He’s looking out the window. He does real good in school when he pays attention, but he’s always looking out the window.’ Well, I was trying to write songs. I was bored with what they were doing, and I would turn around and pay attention just close enough to get a passing grade.
“I never got good grades, I always got just passing grades. Because I was busy. I wanted to write songs as long as I can remember anything.”
But a serious lack of self-confidence meant Haggard the hoodlum was dominant, and musically Merle was more or less content to play guitar and sing Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and George Jones songs with his drinking buddies up on Bakersfield’s Beer Can Hill.
In December of 1957, Haggard was 20 years old, married with two small children, and living the life of a petty criminal – his family, he says, had all but given up on him.
On Christmas Eve, he and a buddy broke into a beanery on Highway 99, prying off the back door with a crowbar. Unfortunately, the would-be thieves were so drunk they hadn’t noticed that the place was still open – it was not yet 11 p.m. – and the local sheriff easily rounded them up.
For this, Haggard would do nearly three years of a five-year sentence in San Quentin, one of the toughest penal institutions in the country.
Sing a Sad Song
Finally the fear of God himself was in him. After San Quentin, there could be nowhere else to go but up. “I’m not sure at what period I felt safe from the life I’d been caught up in,” he recalls. “I got out of prison in 1960. The percentage points of a man staying out, at the time, were very low. Something like less than two percent of all the prisoners who go to the joint ever recovered as a citizen, become a full-fledged American citizen. Well, I’ve always been one who wanted to prove the odds wrong. I’ve always been that way.
“Well, when I went out of the joint they said ‘We’ll see you in a few days.’ Guys that I knew in there were the only friends I had. There’s a weird part about being in prison that a lot of people don’t talk about, and you can always find out if a man’s telling you the truth by just asking him a few things about his first few days out. First of all, you’ve built a life inside there, and all the friends you have are there. Your meals are taken care of, and you have a place to sleep.
“All of a sudden, you walk out of this place, and you’re 21 years old, you got paper shoes on and a bad pair of pants that don’t fit, and a coat, and $15. And that echoes in your ears as you walk away from that prison: ‘We’ll see you in a few days.’
“They’re pre-programming you. People didn’t talk about things like that in 1960s.”
He didn’t know what he was going to do; dig ditches alongside his brother, he supposed. But no way was he going back to B&E work. “I walked out of there, and first of all I was pretty disappointed – my wife wasn’t there. She was supposed to meet me, and she wasn’t there. It broke what was left of my goddamned heart. I stood around there and kept waiting for her to show up. And one of the damn guards said ‘Hey, what’s going on! You want back in?’
“Well, the ride never did come, and there was a voice came to me, sort of around behind my back. I turned around and there was a lady sittin’ there saying ‘Would you like a ride over to San Francisco?’”
Haggard thought the lady in the car, whom he figured was about 35 or 40, looked like the actress Joanne Woodward. “She told me ‘My family would be very upset if they knew where I was at – I’m a lady who has everything, I have a family, my husband’s wealthy, and this is sort of the way I pay back.’
“She said ‘I come over here every Tuesday and I wait for the guys who don’t have a ride.’ I said ‘Well … That’s kinda dangerous, innit?’ And she said ‘I’ve never had anybody show any signs of wanting to harm me or anything.’ I said ‘Somewhere, you’ll get a big bonus in your life.’”
In the spring of 1999, Haggard received a fax from this woman, who explained that she was, at that time in 1960, the wife of San Quentin’s warden. “Had he known I was picking up convicts and carrying them to San Francisco,” she explained in her note, “he’d have had a conniption fit.”
Brother Lowell picked Merle up at the bus station in Bakersfield. Soon Merle and his hotheaded wife, Leona, were trying to make it work, and Merle was digging ditches and wiring houses for Lowell’s contracting company. In the evenings, he sat on the living room sofa and played his guitar. He could do a pretty good imitation of two of his heroes, Jimmie Rodgers and ol’ Lefty.
Bakersfield in the early ’60s, partly because of its large population of expatriate Okies who’d come to work in the oilfields, had developed into a center for west coast country music. The hardscrabble honky tonk music favored in the dancerooms and lounges was raw and urgent, and millions of miles away from the mannered “Nashville Sound” that was coming out of Tennessee.
Bakersfield had its own stars to go along with its own sound. Buck Owens was the biggest, with his pleading whine of a voice and the crackerjack dance rhythms of his Buckaroos.
Everyone in Kern County, and all over the San Joaquin Valley and into Los Angeles, watched Cousin Herb Henson’s Trading Post Show on TV five days a week, just before the evening news came on. The Trading Post Gang included many of the area’s top musicians, including guitarists Tommy Collins and Roy Nichols, singers Ferlin Husky and Dallas Frazier, steel guitarist Charles “Fuzzy” Owen and Owen’s cousin, vocalist Lewis Talley. Buck Owens’ former wife, Bonnie, was a regular, too.
“I was a viewer,” remembers Merle Haggard. “I was this kid that came out of the joint. I was 22, I guess, and I’d been home maybe three weeks.” One afternoon, he was home alone, enjoying the Trading Post show. “And a guy walked up and knocked on my door, a skinny guy, and he said ‘Is your name Merle Haggard?’ Hell, I thought it was the goddam law or something. I said yeah, I’m Merle Haggard. He said I hear you’re a guitar player and a singer, and a frontman.
“I said where the hell’d you hear that?
“He said my name’s Jack Collier. We got a band, and our frontman and guitar man quit. We got a little gig down here at a place called the High Pockets …
“And I never did ask him where he heard about me. I don’t know who in the hell he heard that from.
“He said let me hear you sing something. Well, here’s two guys standing in front of the front room of a little old house, never seen each other before …my wife was gone, again …and he asks me to sing something.
“I had a wire recorder; we didn’t have tapes yet. I said I just made a little ol’ recording here …I’ll play you what I just did, right before you got here. I played him that, and he listened to it all the way through and he looked at me and he said that ain’t you, that’s Lefty Frizzell.”
Collier admired Haggard’s Merle Travis-style picking and single-string lead work, and soon the young ex-con was making $10 a night working four nights each week with the High-Pockets house band. Added to his ditch-digging wage, he felt he was doing alright. What he was, was reformed. He was scared to death of going back to prison.
“It wasn’t long before I was working the top joints in town, and working with the best guys,” Haggard recalls. He got on the radio, and eventually on the Trading Post TV program. “I was working eight shifts a week, and five days a week we did this 45-minute television show. So within 10 months of the time I was released from prison, I was doing all that.”
As a parolee, though, he still couldn’t drive, and technically he wasn’t supposed to be in bars at all. He had to get special permission from his parole officer to perform.
Lewis Talley was the richest man Haggard had ever met. Talley owned a restaurant in Bakersfield, and ran a Saturday night dance in Fresno, and most importantly he had his own record label, Tally Records (today, no one seems to remember why the “e” was dropped). When Haggard was 17, he’d brought his homemade demos to Tally’s studio; although he was politely rejected, Haggard was impressed with Louie and his cousin Fuzzy, who’d encouraged him by telling him to quit trying to imitate Lefty Frizzell.
Now that he was a semi-professional, he renewed their acquaintance.
Fuzzy had recorded a couple of vocal duets with his girlfriend, Bonnie Owens, on Tally, and eventually came to run the label itself for his cousin. Owen produced the first Merle Haggard single, “Skid Row,” in 1961, with one of his own compositions on the B-side. The single (Tally 152) didn’t do much outside of Kern County, and Owen told Haggard he would record him again once the right song came along, or if he was to write one.
Haggard: “One of my first big breaks was fixin’ to happen to me. I’d been in Bakersfield about a year. It was a Saturday night. My friend Dean Holloway came by the Lucky Spot, which I was fixin’ to get on the stage and work five hours, it was about 8:30 and you worked from 9 to 2.
“He said I’m fixing to go over to Vegas and see Roy Nichols, Wynn Stewart, Ralph Mooney and all them guys, and Red Simpson, who was a piano player and singer, a friend of mine, was standing on the sidewalk and said ‘Why don’t you go on, I’ll work the gig for you here?’ And we went inside and checked it out, and they said OK, go ahead.
“So we went over there – it’s only a five-hour drive from Bakersfield to Vegas – and we got there probably about midnight. I walked in the front door of the Nashville Nevada club and Roy Nichols spied me the second I walked in. He just went to wavin’ and almost throwin’ his guitar at me, a double-necked Mosrite. He had a big ol’ bird painted on the back of it. Where Ernest Tubb had “Thanks,” he had a big ol’ fuckin’ bird.
“I went up there and he said ‘Hey, take this son of a bitch, play it for a minute and let me go to the bathroom.’ Hell, I couldn’t say anything, I had to take it.
“It was like a guy being thrown into the New York Yankees, and they say hey, pitch one. I looked around, and here’s Yogi Berra, and all the greats. These guys were recording artists. I just looked from one to the other, and Ralph said ‘Can you sing?’ I said yeah, I believe I can sing something, let’s do ‘Cigarette and Coffee Blues.’ I never asked him if he knew it, and before I had it out of my mouth, man, he had it kicked off. And I was into it.
“We did three songs. The third song was ‘Devil Woman,’ a Marty Robbins song that you won’t hear too many guys singing because it’s got a high note in there that will embarrass you if you can’t hit.
“I was doing that song, and in the middle of the dance floor I looked and here was Wynn Stewart, standing looking at me with his arms crossed, and his head kind of cocked over to one side. And a funny look on his face.
“Well, I said we’re going to take a short intermission and I got out of that deal. The curtain closes on a half-moon bandstand, and from the side of the curtain Wynn Stewart comes on. The first thing he says to me was ‘I’ve been all over America looking for somebody to replace my bass player. I walk in my own joint, and the guy’s standing on the stage, singing. Where in the hell are you from and what’s your name?
“I told him, and I told him I’d been working over in Bakersfield – of course, he knew all the guys over there that I knew – and he asked me what I was making over there. I said well, about 125 a week, somethin’ like that. And he said I’ll double that if you’ll come play bass.
“I said shit, I don’t know how to play bass; I’m just a guitar player and singer, man, I can’t do that. Not with this band. And he said yeah, you can, this band’ll teach you how to play that fuckin’ bass. And it went on from there.”
After about six months as Stewart’s bass player, during which time he had moved Leona and the kids to Nevada, Haggard found the song he was looking for. Stewart had written a weepy ballad called “Sing a Sad Song,” with a caught-in-the-throat octave jump, and everyone in the band knew it was a hit in the making. Stewart, who’d had a half dozen Top 40 hits, was planning on making it his next single.
But Merle Haggard had other ideas. “We were standing in that same spot where he hired me, and I said to him these words: Hey Wynn, tell me something. If you had it within your power to make me a star, would you do it? And his mouth just dropped open, and he said well, sure I would.
“I said well, you can. Let me have ‘Sing Me a Sad Song.’ And he said, you got me. It’s yours.
“So I went directly to the phone. I called Fuzzy over at the Lucky Spot and I said Fozzo, we got the song.”
Released as Tally 155 near the end of 1963, “Sing a Sad Song” reached Number 19 on the national Billboard chart. Over the next 13 months, Haggard would cut three more singles for Tally, all of them charting (one, “Just Between the Two of Us,” was a duet with Bonnie Owens) and in the spring of 1965, Capitol Records’ Ken Nelson bought out Haggard’s Tally contract.
“(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” became the title song of Haggard’s first album, on Capitol. The album included most of the Tally masters, which Nelson had acquired as part of the deal with Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owen.
“Ernest Tubb mentions me on a live album, On the Road With Ernest Tubb, in 1965,” Haggard says. “He said I want to mention a fellow that has a song out called ‘My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers.’ He said I made a prediction when I heard Hank Williams that he was gonna be a star. And I made a prediction that Little Jimmy Dickens was gonna be a star. And I’ll make a prediction that Merle Haggard’s going to be a big country music star.”
“You’re only as good as your repertoire,” Haggard says. “If you’re a storyteller, you gotta know a lot of stories. And if you’re a singer, you gotta know a lot of songs.”
His first Capitol albums included one or two mainstream country songs, and the Tally stuff, and some from Haggard’s Bakersfield buddies like Fuzzy Owen, Dallas Frazier and Tommy Collins. “Swinging Doors,” his second single for the label, was a Haggard original.
“I told Fuzzy I think I’ve written a good song for Buck Owens,” recalls Haggard. “I took it down and at the time I had just signed with Buck Owens’ publishing company, with hopes that he would record my music ’cause he was the Number One act in America at the time. Well, he didn’t do that. I went and sang him ‘Swinging Doors’ and he said he liked it and everything, but he didn’t do any handsprings, or backflips or anything. I didn’t really pay much attention to him saying that, so I went and recorded it myself.
“Buck tells it a lot different. He says I came in and played it for him to get his opinion, and I ran down to the studio and recorded it the next day. Not so – I waited for a period of time to see if he was gonna cut it. And he didn’t cut it, so I went and recorded it. Fuzzy said ‘That’s probably your first big record.’” It reached Number 5 in April 1966.
“Swinging Doors” was followed by “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and then, in the last month of 1966, Haggard hit Number One for the first time. The song, “The Fugitive,” was written by Liz Anderson, who had provided Haggard with “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers.” Anderson also wrote “Just Between the Two of Us,” a duet with Bonnie, who had become the second Mrs. Merle Haggard in June.
Inspired by the TV program The Fugitive, Anderson’s song was about a man running from the law, running from his past. Later re-titled “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” it became Haggard’s first signature song, and the blueprint for some of his best and most personal work.
(Once he was on Capitol, Haggard’s touring band was summarily dubbed the Strangers. Bonnie sang harmony; Haggard’s old crony Roy Nichols was on lead guitar.)
“The very first time I heard him, I thought he was so insecure,” says Bonnie Owens today. “He didn’t sing insecure, but he was insecure in his personality, actions and everything. He wasn’t very patient with anything.”
On top of that, he was an ex-con, a fact he felt was probably tattooed somewhere on his forehead. Haggard thought people were staring at him.
“The first couple of years of recording and doing shows and everything like that were kind of hard for him,” Owens remembers. “I’d notice a certain mood, and he’d say I can’t seem to shake the feeling that there’s gonna be somebody in the third row sayin’ Hey! 745200!, or whatever his number was. He said I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle it if it happened.
“That was when we were playing nightclubs. And when we did finally get into playing auditoriums, that’s when he began to panic a little bit. And he decided just to come out with it, and write about it.”
Somewhere between 1966 and ’67, Merle Haggard’s prison record became public knowledge. Far from killing his career, it became the cornerstone of his lifelong mystique. “Fuzzy told him the very best thing you can do is get it out there,” Owens says, “so nobody can say you’re trying to hide anything.”
Liberated from his secret, Haggard followed “The Fugitive” with a self-penned song navigating the same waters of paranoia, “Branded Man.” It reached Number One in July, 1967, the first in a string of 40 consecutive Top Ten singles.
Although he continued to record other people’s compositions, in the mid ’60s Merle Haggard began to blossom as a songwriter, and whatever he tapped within himself – sometimes it was blue, sometimes bleak and sometimes just sweetly melancholy – it somehow connected with blue-collar America, in a way that no other country singer had before. He was real, and listeners could hear it in every line of his songs, which never seemed contrived or calculated for radio or jukebox play.
“It seemed like every time I liked a song, I noticed that the same guy’s name was written real small down underneath the big name,” Haggard points out. “And I put it together, and I said you know, I think he sings this song better because he wrote it. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that a man could play a part in a film a lot better if he was playing his own part. Than he would quit trying to learn and project and interpret the story from somebody else’s mind.
“I realized that, real young on, and I thought boy, there’s two or three things I need to do. And one of them’s write a song.”
Although “The Merle Haggard Show” was on the road almost constantly, Merle and Bonnie made their actual home in Bakersfield. Haggard continued to drive the streets he’d roamed as a boy, to patronize the same local businesses, to fish his beloved Kern River. His mother stayed in the area, too.
As a songwriter, he began to focus inward. He wrote “Mama Tried,” about his youthful restlessness and his shame at spending his 21st birthday in prison; he wrote “Hungry Eyes,” about the Okie labor camps his aunt and uncle had lived in when they’d first moved to California; he wrote “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” about an uneducated man standing tall. “Some of those songs are the wails of a man in pain,” he says, “because of the lack of the childhood that I would have liked to have had.”
Haggard began to demonstrate a sensitivity that only his closest friends knew existed. Some of his best songs from the ’67-’69 era, like “I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” and “I’m Looking For My Mind,” are the work of a man who’s comfortable exposing his soul to the outside world. “Sing Me Back Home” was a heartbreaking prison ballad, and Haggard would use it as the title of his first autobiography in 1981.
He continued to wear his heart on his sleeve. A 1968 single, “The Legend of Bonnie And Clyde,” was the result of nothing more than Haggard’s infatuation with Faye Dunaway in the Bonnie and Clyde movie.
For his The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde album cover, he even re-created the famous photograph of Bonnie and Clyde posed against a 1930s roadster, grinning with their machine guns. More than one journalist had already pointed out Haggard’s resemblance to Warren Beatty – both were dark and handsome, with wavy hair and smoldering eyes.
Haggard’s appeal was equal between male and female fans. To the men, he was rugged and no-nonsense, the kind of guy who said what was on his mind and did what was right. And he didn’t have the shiny suits and perfect, poufy hair of most big-time country singers.
Women saw Haggard as thoroughly masculine, but not afraid to let his softer side show. There was clearly something thoughtful going on behind his eyes.
For a while, everything Haggard did was a smash.
“You can’t imagine,” he says. “From about 1963, the wheels started to turn a little faster. And things just began to happen. I could barely keep up with it. In fact, I’ll leave something out if I tell about it. There were so many great things that began to happen. And if you don’t believe in the old man upstairs, you got to be some kind of a fuckin’ idiot.
“These things were thrown at me – the right moments, the right people, the gift of writing. I didn’t write any hit songs until I got ready for ‘em. I wonder if that’s accidental? You know, ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ came along just when I needed it. The whole thing is like somebody mapped out a script, and if it wasn’t documented I don’t think anybody’d believe me.”
“Workin’ Man Blues” (July ’69) was the first of Haggard’s “Everyman” songs, and would lead him into darker, more controversial territory. It’s the story of a regular, beer-swilling joe who would like to “throw my bills out the window” and “catch a train to another town” but, hell, he’s got to stay and work to keep his family fed.
Every country music fan in America could relate to one of the taglines in “Workin’ Man Blues”; even better, Roy Nichols’ snarling lead guitar made the record bristle and snap out of a jukebox speaker. Haggard had found the nerve, and it fell to him to touch it whenever he had a mind to.
“He was so much fun when he was writing, because he was so intense with it,” Owens explains. “All I had to do was write it down for him. He’d come over and look at it. When he finally asks what do you think, then you can say what you think. But you don’t want to say anything, because eventually he comes around and gets it anyway.
“I didn’t want to offer any lines of any kind, because I didn’t want to throw him off when he might be seeing it in a different way.”
Because they were always working, Haggard did most of his writing on the tour bus. “I wish I’d-a put a mileage meter on my ass about that time,” he laughs, “because it’d be interesting to know how many there would be.”
“In those years, it seemed like we had a mental telepathy,” offers Owens. “I just wrote down almost everything he’d ever say. Sometimes it turned up in his songs.
“I’d be in the back of the bus, writing or listening to tapes or something, and he would be up in the front. And I’d say I’ll bet he wants to work on ‘Shelly’s Winter Love.’ We’d meet in the middle of the bus, and he’d say ‘Do you have the words to what we were workin’ on the other day, ‘Shelly’s Winter Love’? That happened lots and lots of times.”
Owens is modest about the part she played in Haggard’s golden songwriting age. “I’m not gonna pat myself on the back, but I know a lot of songs he would have forgotten if I hadn’t written ‘em down,” she says. “Because it doesn’t stay with him to the finish. He has to get away from ‘em, and think about ‘em, and come back to ‘em.”
In 1969, in the middle of his red-hot streak, Haggard turned in an album that Capitol, where they were used to giving Haggard his way, had reservations about issuing.Same Train, A Different Time was a two-record package of songs written and popularized by “America’s Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers, sung in the original, circa 1930s style.
Rodgers, like Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills, was a boyhood hero of Haggard’s; one of the favorite albums at the old homestead in Oildale had been Lefty’s own Rodgers salute, The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers (1951).
Haggard: “When he did his tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, my mother heard it. I said mother, listen to Lefty’s new record. And she said no, no, that’s a Jimmie Rodgers song. I said who’s Jimmie Rodgers? I’m sitting there 14, 15 years old and never heard Jimmie Rodgers.
“My life changed, of course, when I heard that.”
Haggard says no one at Capitol ever came right out and said Same Train was going to be a hard sell. “I don’t think they’d have let me do that if I hadn’t been highly successful. You know, the Beatles was in rein at that time …there were artists all over the world being shook off the label like peaches off a tree. We could name artists for 30 minutes that dropped in the period when the Beatles came in.
“Well, here I came, in contrast to everybody else, right up through the middle of Beatlemania, on Capitol, on the same label, with these damn songs that just wouldn’t lay there. The people wanted ‘em.”
Much of the credit for giving Haggard full creative run of the studio must go to producer Ken Nelson, who signed him back in ’65 and produced nearly everything he cut for the label. “Ken Nelson was another milestone in my career,” Haggard believes. “He could’ve been another way. Had he been another way, then he could’ve been the block in the road that kept me from being myself. He could’ve been one of those ‘producers’ from Nashville and you’d’ve never heard Merle Haggard. But I can’t say enough good about Ken Nelson in relation to my career and to my friendship with him. He had the knowledge and the sense to let me be myself. All he’d do was just make sure we was in tune. He’d let me pick the musicians, he was so kind to me.
“In those days, singin’ was so easy for me. We’d go out there in this great place, this wonderful studio where Nat ‘King’ Cole and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin all recorded. Man, you think I didn’t know that? Studio A at Capitol Records is still the greatest studio in the entire world. At the time, they had a physical echo chamber no one could match.
“I’d find myself in this moment in time, and it was like my brain would stop and take a picture of it. Looky here: I’m standing here with Glen Campbell singing harmony, and James Burton’s playing guitar, Roy Nichols and Ralph Mooney on guitar, this great band all around me and the best equipment in the world.”
With Nelson in the producer’s chair, Fuzzy Owen was the man at mixdown time. He was – and still is today – one of the few people with Haggard’s absolute trust. ” He would stay on the mike in there and say hey, you sounded like Hank Williams, you sounded like Lefty Frizzell, you sounded like Marty Robbins, how ’bout doing me one track Merle Haggard?” recalls Haggard.
“And I’d say I don’t know quite what you meant. He’d say try it again and just sing the song. Think about the words; don’t think about who you could sing like. So he said the right things to me, and so did Ken. Ken would say ‘A joy to behold! Come in and listen!’”
On the other side of the musical fence, psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll had given way to a stripped-down, rootsier sound. The same members of the younger generation who grooved to the rural acoustic music of John Wesley Harding and Music From Big Pinkhad discovered Merle Haggard, who was about as far away from slick, sappy Nashville as he could get. On purpose.
Just as America’s young people were digging the Pride in What I Am and Same Trainalbums, Haggard took a hard turn to the right. Nobody saw it coming.
He was on the tour bus, as always, rolling through the heartland from one gig to another, when a sign for Muskogee, Oklahoma caught his eye. In no time, with a lyrical assist from Strangers drummer Eddie Burris, Haggard had the song that would make his career, polarize his fans and cause a stink that’s still wafting in the wind today.
The fightin’ side
Once “Okie From Muskogee” hit the national consciousness in August, 1969, Merle Haggard’s life would never be the same. On the surface, it’s a right-wing, hippie-baiting celebration of American small-town life in the days before drugs, long hair and Roman sandals had screwed everything up (“leather boots are still in style for manly footwear,” it said, addressing the latter issue). When Merle Haggard sang “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,” it seemed to conservative middle America like the Poet of the Common Man was pitching his tent right there, in Squaresville. To the young people who’d begun to discover Haggard through his adventurous recent albums, it sounded like he was telling them where to go.
In truth, it was all of neither, and a little bit of both.
“It came from the shoulder,” Haggard reveals. “A lot of times, you contrive and you write. And that’s an art that you develop. But ‘Okee From Muskogee’ came too quick; it was like a picture appearing on a paper. And the artist standing there and saying hey, where did that come from? It came in a matter of less than 10 minutes – seven or eight minutes, I wrote the thing down. And then read it back, and got up and sang it to a melody that’s still there. There was no work, no honing of any sort.
“I sang it to Fuzzy – he was drivin’ the bus at the time – and I said what do you think this sumbitch needs? He said it needs to be out. And this is the guy that always says ‘Well, I don’t know …that’s pretty good but it’s not a hit song.’ When he said ‘it needs to be out’ I like to have fell out of the bus. This is old hard-nosed Fuzzy talking.
“See, I was coming from the point of view, once again, of my father. I was coming from their point of view, all of my family, the ones who had the religious orientation. The Arkansas/Oklahoma attitude that I’d grown up with, not necessarily agreeing with. But I thought boy, I don’t necessarily agree with every word in this song, but this son of a bitch is a motherfucker! And it was.
“Over the years, I’ve had people tell me five or six different messages out of the song I didn’t even know was there. One night Willie Nelson said to me, ‘Are you tired of singing Okie From Muskogee?’ I said, why? And he said ‘Well, if you are, I’ll take the son of a bitch for the next 30 years.’”
“Okie From Muskogee” hit the top of the chart in October 1969, stayed there for four weeks and became the best-known song, and best-selling single, of Haggard’s career. In the spring, the Country Music Association named it Single of the Year.
Far from being irked at the media calling him The Paul Harvey of Country Music, Haggard took the attention as a compliment, and immediately started writing more conservative, line-drawing songs in the vein of “Okie From Muskogee.”
“If you’re a songwriter or if you’re a pole vaulter, and you do something right, by accident, only a fool would vary far away from that which is working,” he says. “In other words, we’d had ‘Working Man Blues,’ ‘Hungry Eyes,’ ‘Mama Tried’ and a few pretty nice songs that were autobiographical, but all of a sudden we had this ‘Okee From Muskogee’ which was controversial. Well, then all my years of songwriting went to work, don’t you see. Because hey, first of all, I’m a songwriter. I said ‘Hey …I have a following now. A political following. OK.
“The song was written in a way that didn’t describe me. It made me mysterious. And the curiosity built up, and it’s been there ever since. Of course, the next song was ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me.’ There’s one that was written off the cuff, but the moment I wrote it I knew it was the next followup. I wrote it comin’ from L.A. to Bakersfield in a car. Lewis Talley was with me – and he said man, that’s it, that’s the next song.”
(“If you’re runnin’ down this country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me…”)
The album The Fightin’ Side of Me was released in early 1970. Done up in a red, white and blue cover, the album was recorded live in Philadelphia – “The Cradle of American Liberty!” Intentionally or otherwise, Haggard had re-created himself in the image of the blue-collar patriot, which the record company was only too happy to capitalize on.
One manifestation of Haggard’s newfound, mainstream recognition was his invitation to appear on TV programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show. Haggard remembers Sullivan staging a salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma:
“They had me casted for Curly, and Curly was just not me. And we didn’t know about it until the sixth day of rehearsal, but I told them in the beginning it’s by choice that I don’t do choreography. It’s not because I can’t do it, I said it’s because I choose not to. I don’t want to do it, and don’t expect it. If you don’t expect it, I’ll try to play this part for you. But it’ll be different than it’s ever been before. And they said OK.
“But every day they kept adding a dance step. I was in some sort of a promenade position with Minnie Pearl on one arm, and Jeannie C. Riley on the other arm, and we’re dancing like idiots through this garden. And one of the gay fellas reached out and pinched me on the ass.
“Well, I’m not here to bash gays or anything, but when I went around Fuzzy was in the wings, and I said ‘Fuzzy, this is the last trip around. Meet you at the bus!’
“So I went to the bus and I said hey, I’m not gonna do that. I think it’s a big mistake. He said well, it’s gonna be pretty serious here, they’ve got you contracted. And I said well, just let ‘em do whatever they have to do.
“I said I got truck driver fans and old buddies that I sing songs for, that wouldn’t have any idea why I did this. And I’m not going to explain it.”
During this period – perhaps he was feeling invincible – Haggard put together a sprightly country tune about interracial love. Fuzzy Owen and Ken Nelson convinced Haggard that “Irma Jackson” was probably too much of a hot potato to pass to the public – maybe it would be pushing Haggard’s luck, after “Okie” had caused such a stir. Although it was intended as a single, “Irma Jackson” was relegated to an album track.
“I’ve always admired black women,” Haggard says. “They always were just as sexy to me as white women, for some reason or another. And I tried to imagine some young kid who had a father with a plantation, falling in love with some little black girl that he grew up loving all of his life. And trying to justify the reality of adulthood, and finding out that in America they were created less than the whites were. And I tried to put into a few lines how love could transcend the two races and bring us all together somehow, I guess.”
Next, Haggard recruited several members of Bob Wills’ original Texas Playboys to play alongside his own Strangers, on A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, Or My Salute to Bob Wills. Here Haggard re-created 12 of his favorite Western Swing tunes, like “Stay a Little Longer,” “Roly Poly” and “Right or Wrong,” faithfully to the original Wills style he’d loved since his childhood days in the San Joaquin Valley.
Haggard, whose father had played fiddle in a dance band back in Oklahoma, had been teaching himself to play, much to the general annoyance of Bonnie and everyone else on the tour bus. Nevertheless, he stepped up his rehearsals and tried to be ready in time for the recording dates.
Haggard had started sawing away on the instrument back in ’65. “It was a disease,” he says. “When I decided I wanted to do that, I knew it was a seven-year decision.
“I looked around, I’d been playin’ five years and I was doing what I wanted to do. I was 33, and I said if I can be doing what I want to do by the time I’m 40, then I’ll be in the driver’s seat. Because I knew the power of that fiddle. Roy said you may not get anybody’s attention throughout the entire show, but you pick up that damn fiddle, they might not like it but you’re gonna get their attention.”
Up in West Virginia, a bunch of hippie musicians calling themselves Asleep at the Wheel heard Haggard’s Wills tribute, and it changed their lives.
“Everybody knew that there was this guy named Bob Wills that their parents liked, and maybe they even knew one of the songs,” says Ray Benson, leader and frontman, then and now, of Asleep at the Wheel. “Really a superficial knowledge. But that record turned us on – George Strait tells the exact same story – because we were huge Merle Haggard fans.
“It was the pivotal moment for Asleep at the Wheel. That’s the album we heard in 1970, and we went from doing just two Bob Wills tunes to doing every song on that album.”
Today, Asleep at the Wheel carries the torch for Wills’ music, and it all began with Merle Haggard’s album. In the ’90s, Haggard would be a guest vocalist on both of the Wheel’s own tribute albums.
Paying tribute, whether directly or through involuntary impersonation, is a big part of the way country music works. “Every single country singer today,” says Benson, “from George Strait on back, is from Merle Haggard. Who is from Lefty Frizzell. So that’s the great link. Nowadays, you hear 10 guys in 10 hats, and they’re all trying to sound like Haggard.”
Immediately after Best Damn Fiddle Player, Haggard began to return to more conventional country music – for him, anyway. The hits kept on coming – early ’70s chart-toppers included the autobiographical “Grandma Harp,” the jukebox favorite “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” and the pop ballad “Carolyn” – but Haggard continue to confound his listeners as much as he delighted them.
He released a single, “Street Singer,” that had virtually no singing – just the sound of Haggard cracking himself up while he picked lead guitar on a hillbilly raveup with the Strangers (nevertheless, it made the Top 10). “Jesus, Take a Hold” was followed soon after by Land of Many Churches, a double album of gospel and religious songs, recorded live in four different Appalachian houses of worship.
Although he had shied away from overtly political issues since the “Okie” furor of ’69, Haggard again touched on a sensitive subject. “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me,” written from the viewpoint of an American soldier in a Vietnamese prison, was a Number One hit in the last month of ’72.
“If We Make it Through December,” perhaps the loveliest song he ever wrote, was inspired by an offhand comment from Roy Nichols, who always seemed to get divorced in the 12th month.
In “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)” (Number One, 1971) Haggard sang in first-person about a family band fronted by a deaf mother and a blind stepfather. Haggard began conceiving the tale after hearing Bonnie talk about her own hearing-impaired mother.
Mostly, Haggard explains, “Daddy Frank” was “an attempt to write a song about the Maddox Brothers and Rose.” The singing family of transplanted Okies, 10 in number, had been a popular dance act all over California in the ’40s and ’50s. Rose Maddox was a good friend of Merle and Bonnie’s.
Haggard, of course, put his own spin on their story. “The only one in the Maddox family that was never mentioned, and never got any notoriety, was Dad. Dad rode a bicycle to work in the shipyards, during the war, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose were the hottest act on the west coast. They traveled in two cadillacs, five in each one, and he rode a bicycle to work!” As usual, Haggard was drawn to the underdog.
“I thought what if he were blind, and a real good player. Then he’d be there with them, and he’d be the hero, rather than the guy that’s ridin’ the bicycle …and you can see where it went from there.”
The live show continued to pack ‘em in. Although he rarely spoke onstage – a product, he says, of his natural shyness – he was animated during the the actual songs. A longtime audience favorite involved Haggard impersonations of Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash and Buck Owens.
He had to be careful when performing his autobiographical songs, not to forget where he was and start thinking about the time and place described in the lyrics. “If you keep your mind focused on that thought, you’ll fuck up,” he laughs. “So what you have to do, when you’re singing a song that’s emotionally disturbing, you have to think about your income tax. Or you have to think about something else, because being emotional is not really something in your favor, it’s a handicap.”
Although his career was hotter than an Oklahoma firecracker, Haggard spent much of the ’70s in personal turmoil. He and Bonnie separated and divorced in 1974, during which Merle developed a serious crush on Dolly Parton – he wrote “Always Wanting You,” a Number One hit in early ’75, for Dolly. A happily married woman, she declined to get involved with him. Eventually, Haggard took aspiring singer Leona Williams as his third wife, a relationship that would give him no small amount of heartache.
His prison experience continued to gnaw at him. In ’72, California governor Ronald Reagan granted Merle Ronald Haggard a full and unconditional pardon – more of a public relations move than anything else – and Haggard and the Strangers performed at a White House function for Richard and Pat Nixon, who appeared to enjoy the concert (no one was really sure).
But the imagery in Haggard’s songs continued to be haunted, scared, running. He was a millionaire recording star, a friend of the president’s, but in his mind he remained a branded man, something less than everyone else.
Even today, Haggard can’t completely forget what it was like inside the San Quentin walls. “It’s very, very claustrophobic,” he says. “It’s like being smothered with a pillow. And I have recurring dreams, it’s been 40 years and I have recurring dreams sometimes as many as four or five times a month still yet. And I’m always there, and I’m always disappointed that I’m back in there, and that I’ve somehow fucked up again. There I am and I can’t get out.
“I think maybe it’s the involvement in this demanding, successful career that I have. I think psychologically I’m imprisoned. I have no choice, really. It would be impossible for me to retire from this business. And so it is, in fact, a prison in some way.”
Misery and Gin
When Haggard’s tempestuous marriage to Leona Williams began in 1978, it was only the latest in a series of changes he insisted on. Feeling his creative juice stagnating, he left Capitol after 11 years and signed with Jimmy Bowen and MCA.
Saxophonist Don Markham became a Stranger in 1974, and Haggard persuaded the elderly ex-Texas Playboys Tiny Moore (mandolin and fiddle) and Eldon Shamblin (guitar) to join the band, too. They played with Hag for 12 years.
He made his peace with Bonnie, who came back to the touring band (along with Markham, she’s still there today – Moore and Shamblin have both passed away).
Markham’s saxophone became integral to the Strangers sound around the time of I Love Dixie Blues, an album Haggard cut in New Orleans in 1973. “If I didn’t get to do that, I couldn’t stand it,” Haggard says. “I couldn’t stand to just walk out there, play ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’ and leave. The performer, in order to get a good performance, has got to be enjoying himself, I think.
“The sax takes us away from this particular sort of music that we’re categorized in, for a moment, and it seems to be accepted. I’ve never had one person say they didn’t like it. Not one.”
Haggard was on MCA for four years, and he landed some big hits there, including “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Red Bandana,” “Rainbow Stew,” “Misery and Gin,” and “My Own Kind of Hat.”
But most who were listening could tell the label switch hadn’t revived him; although there were some nice moments, the MCA period wasn’t much of an improvement. Haggard began the 1980s living, with several members of his band, on a houseboat he’d brought up to his property on Lake Shasta, in northern California. Leona left, and besides Haggard preferred to be alone with his buddies, and with copious amounts of liquor and cocaine. These were the binging years.
A switch to Epic produced some of Haggard’s best material in a decade. His first single for the new label, “Big City,” was a gentle shuffle, the kind he hated during the old days playing the Bakersfield bars. Nevertheless, it made the top of the charts in 1982, as did “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver),” a gentle reprise of his pro-America material of the late ’60s.
Haggard’s voice had aged and mellowed, growing deeper and more resonant, and as he became an elder statesman in those days when Urban Cowboy was forcing all but the very best of the old guys off the radio, he commanded newfound respect.
A one-off pairing with George Jones produced A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine in 1982; the next year, he was in the studio with Willie Nelson, whom Haggard had run into, off an on, on the touring circuit in the early days.
“I heard his records a long time before I met him,” Nelson says. ” I was touring when his first stuff came out, ‘All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers,’ back in that time. I think we played Vegas one time about the same time, but I really didn’t get to know him until years later when we came together on a tour. We’d play poker and sing and play together.”
In 1982, both Nelson and Haggard were veterans who knew what it was like to fight and do penance for something you believe in – in their cases, it was writing, recording and even living outside of Nashville.
“We come from different parts of the country, but we’re both a long way from the store,” Nelson observes. “Nashville was where we were all told we’d have to go sell our products. We had that in common.”
Together with producer Chips Moman, they were halfway through a duet album in the summer of ’82 when they agreed they still didn’t have their key song. “We had run out of songs,” says Nelson. “Merle had gone to bed, and we still hadn’t done the song we thought should be the title song, the single, all that stuff.
“Lana, my daughter, went home and got a copy of Emmylou Harris’ ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and brought it out to the studio. We sat there and listened to it. I went over and woke up Merle. He was over in the condo next to the studio – I sent somebody over, I wouldn’t do it – and I got him back into the studio and we recorded ‘Pancho and Lefty.’ Merle was still about half asleep.”
The following spring, “Pancho and Lefty,” Van Zandt’s mysteriously moving song about a pair of outlaws and the federalis who track them, became a monster hit.
Part of the allure of their version of the song was the setup – it’s not really a duet. Nelson sings the first three verses, with Haggard taking his first and only solo on the fourth.
“I think it happened because I was giving him time to learn the song,” laughs Nelson. “I did the whole song for a long time, and when he thought he was ready to come in I said ‘We’ll do the last verse.’ It sounded real good that way; it made him like more of the character than a duet singer. It made him more Lefty.”
“We discussed the fact that he was gonna be on the record more than I was,” Haggard recalls. “It passes the point where you think a duet is going to occur. And that’s what I liked about it. You think it’s going to be Willie all the way – then the storyline takes a bend, and here’s this new guy. After you quit looking for it, it hits you upside of the head.”
The ’80s had their ups and downs for Haggard. He and Nelson followed the Pancho and Lefty album with another, Seashores of Old Mexico, he and Leona divorced, an unsound business deal (he built a resort on Lake Shasta and lost his shirt) shook him.
He got off cocaine, married his maid Debbie Parret (the marriage, one both parties admit was more out of convenience than for love, didn’t last long, and the woman still works for him today). At its apex, the Strangers included 12 musicians.
Always, there was the music. “Kern River,” one of Haggard’s most achingly beautiful autobiographical songs, was one of his last hits for Epic, in 1985.
Haggard: “One morning I woke up in a truck stop in Bakersfield, my hometown. We’d been asleep there for two days. Now, people who make a living in another way might not understand sleeping for two days. But we’d probably been up for five.
“And I woke up there, after two days of being in a bus sleeping. It was like four in the morning, just starting to see a little gleam of light over in the east. It was on a road that I used to take on the way to Kern River to fish. After playing a nightclub in Bakersfield all night, I’d stay in a little coffee shop and wait for daylight, and then I’d run up the canyon up there, get my exercise, go down there and fish till about 10 o’clock, then come home, go to bed, sleep till five in the afternoon and start all over again.”
In 1985, looking through his bus window, Haggard starting thinking about the Kern. It begins on Mount Whitney, a high peak, and sends more than one million gallons per minute straight down for about two miles before evening out. “It’s not deep nor wide, but it’s a mean piece of water, my friend,” the song says.
“I read about my little river in the Chicago Tribune, about how it was the fastest falling river in the United States …. I didn’t know that,” Haggard says. “And I wondered if I’d ever get to fish Kern River again. I thought about the sign posted at the edge of the canyon, that told the number that had been drowned. Fishing became swimming pretty quick ….”
(“I may drown in still water, but I’ll never swim Kern River again.”)
Haggard got into a shouting match with Epic’s president, Rick Blackburn, over this song. Blackburn thought it was counter-commercial in the days of Randy Travis and Clint Black. Within three years, Haggard was off the label.
That wasn’t the only factor. Nearly all the old guard – Haggard, Jones, Nelson, Johnny Cash – lost their place on American country radio in the late ’80s. Never mind tradition, it was a video-centric business now, and guys with faces like Mount Rushmore just didn’t make videos that sold records that got played on the radio.
A move to Curb Records produced a couple of good albums, but Haggard and label chief Mike Curb parted ways acrimoniously in 1996, without any hits to speak of.
He hasn’t been on the radio, steadily, for a decade. The younger guys have taken over.
“Let me say this,” he says. “I’m goddam glad they don’t play me among that shit. And I’m sorry whose feelings get hurt. Dwight Yoakam and Garth Brooks and people like that, who everybody knows make good records, after you leave that, man, I don’t want to be associated with that stuff that I’m hearing. I’m not built like those guys are, and I can’t make videos like they do, because they won’t be as sexy! But I’ll tell you what, I’ll match ‘em on the stage anywhere in America. I don’t care if they play me on the radio or not.
“If it never happened again, if they turned the lights out this minute, it’s been the greatest trip in the world.”
For the record
Not long after he started turning out one hit after another, Merle Haggard was approached by the Grand Ole Opry, the self-appointed holiday-table centerpiece of country music. At the time, the Opry was still based in Nashville’s venerable old Ryman Auditorium, where all the greats had performed. The same people who’d fired Hank Williams and Johnny Cash both, told them they’d never amount to anything in country music, came to Haggard with an invitation.
“They had chosen Doyle Wilburn, one of the Wilburn Brothers, as their delegate,” Haggard recalls. “And Doyle Wilburn called Fuzzy Owen, who was my personal manager and still is, and said ‘It’s time you come and join the Grand Ole Opry.’ And Fuzzy laughed right in his face. He say hey, Merle Haggard don’t need the Grand Ole Opry, the Grand Ole Opry needs Merle Haggard.”
Haggard chuckles at the recollection. “I don’t mean to put ‘em down. If they were to ask me, I’d probably join. But at the time, it made me feel really good when I heard Fuzzy say that to them. He said to me, before that phone call, you got a chance to become someone that that whole town will know, if you stay out of there. You go down there, he said, and we’ll get lost in the shuffle. Just like the rest of ‘em.”
Haggard did live in Nashville, for nearly two years at the start of his MCA period in the 70s, but he felt his skin starting to crawl, being that close to the music business, and he couldn’t get back to Bakersfield fast enough.
Along with Willie Nelson, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Today, Haggard and his fifth wife, Theresa, live with their 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son on the Lake Shasta property- 500 miles north of his hometown. They have a cabin, a recording studio and the houseboat he used to party on. Haggard figures he’ll build a house one of these days, but whatever the reason, he hasn’t got around to it
“I’ve been all over the whole United States,” he says. “I lived in Bakersfield for 35 years. The north part of this state is totally a different world from the southern part. There’s no war of wills up here. The only problems we have up here is people cuttin’ down the damn redwood trees.”
Forest conservation has become an issue with Haggard, who’s still fighting for what he believes in. He and Theresa are devout Christians, and this year he recorded a gospel album, Cabin in the Hills, and made it available through his website (www.thehag.com).
The ’90s haven’t been especially kind to him, but as the decade draws to a close, Haggard feels invigorated, full of the old piss and vinegar. After two operations on his heart, he’s back to the only things he ever did full-time: fishing and playing concerts.
“I had a couple of deals happen two years in a row,” he says of his bypass surgeries. “Not sure that I needed it. I think I may have been a victim of the fact that I fit the criteria of people they do surgery on. That happens about 60 percent of the time in America. If you happen to be a guy that can pay the bill, they’ll find something wrong with you.
“One of ‘em I think was necessary, and one of ‘em I’m not sure about. How do you prove things like that?
“Hell, I might drop dead in 20 minutes, but I believe I’m OK.”
He’s in love, and content, and although he’s cranky as ever, he claims he’s no longer suffering from what he used to call white line fever. “When I was a child, I dreamed about traveling. Now I’m grown, and after I’ve lived 40 years on the road, I dream about never having to leave anywhere again.”
Haggard’s tenure as a Curb Records artist ended after the 1996 album in 1996. Because of his soured business deals in the ’80s, Haggard was forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and to dig himself out he was persuaded – against his better judgment – to sell the publishing to nearly all of his songs.
He says he’s never learned to do things halfway, and in the past it always got him into trouble. “If we go camping, before long we’ll have a city built out there in the middle of the woods,” he laughs. “We came to Shasta to go fishing and wound up owning two houseboats and building a resort. Made a total dilemma out of our playground.”
A gambling addiction that reached its peak in the years just after “Muskogee” has played itself out; just as fortunately, cocaine and alcohol are things of the past, too.
In the ’80s, Haggard earned a reputation for being nearly as unreliable as his pal George Jones. Sometimes he’d play a ragged set and stomp off the stage after 30 minutes, angry, leaving the Strangers holding the bag and the audience cursing his name.
Sometimes it was booze or drugs; more likely, it was his terrible mood swings. Especially during his years with Leona Williams, he was likely to explode if anyone happened to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. “I was very hyperactive,” he says. “I never had to have any sort of stimulants or anything like that, because of my natural-born energy. And I like to about have drove everybody crazy, I’m sure. I stayed up one time and played fiddle for 48 hours.
“And I hired three or four bands, they were all on dope trying to stay with me. I can verify that.”
The fall of 1999 has seen a flurry of activity. With the aid of country music’s literary sideman Tom Carter, Haggard published a second autobiography, My House of Memories.
At 62, he could quit. He thinks about it all the time. “With all honesty, I’ve become used to a certain quality of life,” he confesses. “And I would be like a spouse if I was to suddenly be cut off from this sort of income. You know, money is necessary. You only have freedom in America if you have money to afford it. Otherwise, you wind up in jail. You wind up one of the statistics in the hospital or in the jail if you don’t have money to remain free. And that’s the truth.
“I have rich tastes, and I’ve developed even richer tastes. I have to make a lot of money, and also, I could lean back in a chair pretty easily and become an old man pretty quick – out of shape and unable to do anything – and you can’t really come back at 62. You’ve got to maintain some sort of a level of performance or the muscles will give up on you and it’ll be all over. So my life really depends on me going to work, I think.”
He mulls over the possibilities – he could go into television, he says, or open a restaurant. Maybe start over with a brand-new band, calling it something other than Merle Haggard & the Strangers.
The idea of getting off the bus for good appeals to him enormously. “I’ve got look up and see that I don’t have any dates,’ he says. “And no responsibilities. And then see what kind of a choice I make at that point. That’s what I’m trying to get myself ready for, I guess.
“And I want to see if there’s anything else Merle Haggard can possibly organize besides this out-of-control monster that’s got a hold of me.”