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PART ONE: MERLE HAGGARD: New Biography Chronicles The Life of One of Country Music's Most Complex Legends

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Part One:

MERLE HAGGARD: New Biography Chronicles The Life of One of Country Music's Most Complex Legends

By Doug Bright

    "Merle Haggard has always been as deep as it gets," Bob Dylan once said. "Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. He's probably one of our greatest living songwriters." He died on his 79th birthday—April 6, 2016—at his ranch in Shasta County, California, but his legend lives on, and it's the subject of a new biography by Marc Eliot, who has told the stories of celebrities ranging from Cary Grant and Clint Eastwood to the Eagles and protest folksinger/songwriter Phil Ochs. It's entitled

The Hagwh

 The Life, Times, and Work of Merle Haggard.

   "Merle Ronald Haggard came into the world kicking and screaming," Eliot begins. "He made his grand entrance on the morning of April 6, 1937 at Kern General Hospital in Bakersfield, California."

   His father, the multi-talented and ambitious Jim Haggard, had moved his family to the area from Oklahoma two years earlier, eventually garnering a good living as a carpenter for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In his youth he had been a popular fiddler at local dances and weddings and, in fact, had met his wife, Flossie Mae Harp, while playing a wedding reception.

   It soon became obvious that his penchant for music had been passed on to his infant son. Lying in his bassinet, Merle would keep time with his feet whenever country music played on the radio. Of all the artists he heard in early childhood, his favorite was country music's first superstar,

Jimmie Rodgers

 a railroad man known to one and all as "The Singing Brakeman". Rodgers' influence was spectacularly reflected in 1969 with Haggard's two-disc tribute album

Same train, A Different time.


   After visiting Haggard's childhood home in the working-class Bakersfield suburb of Oildale, country star Marty Stuart observed, "I walked out of the Haggard family's driveway, turned right, and at the end of the street I saw the train tracks. I stood in the middle of them and looked down as far as I could see, and that's when I understood a whole lot more about who Merle Haggard was and where he came from."

   In one of his most popular songs, "Mama Tried", Haggard himself said it best: "First thing I remember knowin'  Was a lonesome whistle blowin'  And a young'un's dream of growin' up to ride."

   In addition to Rodgers, young Merle was deeply influenced by nightly live broadcasts from

Bob Wills

 and His Texas Playboys, who popularized western swing, and that inspiration led the grown-up Haggard to create another tribute album a year after the one dedicated to Rodgers. He called it

The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World


   At Oildale's Standard Elementary School, Haggard showed no interest in his studies or activities with classmates. Hoping to spark his interest in learning of any kind, his mother pulled out her husband's old fiddle and arranged for private lessons. Unfortunately, the teacher she engaged was from their local Church of Christ congregation and taught him only Sunday-school songs instead of the country music he loved. Finally, after only a few lessons, he ended practice by throwing the instrument to the floor in a fit of frustration, and two days later his anger manifested itself in a fight with a boy at school, resulting in a temporary suspension.  

   A turning point came when Merle's older brother Lowell, who had moved out on his own and taken a job at a filling station, brought him a cheap Sears Roebuck guitar that a customer had given him in exchange for two dollars' worth of gas. "Every chance I got," Haggard recalls in the new biography, "I tried to make friends with that pitiful old instrument, with its strings too high off the frets and a neck that didn't quite line up straight."

   After his father taught him a few chords, Haggard took the proverbial football and ran with it, figuring out more chords by playing along with the records in the  family collection. Eventually, he was writing his own songs. "Many of them weren't any good," he admitted, but "that guitar gave me a new and exciting way of saying something."

   On June 19th, 1946, Jim Haggard died from a stroke that may have been brought on by a head injury from a car accident a month earlier, and the loss had a devastating impact on his young son. "To nine-year-old Merle," Marc Eliot explains, "death made no sense. He couldn't figure out who or what had taken his father away, or why. The only answer he could come up with was that it was his fault. He wasn't sure what he had done, but he was certain somehow he was responsible. He thought there must have been some connection between his own recent illness and his father's stroke. He convinced himself that he had passed something along to his dad and it killed him."

   "The trauma of losing his father made Merle want to run away from the scene of the crime, as it were, to try to escape the guilt he felt for believing he caused his father's death," Eliot continues. "He soon transformed that guilt into a thirst for adventure."

   The adventures began when, at age eleven, he hopped a freight train with another boy despite the fact that as the son of a Southern Pacific employee, he was entitled to ride as a passenger whenever he wanted. They got as far as Fresno, the train's first stop, where they were picked up by a security guard, lectured sternly on the danger of their action, and sent back home. Three years later, however, Haggard was still cutting classes most of the time and hopping freights whenever he could. "I loved those Jimmie Rodgers songs about riding freight trains," he elaborates in Eliot's book, "and I wanted to do it. So I did. That's where my problems really started."

   One of the greatest inspirations of 14-year-old Merle Haggard's life came when he heard that Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were coming to Bakersfield to play a one-nighter at a dance hall called the Beardsley Ballroom. After making sure his mother was asleep, he hopped on his bike and made the five-mile trip from Oildale, standing on his bicycle seat to watch the show through a back window. "Bob had his fiddle," Haggard recalls in the book, "and they all wore white shirts, cowboy hats, dressed fit to kill. It didn't last very long. I got down off my bike, rode it home and went to bed before Mama knew I was gone."

   "He couldn't sleep that night," his biographer summarizes. "Seeing Bob Wills had sparked a flame in him that wouldn't be extinguished."

   In that year of 1951, Merle Haggard discovered another country artist who made a deep impression: up-and-coming singer/songwriter

Lefty Frizzell

 "He was unbelievable!" Haggard later mused. "He had his own tone. He had done this little stint in jail, so he knew more about being away than a lot of people did. He was really good at writing about separation. That was his main subject matter—and he wrote about it with sincerity and with the only vocabulary he knew."  

   It was about this time that Haggard's mother bought him a new Martin D-0018 guitar, a monumental upgrade from the pathetic beater he'd been playing. "She believed that one day, if I stuck with it, she'd get to see me on the Lawrence Welk Show on TV," he recalled to his daughter Kelli years later.

   Empowered with his new Martin guitar, he made impromptu appearances on most afternoons or evenings at Oildale's teen hangout, Bunkie's Drive-in Restaurant, where he met a young man named Bob Teague, whom he later characterized as "a damn good guitarist". One night in August 1951, after jamming together on the town's notorious Beer Can Hill, Teague informed him that Lefty Frizzell was coming soon to Bakersfield's Rainbow Gardens for two shows. After Teague procured tickets and his brother's car for the night of the performances, the two teens ended up wasting most of the evening drinking beer in the parking lot and caught only the last part of the second show. "He had it all—brilliance and clarity," Haggard later said of his country music hero. "His impact on me at that time was not even measurable."

   "Fourteen-year-old Merle returned to school that September," Eliot recounts, "and it took only nine days before he decided he'd had enough, even if the truant officers, all of whom knew his name, came looking for him. This time, he was brought before a judge who ordered him sent to the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility for Boys, in Whittier, 135 miles south of Oildale."  He was there for a full year that included very harsh treatment from the guards and an unsuccessful escape attempt before he was finally released.

   Back home in Oildale, he learned that his pal Bob Teague had gone to Modesto, two hundred miles north, to work in the fields through harvest time. When Haggard joined him, they found work loading and hauling hay five-and-a-half days a week from dawn to 11 PM for a farmer who paid them $1.25 an hour with room and board.

   Sometimes they sang together to pass the time, and when their employer heard them harmonizing, he suggested they visit a local honky-tonk called the Fun Center. The following Saturday, equipped with a couple of used guitars they bought at a pawn shop, they made an appearance.

   "Not long after they arrived," Eliot reports, "the manager asked Merle if he could play that thing he had strapped around his shoulders. He nodded his head yes and the guy told him to go ahead and sing a song." They picked and sang until sunrise, earning five dollars apiece and all the beer they could drink. It was Merle Haggard's first paying gig.

   Haggard stayed in Modesto to work through the harvest, but when he returned to Oildale just before Thanksgiving, he was picked up by the truant officers, who had been searching for him all the time he'd been gone. "The family court judge, the same one who sent him to Nelles, was more than a little annoyed at seeing Merle's smirking face again," Eliot writes. "The judge pointed a finger, called him incorrigible, and this time sentenced him to fifteen months at a place much stricter than Nelles, the high-security Preston School of Industry."

   "Nothing at Preston had done the fourteen-year-old Merle any good," Eliot continues. "In fact, it did just the opposite. It only made the chip on his shoulder bigger. Upon his release, he agreed to join up with a boy he'd met inside who was set free the same day. They committed a robbery, during which they beat a kid with an emotional disability nearly to death. Both were caught again and sent back to Preston. The beating was something Merle regretted for the rest of his life."

   "It's hard to say what I was thinking about at the time," he said in 2003. "I wasn't really a mean fella. What I was doing was mainly trying to be older than I was. When I was fourteen, I wanted to be eighteen."

   "He was sixteen by the time he was released, tougher than ever and hardly reformed," Eliot writes. Nevertheless, Merle Haggard was about to get the break of his young life. Back in Oildale in late September 1953, he reconnected with Bob Teague, who informed him the following January that Lefty Frizzell was returning to Bakersfield's Rainbow Gardens for two all-ages shows. "By now," Eliot says of Merle, "he could precisely imitate Lefty's voice, pitch, and phrasing and accompany himself on the guitar while doing it. His impression was so good that a laughing Teague told Merle he ought to think about doing imitations for a living."

   They drove to the Rainbow Garden and arrived in time for the second sold-out performance. It was then and there that Haggard met his idol through singer/steel guitarist Billy Mize, a well-known figure in local country-music circles whose band was opening for Frizzell.


   (This article will be continued in the next issue of Heritage Music Review. Your copy of Marc Eliot's book THE HAG: The Life, Times, and Work of Merle Haggard is waiting for you at Phinney Books, 7405 Greenwood Avenue North in Seattle.

Phone: 206/297-2665.




                                  Find The Merle Haggard Story At Phinney Books

        "There's the guy I'd love to be and the guy I am," country music legend Merle Haggard once confided to biographer Marc Eliot. "I'm somewhere in between, in deep water, swimming to the other shore." All the complexity of the circumstances and choices that shaped him are revealed with unflinching honesty in Eliot's new book THE HAG: The Life, Times, and Work of Merle Haggard. Your copy is waiting for you at Phinney Books in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood.

Phinney Books

7405 Greenwood Avenue North

Phone: 206/297-2665

Web: ----------------------------------------

               Learn Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar At Dusty Strings

    On Sunday, November 12th, the 16th annual Seattle Slack Key Festival comes to Town Hall. Fortunately for those who would like to learn this traditional Hawaiian guitar style, Dusty Strings Music Store and School in the Fremont district, long known for its array of fine stringed instruments, instructional workshops, and folk  concerts, is hosting two workshops. For details and registration, visit the website.

 Dusty Strings Music Store and School

3406 Fremont Avenue North

Phone: 206/634-1662



        Sixties Mosrite Ventures Model At Emerald City Guitars

   Emerald City Guitars in Seattle's Pioneer Square, well known for its fascinating selection of new and vintage acoustic and electric guitars, amps, and accessories, has recently acquired a Sixties-era Mosrite Ventures Model electric, created for and endorsed by the legendary Northwest surf-rockers. "A true survivor!" the website proclaims. "This Mosrite Ventures Model guitar was recovered from the wreckage of a plane crash in 1991 and rebuilt by Mosrite to its original specifications. A fully functioning and great playing Mosrite."

Emerald City Guitars

83 South Washington Street

Phone: 206/382-0231



               On The Newsstand: Heritage Music Review

   The print edition of Heritage Music Review is available by subscription for $15 per year and on sale at the following Seattle newsstands and music venues:



American Music: 4450 Fremont Avenue North

Dusty Strings Acoustic Music Shop: 3406 Fremont Avenue North

                         UNIVERSITY DISTRICT:

Bulldog News: 4208 University Way Northeast


Phinney Books: 7405 Greenwood Avenue North


Elliott Bay Book Company: 1521 10th Avenue

                            PIONEER SQUARE:

Emerald City Guitars: 83 South Washington Street


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