HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW
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Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright
PART TWO: MERLE HAGGARD: New Biography Chronicles The Life of One of Country Music's Most Complex Legends
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MERLE HAGGARD: New Biography Chronicles The Life of One of Country Music's Most Complex Legends
By Doug Bright
Summary of Part 1:
"Merle Haggard has always been as deep as it gets," Bob Dylan once said. "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 HAG: The Life, Times, and Work of Merle Haggard.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born on the morning of April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, California. His father, the multi-talented and ambitious Jim Haggard, had been a popular fiddler during his youth in Oklahoma at local dances and weddings, and 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". He was also deeply influenced by nightly live broadcasts from
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, who popularized western swing.
A pivotal point in young Merle's life came when his 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. 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 admits in Eliot's biography, 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. "He thought there must have been some connection between his own recent illness and his father's stroke," Eliot explains. "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. Three years later, 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."
In 1951, Haggard discovered another country artist who made a deep impression: up-and-coming singer/songwriter
Lefty Frizzell. It was about this time that his 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, Haggard 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, but it was enough to make a huge impression. "His impact on me at that time was not even measurable," Haggard later said.
"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 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. Haggard went to join him, but when they returned in November, he was picked up by the truant officers, who had been searching for him all the time he'd been gone. Annoyed to see him again, the family court judge who had originally sentenced him pronounced him incorrigible and sent him to a much stricter facility, the high-security Preston School of Industry.
"He was sixteen by the time he was released, tougher than ever and hardly reformed," Eliot writes. Nevertheless, Merle Haggard was soon 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. They arrived in time for the second sold-out performance, and 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.
Confident that he could get backstage passes for himself and his friend, Teague knocked on Frizzell's dressing-room door at intermission. "Bob asked Lefty if he'd like to meet a guy who sang like he did," Haggard recalls in Eliot's
book. "He said sure. So I was brought In."
To Haggard's astonishment, his idol handed him his custom Gibson guitar. Strapping on the sacred instrument and retrieving the pick he always carried in his shirt pocket, Haggard launched into a pitch-perfect rendition of Frizzell's hit
"Always Late (with your kisses)". "Lefty, already pretty well lit, grinned, applauded lightly, and told Merle it was like listening to his own record," Eliot reports.
"Just as I finished up," Haggard's narrative continues, "one of the show's promoters, Joe Snead, came by and told Lefty it was time to start the show, and Frizzell said, "I want this kid to sing a song out there before I go on." Snead looked at Lefty like he was crazy, but Lefty refused to go on if I wasn't allowed to sing, so he got his way, and I got to use his guitar and have his band play behind me. It was quite a thrill."
The crowd roared its approval, and Merle managed to get three songs in before disappearing into the wings, where Lefty Frizzell complimented him on a fine performance before taking the stage himself. After seeing Frizzell's effortless command of the audience, he commented, "I seen that and I knew that was probably what I was going to do."
When Billy Mize invited him to appear on his new local TV show, "Chuck Wagon Gang", to perform Frizzell's
"King Without A Queen", it appeared that young Merle Haggard was on his way to realizing that dream. "Mize told him after his onstage stint that he might be able to make a go of it as a country singer," Marc Eliot elaborates. "He believed that nothing and nobody could stop him now. He was wrong. He hadn't counted on the brick wall of self-destruction that stood in his way."
He took a day job packing potatoes by day but spent his evenings sitting in with local country bands, and in two years he had built a reputation as a solid rhythm guitarist and was picking up regular work. In 1956 his reputation landed him a chance to perform with one of his childhood heroes, Tommy Duncan, who had left Bob Wills' Texas Playboys and was now leading a band of his own. Duncan needed someone to sub for his regular rhythm guitarist for a show in Hanford, California, and Merle found himself onboard.
By this time he had married Leona Hobbs, with whom he shared no common interests except a vigorous teenage sexual appetite. She didn't even care much for his music, so their courtship time was divided fairly evenly between fornicating and fighting.
Haggard brought his 17-year—old bride to the Tommy Duncan gig, and though Duncan was impressed with his playing, attendance was sparse, which put the aspiring young guitarist in a sullen mood for the drive home. "Leona, meanwhile, was unusually upbeat, enjoyed having her night out, and wanted him to talk to her," Marc Eliot reports. "He asked her what she wanted to talk about. She remarked, sarcastically, it was no wonder that the place was so empty, because this Tommy whoever-he-was had no talent anyway."
Offended by her ignorant dismissal of such an important musical figure, Haggard reached out with his free hand while driving sixty miles an hour and backhanded her. "One of the ongoing problems in their marriage was they both had short-to-no fuses," Eliot concludes. "They were two out-of-control teenagers with raging hormones."
"That night marked the moment their marriage was all over except for the shouting, followed by the legalities of a pending divorce," Eliot continues. "What put an end to the legalities was Leona's announcement that she was pregnant."
A while later that year, Haggard got another career opportunity, but in keeping with his self-destructive tendencies, he found a way to squander it. Jack Tyree, a country singer and bandleader from Springfield, Missouri, had found out about the burgeoning Bakersfield honky-tonk scene and headed west on a talent-scouting expedition. He liked what he heard at one of Merle's pickup gigs and offered him a spot on his live weekly broadcast, The Smilin' Jack Tyree Radio Show. After a moment of hesitation, Haggard took the position, but he arrived with a superstar attitude, believing himself entitled to better pay and living accommodations than the other musicians were getting. In three weeks his off-duty carousing had taken precedence over his obligations to the show, and Tyree had no choice but to fire him.
"By the fall of '56," Eliot summarizes, "Merle reluctantly returned home. He found a job working in the oil fields by day and looking for pickup work in the local Bakersfield clubs at night."
One evening over a beer with a co-worker, the conversation turned to stealing cars, which Merle and his old pal Dean Roe often did just for fun, and at his suggestion, the two drunken field-hands searched for an unlocked vehicle, intending to cross the Nevada line, avail themselves of the state's legalized prostitution, and get home for the next morning's shift.
"They spotted an almost new '56 Olds 88, jumped it, and sped out on the highway," Eliot reports. "They didn't get very far before an impatient Merle, who insisted on driving, passed two semis going too slow for him, not knowing a California Highway Patrol car was riding between them. Too late, Merle slammed on the brakes."
Unable to show the patrolman a driver's license or proof of registration, Haggard was carried off to the local jail. A couple of days later he faced a judge who had had ample time to access his criminal record, and consequently, he was sentenced to a year at the Ventura County jailhouse.
"On May 1, 1957, a few weeks after his twentieth birthday, Merle won early release from the Ventura County jail for good behavior," Eliot writes, "but it was a month too late for him to be there for the birth of his daughter, whom they named Dana. He found a day job working for a scrap metal company and returned to doing pickup dates at Bakersfield's local clubs."
When he couldn't make ends meet, especially with a new mouth to feed," Eliot continues, "he and a couple of his pals bought an old pickup truck and planned to load up scrap iron they'd steal from one operation and sell it to another. They were caught the first time they tried it, and the local judge gave Merle ninety days on a road camp."
He lasted five days before escaping to hop a freight, but he was caught just south of the Oregon border in Eureka and brought back to Bakersfield to serve the remaining three months of his original sentence.
(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.
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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.
7405 Greenwood Avenue North
Web: www.phinneybooks.com ----------------------------------------
Martin 0-28VS At Dusty Strings
Dusty Strings Music Store and School in the Fremont district, long known for its array of fine stringed instruments, instructional workshops, and folk concerts, has recently acquired a pre-owned Martin 0-28VS acoustic guitar, which the website describes as "a phenomenal, small guitar that excels with fingerstyle playing."
Dusty Strings Music Store and School
3406 Fremont Avenue North
1968 Fender Jazz Bass 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 1968 Fender Jazz electric bass guitar in good condition. "The slim neck feels great in the hands and is effortless to play," the website proclaims. "Adjust the controls to accomplish an impressive array of classic Fender tones."
Emerald City Guitars
83 South Washington Street
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