HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW
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PART THREE: 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 Parts 1-2:
"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 Life, Times, and Work of Merle Haggard.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born on the morning of April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, California and raised in the working-class suburb of Oildale. His father 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
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
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
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.
Empowered with his new Martin, 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 family court 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, but after another long truancy episode, the same judge 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 first break of his teenage 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. hI got to use his guitar and have his band play behind me," Haggard later said of Frizzell. "It was quite a thrill."
When Mize invited him to appear on his new local TV show, "Chuck Wagon Gang", it appeared that young Merle Haggard was on his way to realizing a 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 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 he was discovered by Jack Tyree, a country singer and bandleader from Springfield, Missouri, who 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 Haggard's pickup gigs and offered him a spot, but Haggard 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.
Back home in the Bakersfield area, Haggard found a day job in the oil fields while continuing to look for musical opportunities 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 were caught with an almost-new '56 Olds 88, and 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.
By this time Haggard 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 marriage was a troubled one from the start. Their daughter Dana was born two weeks before he won early release for good behavior, but another series of bad decisions brought him back to prison to serve the rest of his sentence.
More bad choices followed in a desperate quest for quick cash to support his young family, including a robbery, an attempted robbery, and a short-lived escape from the Bakersfield jail on Christmas Day 1957. Consequently, Haggard found himself in the notorious San Quentin prison by the end of February 1958 with a sentence of six months to fifteen years and all privileges revoked, including access to his guitar.
"To keep himself from going crazy," his biographer elaborates, "he air-guitar'd his way through all the Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers songs he knew, humming them softly to himself as he practiced the chords and worked out alternative fingering in different octaves. The only music he heard the rest of that year was in his head."
Merle Haggard was finally released on November 3rd, 1960. "His sentence was indeterminate," Marc Eliot explains, "but the judge still wanted to give Merle a chance to one day walk out of San Quentin while still a young man. Many years later, he admitted that he believed his stay at San Quentin turned his life around before it was too late, which it nearly was."
"One of the conditions of parole from state prison was the guarantee of a job," his nephew, Jim Haggard, later explained. "My father, Lowell Haggard, who had his own business, wrote a letter guaranteeing Merle had a job waiting for him when he got out."
Back home, Haggard went to work for his brother Lowell, whose electrical contracting company always needed ditch-diggers for the new utility poles and underground wiring he was installing. The job paid $80 a week, enabling him to buy a used wire recorder to get his guitar skills back in shape during his free time. He started showing up at local nightspots again and landed a steady gig leading the band four nights a week at a club called High Pockets, and that soon led to two more nights with Johnny Barnett's band at Bob's Lucky Spot, the top honky-tonk in town.
"Not wanting, or able, to work days and nights," Eliot summarizes, "he quit his job with Lowell, thanking him for all he had done to get him out of jail. Lowell wished him luck as a musician and told him there would always be a job waiting for him if he needed it."
In the winter of 1962, Merle Haggard got his next significant break: a gig with
who was by now the biggest thing in Bakersfield. Owens had heard him at Bob's and brought him on a three-week out-of-state road trip to replace bassist Bob Morris, who had just given notice. One night when Buck broke a string, he asked Merle to take over while he replaced it, and Haggard's rendition of
"She Thinks I Still Care" brought down the house. "Onstage," Marc Eliot reports, "Owens congratulated him and patted him on the back. Offstage, it was a different story."
"Buck was an established star, Merle a complete unknown," Eliot explains, "and from the start, Buck had a tendency to treat him more like a glorified bus driver than an actual member of the band. In prison, Merle had learned that only punks are treated like punks, and you proved you weren't one by standing up to the guys who thought you were. Just three weeks after he joined Buck, he quit, leaving Owens one parting gift." The name that made Owens' band famous, The Buckaroos, had been Haggard's idea.
Back in Bakersfield, Haggard was soon recruited by country bandleader Cousin Herb Henson for his regular afternoon TV show. "Already working afternoons on the TV show and staying out most nights roaming the clubs, Merle was hardly ever home," Eliot summarizes. "Soon enough, his reconciliation with Leona unraveled."
Meanwhile, his career prospects were headed in the opposite direction. That fall on a temporary gig at Bob's Lucky Spot, he was rediscovered by steel Guitarist Fuzzy Owen, to whom he had submitted a demo tape years earlier for Owen's local Tally Records label. "That was the best damn singing I have ever heard," Owen raved when the set was over.
"Well," Haggard replied, "why don't you record me?"
"After that night," Eliot concludes, "Fuzzy told anyone who'd listen to him that he'd found a new star in this local and unknown kid by the name of Merle Haggard."
WHAT's IN STORE: NEWS FROM THE MUSICAL Marketplace
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 ----------------------------------------
Learn Ukulele Basics At Dusty Strings
Dusty Strings Music Store and School in Ieattle's Fremont district, long known for its array of fine stringed instruments, instructional workshops, and folk concerts, is now offering a ukulele class "for total beginners and those with a little bit of experience" taught by the versatile and knowledgeable Birch Pereira, leader of the popular American roots band Birch Pereira and the Gin Joints. It takes place at noon on four consecutive Tuesdays beginning February 7th. Registration deadline is February 1st.
Dusty Strings Music Store and School
3406 Fremont Avenue North
1963 Gibson "Les Paul" 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 cherry red 1963 Gibson "Les Paul" SG electric guitar. "A rare find!" the website proclaims. "An amazing guitar, and an iconic representation of Gibson's legacy."
Emerald City Guitars
83 South Washington Street
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