HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW
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PART FOUR: 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 1-3:
"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 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 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.
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.
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, and the two teens attended the second performance. "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.
"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 big 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. 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. "I got to use his guitar and his band play behind me," Haggard later said. "It was quite a thrill."
When Mize invited him to appear on his new local TV show, it appeared that young Merle Haggard was on his way to realizing his dream of a career in country music. "He believed that nothing and nobody could stop him now," Eliot writes. "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 Haggard had built a reputation as a solid rhythm guitarist and was picking up regular work. In 1956 he was discovered by 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, and he was fired after three weeks.
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 Oldsmobile 88, and Haggard was carried off to the local jail. More bad decisions followed, 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.
Merle Haggard was finally released on November 3rd, 1960. Back home, he went to work for his brother Lowell, whose electrical contracting company always needed ditch-diggers for the new utility poles and underground wiring it was installing. 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," Marc Eliot summarizes, "he quit his job with Lowell. 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, Haggard got his next significant break: a gig with Buck Owens, 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. When the tour was over, he left with one parting gift: The name that made Owens' band famous, The Buckaroos, had been Haggard's idea.
That fall on a temporary gig at Bob's Lucky Spot, Haggard was rediscovered by steel guitarist Fuzzy Owen, to whom he had submitted a demo tape years earlier for Owen's local Tally Records label. "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."
Merle Haggard cut two sides for the Tally label in late 1962. "Skid Row", a Haggard original, was a down-and-outer narrative with an upbeat musical setting. It was backed with "Singing My Heart Out", a Fuzzy Owen lament of unrequited love from the performance stage. Both sides placed Haggard's voice in a Buck Owens-style tenor range rather than the resonant baritone that became his signature sound. Only 200 copies were initially pressed for promotional purposes, but it caught the ear of Ken Nelson, whose country music division had launched Buck Owens at Capitol Records.
As a result, Nelson was present at Capitol Studio A in Hollywood when Haggard recorded "Sing A Sad Song", which he had learned from its composer, Wynn Stewart, while in Las Vegas on a gig with Stewart's band. At Nelson's suggestion, some light, tasteful string orchestration was added, giving the record a "countrypolitan" sound in step with the times without compromising its essential character.
Released in November 1963, the record entered Billboard magazine's country chart at Number 19 and stayed there for three weeks. Haggard's follow-up was a cover of Bakersfield country-sound pioneer Tommy Collins' "Sam Hill". It was an amusing story about an old man who makes mysterious visits to a local landmark called Sam Hill equipped with a box of candy and returns home the next morning with a broad smile. Predictably, his neighbors wonder, "What the Sam Hill's goin' on."
Haggard delivered it well, but it only reached Number 45 on Billboard's country survey and disappeared at the end of a week. Ken Nelson had offered him a spot with Capitol even before "Sing A Sad Song" was released, but out of loyalty to Fuzzy Owen, Haggard refused. Nevertheless, the lackluster chart performance of "Sam Hill" convinced him that he needed a major label to break him into national stardom.
The deal was sealed in February 1964, retaining Fuzzy Owen as Haggard's manager. "I guided Merle through the contract signing process and made sure he got the best deal possible," Owen later elaborated.
For his first Capitol album, Owen encouraged Haggard to write as much good material as possible since most of an artist's income was likely to come from copyrights to the songs. From that point on, Marc Eliot summarizes, Haggard was like a songwriting machine gun, but it took him months to come up with an album headliner that had the makings of a national hit, even if he didn't write it.
It happened when he met Sacramento-based singer/songwriter Liz Anderson and heard her composition "(my friends are gonna Be) Strangers", which had already been rejected by Nashville's established artists and publishers. When he sang it for his manager, Fuzzy Owen agreed with his assessment and arranged a recording session at Capitol with Wynn Stewart's West Coast Playboys as backup band. It was released as a single in November 1964.
"Merle's recording about loss, betrayal, broken promises, and the death of trust sounded so real that to this day people swear he wrote it," Marc Eliot observes in his book. It reached Number 10 on Billboard's country survey. By July 1965 the album was finished, and Capitol released it on September 27th.
(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 Learn Classic Blues Guitar At Dusty Strings
Dusty Strings Music Store and School in Seattle's Fremont district, long known for its array of fine stringed instruments, instructional workshops, and folk concerts, is hosting one of Seattle's most respected blues artists and scholars, Eric Madis, in a fingerstyle guitar workshop on the techniques of such legendary country bluesmen as Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt. "You'll learn a classic blues tune from the tradition, how to develop strong thumb accompaniment, and techniques for embellishment and improvisation," he elaborates. The workshop, intended for intermediate-level players, takes place at 11 AM on Saturday, April 22nd.
Dusty Strings Music Store and School
3406 Fremont Avenue North
Vintage Epiphone Archtop 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 1949 Epiphone Zephyr Regent Deluxe archtop. "This fantastic-sounding guitar is fitted with its two original pick-ups for a timeless vintage archtop tone and is in original condition with the exception of a professionally done refret and replaced knobs," the website proclaims.
Emerald City Guitars
83 South Washington Street
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