JUNE, 2023


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A monthly guide to early rock, blues, country, folk, and traditional jazz in the Seattle area and beyond.

Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright

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

WHAT's IN STORE: News From The Musical Marketplace



Part Five:

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

By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-4:

     "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 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.

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

Lefty Frizzell,

 whom he saw for the first time at Bakersfield's Rainbow Gardens.      "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." A family court judge sent him to the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility for Boys, where he endured a year of very harsh treatment.  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 the following January when

Lefty Frizzell

 returned to the Rainbow Gardens. It was then and there that he 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 have 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 to young Merle Haggard that nothing could stop him from realizing his dream of a career in country music.  "He was wrong," Marc Eliot writes. "He hadn't counted on the brick wall of self-destruction that stood in his way."

   Haggard took menial jobs 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. Nevertheless, one evening over a beer with a co-worker, the conversation turned to stealing cars, 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 started showing up at local nightspots again and landed steady gigs that enabled him to work six nights a week. At a temporary engagement in the fall of 1962, 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. The two sides he recorded, released in early 1963, 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.

  Released in November 1963, the record entered Billboard magazine's country chart at Number 19 and stayed there for three weeks. After a less successful follow-up, he signed with Capitol in February 1964. His first Capitol single, songwriter Liz Anderson's "(my friends are gonna be)


 reached Number 10 on the Billboard country chart, and his first album,


 emerged in September 1965.


   "The rest of the album had an impressive list of songs," Eliot correctly summarizes, "including a mix of originals, a couple more Anderson tunes, a few collaborations, some unreleased tracks from the early Tally sessions, and two grand tributes to country legends Merle admired."

   "As soon as it hit the stores," Eliot continues, "it jumped onto Billboard's country album chart, peaked at No. 9, and wound up the tenth-best-selling country album of the year." It also earned him a citation from the newly formed Academy of Country Music as Best New Male Vocalist of 1965.

   By this time, Haggard had married Buck Owens' first wife, Bonnie Owens, who had just cut her first album,

Don't Take Advantage of me,

 just two weeks after Haggard's debut. It did almost as well, earning her a well-deserved Number 15 spot on the Billboard chart and an award for Top Female Vocalist of 1965.  

   "Ken Nelson knew a good thing when he saw it," Eliot reports, "and brought Merle and Bonnie back into Capitol Studios to record an album called

Just Between The Two of Us,

 a collection of twelve songs hastily thrown together to cash in on their success." Their recording of the album's title song, written by Liz Anderson, had been recorded and released in 1964 on Tally Records, but despite its emotional power, it scored only a minor hit at the time. However, the 1966 Capitol album did even better than the one Haggard had just released, vaulting all the way to Number 4 on the Billboard chart.

   "While Haggard was working on his second solo album," Marc Eliot writes, "he was trying to make a creative leap as a songwriter. He also wanted to find his true singing voice to match his writing, without completely losing what gave him their magic. He listened over and over again to the records of his musical heroes to try to dissect what made them sound so special. Merle also studied the recordings of his main competitor at Capitol,

Buck Owens,

 until he began to understand how the seemingly endless run of Buck's hit songs worked."

   Haggard's composition

"Swinging Doors"

 was released as a single on February 28th, 1966, eight months ahead of his next album, and served as its title track. Its theme of alcohol as pain reliever was to be a recurrent concept, and its effectiveness was dramatically demonstrated on the Billboard country chart. "Swinging Doors" zoomed to Number 5 in one week. Its successor, another album track, was also a Haggard composition,

 "The Bottle Let Me Dowy".

It emerged in August and did ⠌ better, rocketing to Number 3 and remaining on the charts for a full year.

   The album, mostly composed of Haggard's own songs and simply entitled

Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down,

 rose to the very top of Billboard's country survey, establishing the sound that was to make Merle Haggard a long-lasting star. His voice could still soar to the Buck Owens-style tenor range that had characterized his previous work, but by now he had also cultivated a plaintive baritone delivery that bore the unmistakable stamp of his hero

Lefty Frizzell.

 Bonnie Owens, for her part, accented key phrases of the choruses with the kind of solid tenor harmony that Don Rich had employed to immortalize the recordings of his longtime partner

Buck Owens.

 When needed, the baritone parts were supplied by co-producer Ken Nelson.

   The instrumentation was characterized by Roy Nichols' piercingly twangy lead guitar and the dexterous string-bending and emotive whine of Ralph Mooney's pedal-steel guitar. All in all, the result was a hard-edged Bakersfield honky-tonk sound that contrasted refreshingly with Nashville's crossover pop strategy. "With this album," Marc Eliot summarizes, "Merle Haggard and the Strangers had given country music back its balls."

   In his constant quest for quality material to record, Merle Haggard relied heavily on Liz Anderson, who consistently delivered. As Marc Eliot tells it, Anderson and her husband were avid consumers of prime-time TV, and they drew instant inspiration from the era's most popular series. "The Fugitive" starred David Jansen as a man wrongfully convicted of killing his wife. "On the way to his execution," Eliot explains, "he escapes via a fluke train accident and sets out to find the real murderer, a one-armed man he saw leaving the scene of the crime that no one else believes exists."

    Recalling his reaction when Anderson played him her new song, Haggard later said, "It was almost like I'd written every word," and that was the problem. So far, very few people knew about his stay in San Quentin, and he feared that an inmate who had been there with him might reveal his secret. "He also feared his career might be ruined if some cheap tabloid splashed his picture across its front cover with prison bars painted on him," Eliot elaborates. "Country music always had some "bad boy" aspects to it, but pretending to be one and actually being one, Merle knew, were two different things."

   Despite his trepidations, Merle Haggard recorded

"I'm a Lonesome Fugitive"

 in November 1966, and Capitol released it as a single in December. Predictably, it shot up to Number 1 on the Billboard survey. It also served as the title song for Haggard's fourth


 released the following March.

   "To promote the album," Marc Eliot recounts, "Merle took the Strangers and Bonnie on tour. At the same time, Merle reconfigured the Strangers after the hillbilly-jazz sound of

Bob Wills

 and His Texas Playboys."

   To get that sound, he held his band members to an exacting standard. Norm Hamlet, who replaced Ralph Mooney on steel, recalls, "He wanted us to be ready to play every night, to be sharp before a show. He always reminded us that people in the audience had paid good money to see us. That meant no drugs and no drinking. Whenever a musician was added for a tour, we'd sit him down and explain to him what Merle expected." Haggard kept Hamlet as his bandleader for the next 49 years.

   Unlike the steel player whom Hamlet had replaced, Merle Haggard loved being on the road. "It was where he felt the freest, the most relaxed, and at his most creative," Eliot explains. "Playing for large audiences was, for him, like an athlete playing a big game in a packed arena. He fed off the audience's energy, and it pushed him to new levels of creativity."


(This article will continue 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

Web: www.phinneybooks.com).



                                  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: www.phinneybooks.com              


Learn Old-time Clawhammer Banjo 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 champion old-time fiddler Aaron Jonah Lewis on July 8th for a workshop on the old-time clawhammer banjo style, also known as frailing.

 Dusty Strings Music Store and School

3406 Fremont Avenue North

Phone: 206/634-1662

Web: www.dustystrings.com


           1957 Fender P-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 1957 Fender P-bass electric bass guitar. "This early players-grade P-bass really captures the essence of an instrument that has lived in someone's hands on stage," the website proclaims. "It sounds fantastic with impressive sustain and a nice vocal-like acoustic quality. Heavily modified" but "the soul of the bass remains."

Emerald City Guitars

83 South Washington Street

Phone: 206/382-0231

Web: www.emeraldcityguitars.com


               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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