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PART SIX: 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 1-5:
"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. 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 two favorites were "Mississippi Blue Yodeler"
who popularized western swing with his Texas Playboys. In 1951, at age 14, Haggard discovered another country artist who made a deep impression: up-and-coming singer/songwriter
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.
A pivotal point in young Merle's life had come years earlier 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 effect 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.
When 14-year-old Merle Haggard returned to school in September 1951, Eliot recounts, "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
returned to the Rainbow Gardens. It was then 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, they 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, he 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 the new Martin guitar his mother had bought him when he was 14.
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.
After a hit with Wynn Stewart's
"Sing A Sad Song"
and a less successful follow-up, Haggard 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, earning 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, whose debut Capitol album,
Don't Take Advantage of Me,
garnered her 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
which did even better than the one Haggard had just released, vaulting all the way to Number 4 on the Billboard chart.
was released as a single on February 28th, 1966, eight months ahead of his next
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. Its successor, another album track, was also a Haggard composition,
"The Bottle Let Me Down".
It emerged in August and did ⠌ better, rocketing to Number 3 and remaining on the charts for a full year.
Merle Haggard recorded
"I'm A Lonesome Fugitive,"
a song written by Liz Anderson and inspired by the year's most popular TV series, in November 1966, and Capitol released it as a single in December. Predictably, it shot up to Number 1 on the Billboard survey and also served as the title track for his 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
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."
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.
Haggard spent his afternoon travel time practicing his guitar skills and writing songs, dictating the lyrics to Bonnie or a band member. "It was how Merle wrote all the songs for his next album,
Marc Eliot summarizes.
The album was released in late August of 1967, only five months after the release of
Its title track was, of course, the most daringly autobiographical song he had written to date, but his own story's happy ending contrasted sharply with the experience of most ex-convicts. .I'd like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am," his protagonist laments, "but they won't let my secret go untold."
"Merle had been creatively emboldened not just by the success of "Fugitive", Eliot
"but also because it hadn't revealed anything about his dark past."
"Before he wrote it," Bonnie Owens explains in Eliot's
"he was afraid he might be exposed as an ex-con before he owned up to it himself. So, Fuzzy Owen and I got together and said, "Put it out there." See, I was proud that he had outgrown prison."
The song was released as a single in June 1967, and given its emotional power, its rise to Number 1 on the country charts didn't surprise anyone. It stayed on the Billboard survey for the rest of the summer. When the
album was finally released on August 28th, it, too, went to Number 1.
The album's first single was a powerful song drawn from one of the world's busiest intersections: the corner of Alcohol and Self-destruction. "Now I'm paying for the days of wine and roses," Haggard's character confesses, "'cause I kept the wine and threw away the rose."
"I Threw Away The Rose"
earned a Number 2 spot on Billboard's country chart. "Rose" is a beautifully realized 3-minute-41-second soliloquy of sadness with Merle's voice the finest instrument on it," Eliot correctly
Although he hadn't found the pop crossover success that characterized other country artists such as Johnny Cash, Ferlin Husky, Patsy Cline, and Marty Robbins, Haggard had by this time achieved sufficient fame and fortune to upgrade his living situation. "He had enough money now to afford to move out of Oildale," Eliot
"There were just too many people there, even more in Bakersfield, and in both places everyone either knew of or actually knew their most famous resident. He was stopped constantly every time he stepped foot out of his house by people with good intentions, but he wasn't into shaking every hand thrust in front of him. Moreover, he had a lot of memories growing up around and in Oildale, not many of them good, and he felt he needed a permanent change of scenery."
"In 1967," Eliot
"The 30-year-old Merle had built from the ground up a $700,000 multi-tiered house east of Bakersfield proper, near the mouth of the Kern River. He wanted a place away from Oildale, and big enough for Bonnie's boys and his own children as well where they could all live together as a real family."
The house was complete with a swimming pool, a pool house, a state-of-the-art recording studio, and a complex, custom-designed toy train set for which Haggard had happily paid about $50,000. "Our lives changed the day we moved in," his daughter Kelli summarizes in Eliot's
In October 1967, four months after
was released as a single, another Haggard composition,
"Sing Me Back Home",
emerged. Characterized by ROLLING STONE as the latest of his "prison diary songs," it tells of a condemned man whose last wish, as he's being led to his execution, is to "let my guitar-playing friend do my request." "Let him sing me back home," he implores, "a song I used to hear. Make my old memories come alive."
By January 1968, this song, too, reached Number 1 and stayed on the Billboard country chart for seven weeks. The corresponding
Haggard's fifth, also reached Number 1.
"By now," Marc Eliot says of Haggard, "it had become something of an open secret that he had spent time in prison. One publication noted that "it seemed to have had no apparent negative effect on Haggard's career. If anything, he gained even more credibility for being someone who had "been there"."
To capitalize on the album's success, Fuzzy Owens booked Haggard, the Strangers, and Bonnie on the longest tour yet, extending from the Southern states all the way to the East Coast and commanding an average price of $7,500 per show. "As most of his money came from live concerts rather than publishing and copyrights," Marc Eliot
"he toured as often as he could, testing (or reinforcing) not only his popularity but also the stamina of the band. It was a kind of musical boot camp; those who couldn't keep up were kicked out."
Through the course of the tour, Bonnie continued to take down the lyrics and chords for new songs as Merle dictated them, but life on the road and Haggard's tendency to infidelity took a toll on their marriage. "While everyone in the band, the crew, and the record company thought the world of Bonnie," Eliot
"it was impossible for Merle to have any real intimacy in the close confines of the bus where they spent so much time. She felt more than ever like his mother rather than his wife."
Despite the damage it did to his marriage, the long road trip yielded one of Haggard's most memorable songs,
and it was also the closest he came to a musical autobiography. "Spite of all my Sunday learnin'," he confessed, "toward the bad I kept on turnin' 'til Mama couldn't hold me anymore."
Although Haggard actually "turned 21 in prison", as the song states, he managed to avoid "doin' life without parole" in the penal system, but as Marc Eliot
Merle Haggard was a lifelong prisoner of the psychological scars left by the early death of his father. "Lyrics don't have to be literal to be true," the author wisely concludes.
(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.
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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
Learn Guitar From The Ground Up 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 "a guitar class for total beginners" starting September 9th. "You'll learn basic chords and strumming patterns used throughout popular music, develop good practice habits and a strong foundation for playing guitar with ease, all while exploring popular folk, blues, and rock songs from the 20th century," the website elaborates.
Dusty Strings Music Store and School
3406 Fremont Avenue North
1956 Gibson Les Paul Junior 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 1956 Gibson Les Paul Junior electric guitar. "A super-vibey and worn-in example of a 1956 Les Paul Junior!" the website proclaims. "100 percent stock and in great playing condition with heavier dings, worn edges, and heavier checking throughout. Includes modern hardshell case."
Emerald City Guitars
83 South Washington Street
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