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

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Part Seven:

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

By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-6:

     "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 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 two favorites were "Mississippi Blue Yodeler"

Jimmie Rodgers


Bob Wills,

 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

Lefty Frizzell,

 whom he saw for the first time at Bakersfield's Rainbow Gardens.

   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


  "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


 "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


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 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


 "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


 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.

   Several more top-selling albums followed which included the unforgettable hits

"Swinging Doors",

 "The Bottle Let Me Down",

"I'm A Lonesome Futitive",

"Branded Man",

 "Sing Me Back Home",


"Mama Tried".

 The demand they created prompted plenty of touring with a band which Haggard configured after the hillbilly-jazz sound of

Bob Wills'

 Texas Playboys, and to get that sound, he held his players to an exacting standard.

   Haggard spent his afternoon travel time practicing his guitar skills and writing songs, dictating the lyrics to Bonnie or a band member. He loved being on the road where, as Marc Eliot explains, he felt the freest and most creative.

   Despite Haggard's success, life on the road and his tendency to infidelity took a toll on his 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."


   Capitol released

"Mama Tried"

 in July 1968, and predictably, it went straight to Number 1 on Billboard's country chart and became the title track for Haggard's next


which emerged in October. Continuing the prison theme, it included Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues", a masterful rendition of the 1965 Porter Wagoner country hit "Green, Green Grass of Home", and Mel Tillis's "I Could Have Gone Right". "On its cover," Marc Eliot


 "Merle is dressed in prison garb, with a ghostly vision of an elderly woman, presumably Flossie, mourning the fate of her wrong-road son. As much as he resisted it, he had become a player in his own myth-making."

   As Haggard's long cross-country tour rolled on, the strain that it put on his marriage worsened, but ironically, it proved to be the catalyst for one of his most memorable songs. "We'd been on a long tour, for something like ninety-plus days," he explains in Marc Eliot's book. "We were down in Texas and had a week off, before another forty-five shows. We decided to fly home and take a break. We were at LAX (Los Angeles airport) and suddenly I turned to Bonnie and said, "You know, we haven't had time (lately) to say hello to each other. You know, today I started lovin' you again." And she said, "What an idea for a song!"

   Despite its future impact, no one at Capitol considered

"Today I Started Loving You Again"

 good enough to put on the A side of Haggard's next single, so it wound up on the flipside of his composition

"The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde",

 obviously inspired by the popularity of a blockbuster movie on the subject that year. The song yielded an


 which soared to Number 1 on Bilboard's country chart while its more enduring B side, not even included on the album, stalled at Number 88.


"Hungry Eyes"

 was Haggard's next single, released in mid-1969. It was one of his most compelling compositions, and the sensitive string orchestration that graced this record amplified its emotional power. Reminiscing on his childhood growing up in labor camps, the protagonist confides, "Mama never had the luxuries she wanted, but it wasn't 'cause my daddy didn't try.  She only wanted things she really needed,  One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes." It appeared on Haggard''s next album,

A Portrait of Merle Haggard,

 with two more of his most memorable songs: the manual labor anthem

"Workin' Man Blues"

 and another richly orchestrated heartbreak ballad,

"Silver Wings"

 (slowly fading out of sight).

   Merle Haggard's most controversial song to date came about in the spring of 1969 as his tour bus rumbled through Oklahoma. "On Interstate 40," Marc Eliot


 "he saw a sign that said "19 miles to Muskogee." The band was, by now, feeling no pain, as almost everyone on the bus except Merle was into smoking pot, and as a joke someone said, "I bet they don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee." Everyone broke out laughing, including Merle."

   "We started making up some more lines," Haggard later


 "and in about twenty minutes we had a song."

   Everywhere they traveled, the song was greeted with uproarious applause, especially on the last stop, the Civic Center in Muskogee. As with every other show, Fuzzy Owen recorded this one on high-end equipment that he always carried with him on the bus for that purpose, and the result, released that September by Capitol, was a masterpiece in living stereo. Entitled

Live In Muskogee, Oklahoma

 it began with "Mama Tried", and the line, "I turned 21 in prison doin' life without parole," drew a vigorous cheer.  "Silver Wings", which the audience had apparently heard on the


 album or his recent appearance on the "Hee Haw" TV series, was greeted similarly.  

   After that, Muskogee mayor Bob Brown presented Haggard with an award from the state governor, designating the California native "an honorary Okie". "I've been called one all my life," he quipped, "I might as well put the pin on."

   In the course of the show, the crowd got to hear all of Haggard's hits. There were also two songs from Merle's childhood idol

Jimmie Rodgers,

"No Hard Times" and "Hobo Bill's Last Ride", complete with the obligatory yodels.

   "We got a brand-new song that we're gonna whip on you," Haggard announced. "We wrote it specifically for this album." With that, he launched into "Billy Overcame His Size", and when the audience realized it was the story of a war hero, a cheer went up.

   Introducing the song to which the concert was dedicated, Haggard explained, "As some of you may or may not know, I wasn't born here in Muskogee but my family on my mother's side lived here for many years and I think most all of my dad's folks were born somewhere around Brush Hill or Nebo Mountain. Muskogee was a town that I've heard about ever since I was knee-high. I've heard 'em talk so many times about it that when I finally began to tour on the road we made a special thing to come through here and see where they used to live."

   "Oklahoma has been able to keep out of the conflict, and the college campuses haven't had any trouble that I know of," he continued, "and I haven't seen any hippies around here either. The ideas came together, and we wrote a song."

   "Okie From Muskogee" drew such a thunderous response that the band was obliged to repeat the chorus for a curtain call. The concert rendition, taken from the


 and released as a single on September 29th, soared to Number 1 on the Billboard country survey and earned Haggard his first gold record.

   Predictably, the album also topped the charts, and here's where the story takes an ironic twist. "Ken nelson did not like the live recording of "Okie," Marc Eliot explains, "and insisted Merle do the song in the studio. That version was released a few months later, and failed to chart." Nevertheless, journalist Daniel Cooper observed at the time, the song "catapulted Merle Haggard from standard country music star to full-fledged media sensation."


(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


               Learn Songwriting From A Nashville Pro

     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 four-week online course from award-winning Nashville songwriter Tai Shan. Held on four consecutive Tuesdays beginning November 7th, this Zoom class is "designed to get you writing a new song every week."

 Dusty Strings Music Store and School

3406 Fremont Avenue North

Phone: 206/634-1662

Web: www.dustystrings.com



         1956 Fender Stratocaster 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 Fender Stratocaster electric "in great condition and wear in all the right places" with a well-done blonde refinish and original hardshell case.

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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