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PART EIGHT: 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 Eight:

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

By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-7:

     "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 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


 "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, 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 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 label. The two


 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


 "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.

   More top-selling albums followed which included the unforgettable hits

“Swinging  Doors",

“The Bottle Let Me Down”,

 "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive",

 "Branded Man",

"Sing Me Back Home",

"Mama Tried",

"Hungry Eyes

"Workin' Man Blues",

"Silver Wings",


 "Okie From Muskogee".

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.


   The year 1969 brought one of the most significant albums of Merle Haggard's career. Entitled

Same Train, A Different Time,

 it paid loving tribute to his first childhood hero,

Jimmie Rodgers.

 "As I record this album," he explained in the first of several heartfelt narrations, "Jimmie Rodgers has been gone 36 years. Now I'm not gonna try to tell you the Jimmie Rodgers story because it's been told many, many times before, but I'd like to pass along some of the very human aspects of the man which I've learned about and some of the things which I'm sure helped make him the most important man whoever sang a country song."

   "Jimmie had a special feeling for the hobo," Haggard continued, "and he was always good for a touch by one of the knights of the road. He knew their problems and he knew 'em well, because Jimmie Rodgers had hoboed many of the mainlines himself."

   With that, he launched into a spellbinding rendition of Rodgers' immortal freight-hopper anthem

"Hobo Meditation”,

 which he performed that fall on his third "Hee Haw" TV appearance. "It's likely few people watching knew the song was written in 1928, as Merle's presentation made it sound fresh and contemporary," Marc Eliot



   The Jimmie Rodgers album garnered a well-deserved spot at the top of Billboard's country chart, so Haggard followed up with another homage, this time to his second childhood inspiration,

Bob Wills.

 Intending his hero to appear on it, Haggard flew him to Philadelphia for a live show with all the surviving members of Wills' Texas Playboys he could round up. A massive stroke prevented Wills from participating, but Haggard and his legendary guest artists soldiered on. "Merle narrated the album as if he were a disc jockey on a late-night radio show,"  Marc Eliot


 "explaining to the live audience the greatness of the legendary Texas bandleader."

    "Merle carried on and produced an album of extraordinary music that perfectly simulated the jazz-infused big band CandW sound that had put Wills in the pantheon of country music," Eliot correctly


 Released in November, it sold 500,000 copies, achieving gold-record status and sparking a western swing revival that spawned such new bands as Asleep At The Wheel and Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen.

    Ironically, Ken Nelson at Capitol was opposed to the project, arguing that a second tribute to a legend from a bygone era would amount to "career suicide". He only agreed to put out the Bob Wills album if Haggard first gave him a stridently patriotic follow-up to "Okie From Muskogee". "Not too long ago," Marc Eliot cogently points out, "Nelson was vehemently opposed to songs like "Okie"—unjil it sold a million copies. Now he wanted another one just like it."

   Consequently, Haggard returned to the studio in January 1970 to record

The Fightin' Side of Me,

 with the title song released as its first single. With regard to the United States of America, his message to the counterculture was, "If you don't love it, leave it,  Let this song that I'm singin' be a warning.  When you're runnin' down our country, man, you're walkin' on the fightin' side of me."

   "To his way of thinking," Eliot


 the young dissidents "did nothing but whine about everything they thought was wrong with the country but offered no answers as to how to make the country better by offering real solutions to real problems."  Predictably, the single and the album shot to Number 1 on their respective country surveys.

   Explaining the circumstances leading up to his next album, Marc Eliot


 "Merle had been thinking of doing a TV series of his own, using the same formula that had made Johnny Cash's prime-time network show on ABC a hit. Merle called Merv Griffin. Merle wanted Griffin to produce his show, but Griffin said he had a better idea. How about a network TV special shot at San Quentin? Merle jumped at the suggestion, hoping it was the fastest way to get him his own show."

   "Griffin got in touch with the authorities at the prison, who were thrilled that one of their former inmates who'd made good wanted to give something back," Eliot


 The show was filmed in March 1971, concluding with a redemption-themed gospel concert for the prisoners, but it was never aired. "CBS decided that it was unacceptable to broadcast a show that brought San Quentin into the living rooms of American families," Eliot



   Nevertheless, Haggard used some of the audio footage as the basis for a two-record set called

Land of Many Churches.

 The remainder of the album was recorded live in several church settings while Haggard was on the road. Capitol released it on November 15th, strategically timed for the holiday season, and it reached Number 15 on Billboard's country chart. As for the film itself, it was believed to be lost for 41 years until it was finally discovered during an inventory of the late Merv Griffin's personal vaults. Some of it was aired in 2022 as part of a special called "The Lost Footage of Merle", and according to

Marc Eliot,

 it's readily available on the Internet.


(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




                                  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 How To Practice On Any Instrument 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 unique workshop on December 2nd on devising your own strategy for effective practice on any instrument. "You'll go over basics that should be included in any practice session," the website elaborates, "learn pro tips and techniques with Dusty Strings Education Director Jonathan Shue to develop your own practice "road map" that you can refer to for ideas, direction, inspiration, and more."  

 Dusty Strings Music Store and School

3406 Fremont Avenue North

Phone: 206/634-1662



             1953 Les Paul Gold Top 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 1953 Gibson Les Paul Standard Gold Top All Gold Bouillion electric. "In original condition," the website proclaims, "with just a single replaced strap button. Set up nicely and plays great. Includes original hardshell case."

Emerald City Guitars

83 South Washington Street

Phone: 206/382-0231



               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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