Last week, the Grand Ole Opry celebrated the life of Merle Haggard. Merle was never a “Nashville guy,” he did not like the cookie-cutter way Nashville made their music and preferred the rougher, Bakersfield outlier sound. Still, Merle was a country music icon and an influence on many country music entertainers.
In Bakersfield, California on the same day, April 6 (the date of his birthday and his death), friends and fans of Merle gathered to remember him. He lived much of his life in and around that oil town, as he preferred the blue collar, down to earth people.
A few years ago, I read Merle’s memoirs and thought I had a good idea of the man. Reading The Hag by Marc Eliot, paints the picture with much deeper lines. One of the great parts of Eliot’s book is how he weaves in country music history, like the Bakersfield sound, and brings intersecting lives (for example Buck Owens, Willie Nelson) into Merle’s story in a meaningful way.
I’m not a big country music fan, but Merle Haggard is one of the pillars of American music. He was also a bridge between generations of country music fans and the populist performers. His role in infusing the authenticity of roots with a popular and radio-friendly style cannot be overestimated. I am a fan of the honest, soulful stories of the classic country period.
Merle lived the “grapes of wrath”, the Woody Guthrie struggles and hard-scrabble life flowed through his family. The impoverished years of his youth would power the rebellion and personal demons of his future music.
His father, Jim Haggard, could never catch a break in life. Failed businesses and false opportunity led him to twice move his family from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life. His life of struggle only rewarded with a brain injury from an auto accident and early death.
Losing his father when Merle was nine would leave a massive hole in his life. His father’s absence set in motion a destructive period in Merle’s hard, young adult years. Truancy, kicked out school, stealing cars, hopping trains, taking underage girls on the road, fights, enlisting in the Marines but not showing up – he was learning life the hard way.
Also at age nine, Merle got his first guitar and listening to Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills on the nightly radio fueled his music interests and adventurous spirit. Merle wanted to experience what these songs spoke of. The hard way seemed how some of his country idols had done it, and the songs they sang, reflected it. In his teens, Merle was in and out of California youth facilities as his crimes increased in severity. Music was his saving grace, but it did not keep him out of trouble until much later. At 20 years old, he found himself in San Quentin prison, after being locked up 17 different times in his teens.
Even after his parole, Merle could not completely shed his proclivity for messing up his life, even as his music career was slowly taking off. Merle was drawn to unlawful shortcuts and fulfilling his own needs before his growing family responsibilities. He was more of an outlaw than the popular rebels of country music.
Merle released his debut album in 1965, and was on his second marriage and a father to four young kids. After Buck Owens, Merle was becoming Capitol Records most successful country artist. He was named Top New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. From prison to popularity, his life quickly changed.
Merle recorded “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” a song he did not write, but it could have been lifted from his life. The outlaw country genre had not yet emerged as a genre, although country music always contained bad boys, rebel spirits and plenty of broken dreams. Nashville did not readily embrace these characters, so those singers that gravitated toward this persona really did not fit into traditional country music. Waylon, Willie, Kris and Johnny also bucked the Nashville county establishment. Merle was friends with all, but he went his own way. Merle preferred California to Nashville, to live and record. Only reluctantly in his later years would he move to the Nashville area.
His songs, “Mama Tried”and “Today I Started Loving You Again” defined Merle’s life. The first song referred his mother’s efforts at keeping him out of trouble and failing. The latter was about his second wife, Bonnie Owens, who failed at finding the key to a successful marriage with Merle, though she accepted him for what he was. He gave her half of his royalties to the song out of appreciation to her, and after their split, he wanted her to stay in his band. Of his five wives, she is the one that truly loved him, but eventually grew tired of his infidelities. Sad, because he depended on her and obviously missed her late in life.
The song that caused the country to notice Merle Haggard was “Okie From Muskogee,” which according to Merle, started out as a silly song written on his tour bus in Oklahoma, but became a divisive cultural anthem. A number one country hit and modest crossover song, it was released as a single from his first live album and became his largest selling album to date. It upped his concert fee and gained him a lot of notoriety, much of it not positive, and drew him in a cultural fight with a lot of young people. He also released “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” another dig at war protesters.
Later in life, Merle dismissed the cultural conflict and wrote it off as just a song. While the Okie song represented his somewhat hardened views at the time over protest, hippies and the Vietnam War, he later became a defender of protest and free speech. He defended the Dixie Chicks when they spoke out against the war in Iraq and received push-back from country music fans. As an aside, little did conservative America know, Merle was a longtime pot smoker.
Merle was not your stereotypical redneck. His song “Irma Jackson” was about the difficulties a white man had loving a black woman, heady stuff for the times.
In 1971, Merle was presented with the Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, Male Vocalist, and Album of the Year awards, to go along with the Academy Of Country Music Entertainer of the Year award – not bad for a kid who got started imitating other country singers.
Eliot gives Gram Parsons credit for not only helping ignite the country-rock genre, but introducing country and Merle to members of the rock elite. Parsons and Keith Richard became music-drug buddies and the country influence can be heard on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers.
Some interesting tidbits about Merle:
- He was offered the role in the Smokey and the Bandit films that was ultimately played by Jerry Reed. Burt Reynolds first offered the role to Merle, but after spending time with Reynolds, Merle passed on the offer.
- Merle talked Dolly Parton into joining his tour after she broke contractually free of Porter Wagoner. Merle fell for Dolly, but she wasn’t interested and soon departed the tour.
- In the early 1970s, Merle was Capitol Records best selling artist. When his contract ended in 1976, Merle left the label. He had his last number one charting album for Capitol.
- When Merle first started out he played the bass guitar in a band when they needed a bass player.
- Merle sold his future publishing to Buck Owens when he needed money early in his career. A very poor decision.
- In the early 1970s, Bob Eubanks (The Newlywed Game) became Merle’s tour manager for ten years.
- Governor Ronald Reagan pardoned Merle for the crimes that sent him to San Quentin.
By the early 1980s, Merle was tired, and faced financial problems. He faced declining album sales and lacked radio play of his new music, but went ahead and ended his relationship with MCA Records. Merle hated living and working in Nashville and his third marriage was on the rocks. He also discovered cocaine.
Thankfully, that promise made with Willie Nelson some years back, finally materialized and they recorded an album together. Poncho and Lefty, released in 1983, became a huge hit. The title song was bestowed a Grammy, Academy of Country Music award and an American Country Music award.
The 1990s were spent fighting with another record company, Curb Records, and being bypassed by a new wave of country artists who did not sound “country” according to Merle. He longed for his career to be re-energized like Johnny Cash’s, even meeting with Rick Rubin, but nothing came of it. Merle was swimming in red ink, it cost a lot of money to be Merle Haggard, he had a big operation to support, houses, ex-wives and like Willie Nelson, the IRS for unpaid taxes. With slowed record sales, bad publishing deals, and like airplay, touring had to pay the way.
In 2000, he had no record deal and he was playing to smaller crowds – and he was on his fifth wife. As a legacy artist, he still had a story to tell, and the right people came along to help. If I Could Only Fly was the album, released on a new, eclectic label, that got Merle noticed again and it sold out his tour.
Soon, he parted ways with the record label and released his albums on his own. The music industry did not seem embracing of the tribute albums he occasionally wanted to record. Earlier in his career, he paid tribute to Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers and others. Like Johnny Cash in his latter years, paying tribute to the music that raised him, Merle thought it important to remind country fans of the genre’s earlier glory.
Growing old is not for sissies, Bette Davis is often quoted. Johnny Cash succumbed to illness and age, just as former wife Bonnie Owens and longtime band member Roy Nichols.
Now in his mid 60s, Merle’s audience had narrowed as his fans had aged and younger audiences did not know him, or only thought of the Okie from Muskogee. That suddenly changed, when in 2005, Merle was asked to open for Bob Dylan on tour. Merle did not open for other artists, but he was persuaded to do just than. In 2006, after undergoing heart surgery, Merle opened for The Rolling Stones. Back on the road with Dylan, then a tour with Willie Nelson and Ray Price.
Then in 2008, Merle underwent surgery for lung cancer. The next year he was back on the road, enjoying his resurgent popularity. The crowning jewel was his Kennedy Center Honor in 2010.
Merle continued working, though at a slower pace, until his health eventually made performing difficult. In 2016, his performing slowed to a crawl as he cancelled shows, but needed to play a show in Las Vegas for a $250,000 payday. His last show was February 13. He passed on April 6, 2016.
Merle went out with his boots on. Music was his life. A wayward youth set him on a course for self-destruction and only his ability to sing and play guitar changed the arc of his life. Mama tried, but his wandering spirit prevailed.
5 thoughts on “Merle Haggard”
Excellent piece Mike. I love Merle Haggard’s music.
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Welcome back to JoCo.
I’m not a country music fan either, but Haggard is someone I should know better. I know his “Mama Tried” due to the Grateful Dead, who often covered it in their shows. Of course, I’ve heard “Okie,” but didn’t know he about-faced by defending the Dixie Chicks. “Pancho and Lefty” was written by Townes Van Zandt, whose music I love. https://peterkurtz.com/2019/06/16/down-at-texas-rose-cafe-with-cb-and-townes-van-zandt/
Thanks for sharing, that was fun. I can’t imagine you hopping a train quite like Merle used to do. I’ve heard of Townes Van Zandt, but not listened to him perform any of his own material.
I did find a copy of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Planning to give it a listen this weekend.
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That double live album of Townes’s is a gem. And Pink Moon will tug at your heart. Re the train, that was my imagination, of course, as was Lowell (George), Juanita, Archer City (Larry McMurtry) etc. That was a fun post with CB, and we should do the same thing some time.
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