March 27, 2012
Though for the last decade his new recordings have received almost no airplay—in the innocently cruel Nashville taxonomy, he is classified as a living legend—Merle Ronald Haggard remains, with the arguable exception of Hank Williams, the single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history.
Haggard is certainly one of the genre’s most versatile artists. His repertory ranges wide: aching ballads (“Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Silver Wings”); sly, frisky narratives (“Old Man from the Mountain,” “It’s Been a Great Afternoon”); semi-autobiographical reflections (“Mama Tried,” “Hungry Eyes”), political commentaries (“Under the Bridge,” “Rainbow Stew”), proletarian homages (“Workin’ Man Blues,” “White Line Fever”), as well as drinking songs that are jukebox, cover-band, and closing-time standards (“Swinging Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink”).
His acolytes are legion and include many of country music’s brightest and lesser lights, as well as thousands of nightclub musicians. As fiddler Jimmy Belken, a longtime member of the Strangers, Haggard’s exemplary touring band, once told The New Yorker, “If someone out there workin’ music doesn’t bow deep to Merle, don’t trust him about much anything else.”
Haggard was born poor, though not desperately so, in Depression-era Bakersfield to Jim and Flossie Haggard, migrants from Oklahoma. Jim, a railroad carpenter, died of a stroke in 1946, forcing Flossie to find work as a bookkeeper.
Flossie was a fundamentalist Christian and a stern, somewhat overprotective mother. Not surprisingly, Merle grew quickly from rambunctious to rake-hell. By his twenty-first birthday he had run away regularly from home, been placed in two separate reform schools (from which he in turn escaped a half-dozen times), worked as a laborer, played guitar and sung informally, begun a family, and performed sporadically at southern California clubs and, for three weeks, on the Smilin’ Jack Tyree Radio Show in Springfield, Missouri. He also spent time in local jails for theft and bad checks.
His woebegone criminal career culminated in 1957 when, drunk and confused, he was caught burglarizing a Bakersfield roadhouse. After an attempted escape from county jail, he was sent to San Quentin. There, in a final burst of antisocial activity, he got drunk on prison home brew, landing himself briefly in solitary confinement. He was paroled in 1960 and, after a fitful series of odd jobs, got a regular gig playing bass for Wynn Stewart in Las Vegas.
Another Bakersfield mainstay, Fuzzy Owen, signed Haggard to his tiny Tally Records in 1962. After recording five singles there—the first release, “Skid Row” b/w “Singin’ My Heart Out,” sold few copies; the fourth, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” entered Billboard’s Top Ten (1965)—Haggard signed with Capitol. He moved to MCA in 1976, to Epic in 1981, and in 1990 to Curb.
He released his first album, Strangers, in 1965. Roughly seventy feature albums have followed. Counting repackagings, reissues, compilations, promotional and movie-soundtrack albums, as well as albums in which Haggard has participated—with the likes of Willie Nelson, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Paycheck, Bob Wills, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, and Clint Eastwood—the number of albums is likely more in the vicinity of the 150 mark.
Haggard has recorded more than 600 songs, about 250 of them his own compositions. (He often shares writing credits as gestures of financial and personal largess.) He has had thirty-eight #1 songs, and his “Today I Started Loving You Again” (Capitol, 1968) has been recorded by nearly 400 other artists.
In addition, Haggard is an accomplished instrumentalist, playing a commendable fiddle and a to-be-reckoned-with lead guitar. He and the Strangers played for Richard Nixon at the White House in 1973, at a barbecue on the Reagan ranch in 1982, at Washington’s Kennedy Center, and 60,000 miles from earth—courtesy of astronaut Charles Duke, who brought a tape aboard Apollo 16 in 1972. Haggard has won numerous CMA and ACM Awards including both organizations’ 1970 Entertainer of the Year awards, been nominated for scores of others, was elected to the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1977, and won Country Music Hall of Fame membership in 1994. In 1984 he won a Grammy in the Best Country Vocal Performance, Male category for “That’s the Way Love Goes.”
Even so, he has remained famously independent (he once walked out on an imminent appearance on the Ed Sullivan television show), and he has kept himself at arm’s length from musical Nashville’s sociopolitical vortex. He currently lives near Redding, in northern California, well away from music industry power centers.
There is no such thing as a typical Merle Haggard concert. He prides himself on riding the winds of whim and cussedness and, on any given night, might divert from chart and fan favorites and give himself over to a long set of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell, or Bob Wills. The three men constitute Haggard’s most lasting musical influences. Additionally, he takes great pride in the Strangers’ musicianship, and their importance transcends that of mere sidemen. The band has ranged in number from three to ten over the years, incorporates such atypical country instruments as trombones, trumpets, and saxophones, and has included long-respected players such as Roy Nichols, Norm Hamlet, Biff Adam, and Clint Strong. The Strangers themselves have garnered eight ACM Touring Band of the Year awards.
Ironically, Haggard is inextricably linked with a casual ditty that shifted attention from his soaring musicianship to his politics. “Okie from Muskogee” (Capitol, 1969), a #1 song for four weeks and the 1970 Single of the Year for both the ACM and CMA, is a seemingly belligerent and defensive screen of traditional American-heartland values that appeared at the height of the fractious decade of the Vietnam War. Haggard’s retellings of the song’s intent are manifold and contradictory. In 1974 he told a Michigan newspaper reporter, “Son, the only place I don’t smoke is Muskogee.” A dozen years later, however, he told the Birmingham Post-Herald that “Okie” was “a patriotic song that went to the top of the charts at a time when patriotism wasn’t really that popular.” Although he has frequently bemoaned the public’s perception of him as a political animal, he followed “Okie” with the truly angry “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (Capitol, 1970) and, in 1988, a sentimental reaction to flag burning, “Me and Crippled Soldiers.”
Nor has Haggard’s personal life been without drama. His business acumen is notoriously erratic, and he has been married five times. At the time that this was written, he had five children, four by his first wife, Leona Hobbs, and one by his present wife, Theresa Lane. From 1965 to 1978 Haggard was married to singer Bonnie Owens, with whom he recorded a duet album, Just Between the Two of Us (Capitol, 1966) and who is a regular member of Haggard’s musical company. He was also married for a time to singer Leona Williams, who wrote his #1 hits “You Take Me for Granted” and “Someday When Things are Good” (co-written with Haggard).
In 2000 Haggard aligned himself with Los Angeles-based punk label Epitaph Records to release If I Could Only Fly on its Anti imprint. Just as Johnny Cash had done by moving to rock- and rap-oriented American Records, Haggard inspired a flurry of media attention with his choice for a label home. On his second release for Anti, Roots Volume 1 (2001), Haggard worked with guitarist Norm Stephens, who played on Frizzell’s early recordings. On Hag Records, his own label, Haggard issued two gospel albums in 2001 and was slated to release Haggard Like Never Before in 2003. A single, “That’s the News,” criticized the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq. – Bryan Di Salvatore
– Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.