Merle Haggard

From prison and politics to rambling and romance, his journey has been, well, complicated. But austere lyrics and rich country jazz have made him one of music's masters.


Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard is wandering through a Holiday Inn in Denver, looking for a chiropractor. He is touring again, and his back is stiff from the days spent on the bus. Yesterday he played the Rosebud Casino in Valentine, Neb., an establishment so rural that it is actually located in South Dakota but uses Valentine as an address. Before that he appeared at the Pepsi-Cola Roadhouse in Burkettstown, Pa., where a rib dinner was served during Haggard’s performance. Denver is the last stop, but after a week at home Haggard will be back on the bus, stopping at the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City, La., and at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, Texas.

Back at his hotel room, he submits to a series of telephone interviews, staggered 30 minutes apart. Haggard has been known to be evasive with the press, but today he seems unfazed by the questions. All the activity is part of an effort to promote “If I Could Only Fly,” his new CD for his latest record company, Epitaph/Anti, where he is now a label mate with Tom Waits and bands like Rancid and Agnostic Front.

Nicholas Dawidoff wrote that hearing George Jones speak is “a pleasure similar to waking up in Tuscany,” and Haggard’s melancholy baritone, instantly recognizable from his records, leaves the listener with a similar sensation. He speaks as though in a perpetual reverie and takes pauses so long they border on the uncomfortable. His voice becomes animated, however, when he recounts anecdotes about his musical heroes, like the one he heard from fiddler Johnny Gimble about Bob Wills hiring and firing Hank Williams.

“Bob and Hank were playing at the Opry when they got drunk together, and Bob hired him. The next morning when [Wills' guitarist Eldon] Shamblin woke up, he went to Bob and told him, ‘Look — I might be able to handle your ass when you’re drunk, but I ain’t even going to attempt to handle you and that skinny son of a bitch. It’s either him or me.’ Well, that’s as long as Hank Williams lasted.” Haggard roars with laughter.

Later, as though suddenly self-conscious about the pleasure he took in his reminiscence, Haggard’s voice becomes clouded with sadness: “I’ve got 20-year-old grandkids. I am an old guy.” He speaks about his son Marty’s scathing exposé in the National Enquirer, his unfinished novel (“The Sins of John Tom Mullen”) and what he views as the decline of personal freedom in America. Then he brightens again. “That’s pessimism,” he says after a long pause. “Finally, what I do is exactly what I want to do.”

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Certain facts of Merle Haggard’s life are so well documented that they have become clichés. It is widely known that in the late 1960s he became a star on the strength of songs about his experiences in San Quentin (Calif.) State Prison. Incarceration, however, is a minor theme compared with his preoccupation with the Depression. In songs like “Hungry Eyes” and “Tulare Dust,” Haggard sings about the labor camps, the hobo jungles and the oil and cotton fields that his parents, along with their first two children, Haggard’s older siblings, confronted when they came to Bakersfield, Calif., from Chekotah, Okla., in 1934. James and Flossie Haggard were among the half-million refugees who arrived in California in the 1930s searching for a respite from the ravages of the Dust Bowl.

“Those were terrible times,” said Buck Owens, Bakersfield’s other country star, whose family also numbered among the “Okie” migrants. “I don’t remember ‘em very good and I’m glad I don’t.” But for Haggard, the time just prior to his birth has become a paradoxical wellspring of inspiration, the repository of devastating family memories and an idealized America more natural and free than our own.

Born in 1937 in Oildale, a glorified labor camp separated from Bakersfield by the Kern River, Haggard grew up in an abandoned “reefer,” or refrigerated train car, which his father had converted into a home. It still stands at 1303 Yosemite Drive. Though James laid down his fiddle for good when Flossie found religion, the Haggards sang quartet music from the popular Stamps-Brumley songbooks and gathered around the radio to listen to Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine and Frank Sinatra.

As a toddler, Haggard recalls pointing to the radio and asking for “stewed ham”– country singer Stuart Hamblen’s 4 p.m. broadcasts from Los Angeles. Hamblen’s music, however, was an anomaly on the predominantly pop radio of the day. “There were no such things as country music radio stations,” recalls Haggard. “There was a guy [who was on] once a week, who played something called hillbilly music for maybe 15 minutes in the morning. The only time you heard anything other than pop music was Bob Wills.”

The bandleader whose Texas Playboys played a hybrid of big-band swing, cowboy ballads, country and blues, Wills captivated Haggard like no one else on the radio. Based for a period in nearby Fresno, Wills’ band featured vocalist Tommy Duncan, whose easy, soulful delivery borrowed as much from the black jazz singers of the day as from the raw country style of singers like Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb.

Music would not become Haggard’s obsession until several years later, shortly after Duncan left the Playboys, and a Bakersfield DJ began playing the records of a new singer from Corsicana, Texas. “The country was suffering the loss of Tommy Duncan,” says Haggard, with only mild exaggeration. “And if you were into music and loved it, it was like the main cleanup hitter had been taken out of your favorite team. Then here comes this guy named Lefty Frizzell.”

Frizzell’s sudden takeover of country radio has yet to be duplicated. “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” the wayward apology to his wife that became his first single, was released in the last days of October 1950; a little more than a year later, Frizzell held four of the top 10 spots on Billboard’s hillbilly charts and had become America’s most popular country singer.

“Oh, God, he was unbelievable,” Haggard says of Frizzell. “He was different. He had his own tone, his own subject matter he wrote about because he had done this little stint in jail, so he knew more about being away than a lot of people did. He was really good at writing about separation — that was his main subject matter — and he wrote about it with sincerity and the only vocabulary he knew, because he wasn’t all that bright. He was just a young Texas kid that had a very loving sort of family.” As tribute to Frizzell, the adolescent Haggard learned to imitate the singer’s quavering delivery. “It was a challenge to imitate Lefty,” Haggard says. “When he did those little curls and things it was like learning jazz chords.”

Haggard was 9 when his father died, and his two much older siblings, Lowell and Lillian, were already living on their own. With Flossie now the family’s sole breadwinner, Haggard found himself frequently alone and restless, shuttled between relatives and daydreaming about hoboing on the oil trains that ran beside their house. He first hopped a freight at 11, only to be returned home by the police, and despite his mother’s pleas continued to cut classes and ride the rails.

Helpless at keeping up with her son, Flossie finally turned him over to the Kern County juvenile authority. By his own admission, Haggard spent more time in juvenile hall than he did in school, but liked it no better. Classified as incorrigible, Haggard quickly rose through the ranks of the California juvenile corrections system, spending time in increasingly severe reform schools, like the Preston School of Industry, the initials of which are still tattooed on his wrist.

He managed to escape each of them, and in between terms he roamed California and the Northwest, harvesting hay, roughnecking in oil fields, digging ditches and occasionally playing the guitar and singing for loose change and free beer. At 17 he married Leona Hobbs and fathered a child. In the meantime, his career of petty crime continued unabated as he scuffled, entered unlocked cars and stole and resold scrap metal. Haggard finally exhausted the patience of the juvenile system on a night in 1957 when, drunk on wine, he and a friend attempted to break into a restaurant that was still open for business. (The Kern County sheriff, however, said that he caught Haggard jumping out of a window with a stolen check-cashing machine.) He was 20 and facing five years in San Quentin.

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While in prison, Haggard discovered that his wife had given birth to another man’s child. When he walked out of San Quentin in 1960 after serving roughly half of his five-year sentence, he expected to see his family waiting for him at the gate, but they were nowhere to be found. Nevertheless, Haggard took a bus back to Bakersfield and returned to Leona, a paroled ex-convict looking for work in San Joaquin Valley’s blood-bucket honky-tonks.

It was a period of his life that came into focus again in the late ’60s, when Haggard came into his own as a songwriter. His compositions had little use for the heartaches, honky-tonk angels and tear-drenched pillows that dominated the truncated vocabulary of country music at the time. They were rarely humorous, rejecting the wordplay and puns that drove much of Nashville’s publishing. Instead, his songs relied on perfectly constructed narratives for their dramatic impact, and in their economy were nearly devoid of adjectives.

Haggard dramatized his reunion with the woman he loved in a song titled “My Ramona,” in which a man returning from a long absence learns that his girlfriend or wife has become the town tramp. It is a wrenching composition not only because of the singer’s denial of what we know to be the truth but because he believes he can still control the woman who has left him behind.

Everybody’s talking bad about Ramona
They say she’s changed a lot since I’ve been gone
They say she may not be too glad to see me
Because Ramona doesn’t know I’m coming home

But everybody’s wrong about Ramona
They’re just going by the way she’s acting now
I just can’t believe the things they say about her
Because Ramona knows the things I won’t allow

“Ramona was really Leona,” says Haggard. “A lot of it is made to fit the song, but it was about real things. She was the whipping post in all the early songs, and she was the one I praised. There’s a great story in the area between her and I.” He pauses. “The reason we are not together now is only because of narcotics and what narcotics has done to her. She’s a heroin addict; she goes in and out of that. The person that I met when we were kids does not exist anymore; she is dead. Once in a while I’ll have to be honest with myself and say, ‘The lady still holds a place in my heart. That little girl that I met back then, who’s a daughter of a poor man who had to pick cotton for a living …’” Haggard’s voice trails off. “There’s still a well of things to write about back there.”

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After returning from San Quentin, Haggard gradually developed a modest following by playing honky-tonks around Bakersfield and the San Joaquin Valley — places with names like High Pockets and the Lucky Spot. Brightly lit bars with worn wooden floors, jukeboxes and plywood bandstands, they attracted oil workers, farmers and Saturday-night drunks for an evening of dancing, fighting, whiskey and cigarettes.

Eventually, he was invited to appear on a local television show for which Roy Nichols, whom Haggard had first seen perform with the Maddox Brothers and Rose in the late ’40s, was the house guitarist. (“I idolized him for 50 fucking years,” Haggard says.) The show also featured a young singer named Bonnie Owens, who would become Haggard’s second wife, and Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owen, local performers whose Tally label released Haggard’s first 45s.

It was another California honky-tonker, Wynn Stewart, who handed him his first hit. Having hired Haggard for a series of shows in Las Vegas, Stewart was about to cut “Sing a Sad Song” when the young singer asked Stewart to let him record it. In 1963, Stewart’s generosity resulted in Haggard’s first Top 20 entry, and soon Capitol Records bought his contract.

At Capitol, Haggard quickly became a star on the strength of his versions of several Liz Anderson compositions. Says Haggard, recalling when he first met Anderson, “They dragged me to her house at 4 a.m. I didn’t want to listen to her songs; I just knew they weren’t any good. I’m sitting over there eating bacon and eggs on a footstool, she’s at a pump organ — a little bitty girl — and she starts singing these great fucking songs, like ‘All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers’ and ‘Just Between the Two of Us.’ I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘I’ll record all of those. I think ‘Strangers’ is a hit, and if ‘Just Between the Two of Us’ isn’t a hit, I’ll kiss everybody’s ass in Sacramento.’”

But nothing about Haggard was ordinary. For one, he cultivated an appreciation of musicians that seemed more appropriate to a jazz bandleader. By the mid-’60s, he had assembled a band that included Nichols and James Burton playing lead, steel player Ralph Mooney, pianist Glen Hardin and a young Glen Campbell on rhythm guitar and harmony. Many believe that the ensemble has yet to be equaled, and it brought out the best in Haggard’s singing and arranging.

Even more arresting than the band was Haggard’s phrasing, which contradicted almost every precedent. Clear-toned, sinuous and shockingly free of twang and vocal affectation, Haggard sang with a sensitivity that bordered on tenderness. He retained Frizzell’s vocal artistry but dropped the imitative note-bending melisma, and in his breaking of the line there appeared the unmistakable sound of jazz.

Haggard has long referred to his music as “country jazz,” and is the only country musician to have appeared on the cover of Down Beat, the definitive jazz publication. Over the years, he has developed a definition of the term that reflects his nostalgia for a moment in history that preceded genres, when figures like Emmett Miller, Milton Brown and Django Reinhardt seemed to draw out of the air a music that defied classification. “I realized that jazz meant that you could play anything,” says Haggard. “It meant that you were a full-fledged musician, that you could play with Louis Armstrong or Johnny Cash.”

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“We knew we hit a nerve,” says steel guitar player Norm Hamlett, describing the first time Haggard performed “Okie From Muskogee” in public. “A bunch of GIs surrounded Merle and demanded that he sing it again.” Haggard claims that he wrote the anthem of Middle American conservatism — “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD” go the famous opening lines — as a spoof, and these days he performs it as good-natured camp. In 1970, however, the song made him into a superstar and the inadvertent spokesman for the pro-Vietnam War hard hats and President Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority.

As a follow-up, Haggard wrote “Irma Jackson,” a story of interracial love, but Capitol Records refused to release it. Instead, it pushed “The Fighting Side of Me,” a flag-waving screed that remains one of the few dull moments in the Haggard songbook. His retreat from politics, however, was not long in coming, and Haggard next turned to an album of Bob Wills’ music, “A Tribute to the Greatest Damn Fiddle Player in the World.” For the project, Haggard augmented the Strangers with six members of the Texas Playboys and recorded a set that conveyed the excitement of Wills’ music in a way that historical recordings never could. The record renewed interest in Western swing, and Haggard even toured with the expanded ensemble. Jerry Wexler, producer of seminal records by Ray Charles, Joe Turner and Aretha Franklin, recalls one of the band’s West Coast engagements as one of the great concert experiences of his life.

By the early 1970s, Haggard’s music had shed whatever imitative traces still lingered on the early records. Songs like “Here in Frisco,” with its Asian melody, remained true to the spirit of country music while borrowing almost nothing from its musical language. “If We Make It Through December,” the story of a man who has lost his job and is thinking about his family at Christmas, became perhaps the most effective distillation of Haggard’s new style. Its emotions connected with listeners far beyond the confines of country music in the winter of 1973; “December” became the biggest hit of Haggard’s career — and the first to cross over to the pop charts.

Of the 17 songs Haggard charted from July 1971 to January 1976, only “The Emptiest Arms in the World” failed to reach No. 1 (It stalled at No. 3.) It was a remarkable tribute to Haggard’s radical traditionalism at a time when the easy-listening sounds of MOR radio had begun to flood country stations, and Haggard frequently shared the charts with Olivia Newton-John, Crystal Gayle and John Denver.

In the meantime, Haggard’s political views have proved to be far more ambiguous and complex than either his critics or his apologists might have imagined 30 years ago. For one, he proved beyond a doubt that his line about marijuana was disingenuous. (“Muskogee is the only place I don’t smoke it,” he once said.) He recently toured and performed “Okie” with good friend Kris Kristofferson, a liberal activist, and over the years it has become apparent that at the heart of his conservatism lies an idealization of the American past and a sincere, though occasionally paranoid, concern about the loss of privacy and individual freedom.

“Look at the past 25 years — we went downhill, and if people don’t realize it, they don’t have their fucking eyes on,” says Haggard. “In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there’s available to an average citizen in America right now. I mean, there was nobody going to throw you down on the side of the road spread-eagled, and look up your butt for a fucking marijuana cigarette. God almighty, what have we done to each other?”

Though Haggard campaigned for Ronald Reagan, who pardoned him while serving as California’s governor, he bristles at both candidates in the 2000 presidential election. “Let me say this,” he remarks. “I’m friends with George Bush Sr. He calls to wish me happy birthday. But I’ve got lots of friends that call to wish me happy birthday who I wouldn’t want to see become president.”

In a bus parked behind the Pepsi-Cola Roadhouse, Bonnie Owens is answering yet another question about being Haggard’s ex-wife. Owens met Haggard in 1965, when she was working as a cocktail waitress and singing one evening a week at the Blackboard. “I thought he was a great singer and real good-looking,” recalls Owens. “Merle just got out of prison and he was so bashful.” Over time, Owens became his closest confidante and occasional songwriting partner.

“Everything Merle would say that struck me as profound, I would write down,” she says. “Later, he would never remember saying it. We have kind of a mental telepathy.” After a 1967 concert in Dallas, Haggard asked Owens to get him a hamburger. When she returned several minutes later, Haggard had written the lyrics to “Today I Started Loving You Again” on a brown paper bag. She says it is one of her favorite memories.

Owens still works with Haggard’s band, which is even more unusual than it first seems because Haggard has been married five times. “We were married for about two years or something like that,” says Owens. (In fact, they were married for 13.) “Actually, we never should have done it. He’s like my little boy, if that makes any sense to you. My mother instinct comes out around Merle.”

Apparently, it is not an uncommon sentiment. Owens is best friends with wife No. 3, Leona Williams, and Debbie Parret, Haggard’s fourth wife, still works for Hag Inc. Haggard seems as devoted to the people from his past as he is to favorite old songs, and more than a few of those who travel with him, like longtime producer Fuzzy Owen, have known him for almost 40 years.

Though he continued to chart hits well into the 1980s, Haggard says he burned through more than $100 million during that decade thanks to an ill-advised investment in a resort, an antique-car collection, some costly divorces and what he describes as a nonstop party on his Lake Shasta houseboat. In 1993 he filed for Chapter 11 and, somewhat astonishingly, sold a portion of his song catalog for an undisclosed sum to Sony Tree publishing.

“I finally grew up when I turned 50,” he says. “A person cannot do all he wants to do. If you have an energetic mind, you must make your choices. Don’t choose too many things because you may fuck up on all of them. That’s what I finally learned, I think.”

Today, Haggard lives in Northern California near Lake Shasta in a compound called Shade Tree Manor, which also contains his studio. With his wife Theresa, and their two young children, Haggard seems to have come closer to the contentment that has eluded him in the past. On “If I Could Only Fly,” he included several songs about his family that can be cautiously described as happy.

Nashville radio lost interest in Haggard and his generation of performers years ago in favor of what he calls the “flat bellies,” and he hasn’t had a hit since 1990. As always, however, Haggard continues to write. “I’m always looking for ways to describe things that are simple but beautiful,” he says. “I write four or five songs every month. They are all good.” He laughs. “The ones that stay with me, the ones I don’t have to write down, are the ones we record.”

The new record, his strongest in years, finds Haggard more adventurous than ever. A ’20s-style jazz romp alternates with Western swing, and there is even a bossa nova ballad called “Crazy Moon.” His voice has deepened and lost some of its force, but its timbre has grown warmer with age. There’s also a new looseness to the singing, and newly exotic vocal inflections can be heard on the late Blaze Foley’s magnificent title track.

He says that his next project, which is nearly in the can, will be a collection of antique pop standards, “similar to what Willie Nelson did with ‘Stardust.’” Haggard sings a few measures of “All of Me,” suddenly lost in the song, and for a moment he appears to be a man suspended blissfully out of time. “Songs, I think, are more important than human beings,” he says. “They really are. They live on forever.”

Alex Halberstadt has written for The New York Times, Grand Street, the Paris Review and other publications.

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