Published May 01, 2004Country music is a funny thing. Along with jazz, it is considered one of the purely American art forms. Yet, for all its traditions, country has never truly accepted what it is as evidenced by its endless re-inventions in order to maintain a place within pop culture. Conversely, the artists who have come to best define country music always know exactly who they are. They are people who grew up in hard times, who possess good values despite often succumbing to temptations, and who are able to tell their stories in an honest and straightforward manner that anyone can relate to. As someone whose life and career exemplifies all three of these traits, Merle Haggard is the quintessential country music artist. At a time when most young guitar slingers wanted to be Elvis, he wanted to be Hank Williams; when America took sides against the Vietnam War, he steadfastly supported soldiers and their middle-class families; and when country music was reduced to irrelevancy in the 1980s, he continued to please his loyal audience with song after song drawn from his hard-fought experiences. Haggard didn't need to be marketed as an "outlaw"; that brand had been on him from the start. As part of a vanishing breed that still includes Willie Nelson and George Jones, in recent years Haggard has made some of the best music of his career, and earned a new respect for it. His latest album, Haggard Like Never Before, even returns to the reactionary politics of his late 60s period with its sharp attacks on the U.S. media and the war against terror. After 40-plus years of making music, Haggard is now on tour across Canada and showing no signs of slowing down. "Whatever kind of music you're doing, if you're doing something with some truth to it, people will recognise that. I believe that people are looking for honesty, and that's what I'm trying to put across."
1937 to 1959
Merle Haggard is born April 6, 1937 in Bakersfield, California, the second of three siblings. Like characters out of John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath, his parents are migrant farmers forced out of their native Oklahoma by the Great Depression. The family resides in a converted boxcar, a perk of the job Haggard's father finds as a carpenter for the local railroad. Haggard's father dies when Merle is nine, forcing his mother to find work as a bookkeeper. Left largely on his own by his teen years, Haggard begins hopping trains and committing petty crimes, from truancy to grand theft auto, which land him in juvenile detention on seven different occasions. At the same time, he picks up a guitar and becomes enamoured with country music, especially the earthy storytelling of pioneers Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. At age 20, shortly after marrying Leona Hobbs and fathering his first child, Haggard and a friend are caught trying to rob a local club. His long record (and many escapes) leads the judge to sentence him to California's San Quentin maximum security prison. On Jan. 1, 1958, the inmates are treated to a concert by Johnny Cash and Haggard has a revelation that country music is his life's calling. He forms his first band with other inmates over the ensuing months. He says today, "Life has been peaks and valleys all the way for me. The only way I know how to come out of the valleys is to write my way out."
1960 to 1964
Haggard is paroled in 1960, on the basis that he has earned his high school equivalency and will be able to work at his brother's electrical contracting business. At night, he scours the Bakersfield club district, also known as Beer Can Hill, for any gig he can get. His first break comes playing bass for local success story Wynn Stewart, who along with Buck Owens, is developing the "Bakersfield Sound," a twangy, hard-edged style of country that contains more elements of rock and roll than Nashville will allow. Haggard begins writing songs in a similar style and creating his own local profile. In 1962, he cuts several singles with local entrepreneur Lewis Tally for his Tally label. Among these are a cover of Stewart's "Sing A Sad Song," which reaches the Top 20 on the national country charts, and "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," which hits the Top 10. The latter becomes Haggard's early signature number, and his backing band adopts the name the Strangers. His surprising success on the small label attracts the attention of Capitol Records, whose visionary A&R man Johnny Mercer jumps at adding Haggard to his roster that also includes Buck Owens, the Louvin Brothers, Wanda Jackson and many other new country stars.
1965 to 1966
Haggard is paired with Capitol's staff country producer Ken Nelson, and the bulk of his first two albums, Strangers and Just Between The Two Of Us (featuring duets with Buck Owens' ex-wife Bonnie), are reworkings of his Tally singles. That doesn't hinder their success though, as both Haggard and Owens' driving electric sounds enjoy modest crossover appeal with rock and roll fans. Awareness is spread further when the Beatles (with Ringo singing lead) cover Owens' "Act Naturally." Haggard doesn't hit his stride until his third album, Swinging Doors, with its title track becoming an instant barroom anthem. He follows that up with other hard-drinking tales like "The Bottle Let Me Down," and "Drink Up And Be Somebody." While on the surface Haggard's life seems to be taking a positive turn, his marriage to Hobbs remains rocky and eventually ends in a violent confrontation. He takes up with Bonnie Owens (who also joins the Strangers as back-up singer), a decision that will inspire Haggard's biggest single success to that point with "Today I Started Loving You Again."
1967 to 1968
For Haggard's next clutch of releases, he draws on the darker moments of his life, although he has yet to publicly admit his prison record from fear that a backlash could jeopardise his career. Nevertheless, "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive," "Branded Man," and "Sing Me Back Home" are all huge hits, arguably the most vivid accounts of prison life to ever reach the charts. Haggard's natural, hard-bitten image stands in contrast to the era's other great icon, Bob Dylan's jaded urban poet. However, these two worlds will ultimately collide when the Byrds hire Gram Parsons. The folk-rock innovators had always flirted with country music, but when Parsons is brought in to replace David Crosby, his devotion to country pushes the band to record a full-blown, Bakersfield-style album. Upon its release in August 68, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo coins a new term, "country-rock," with its mix of new Dylan songs, traditionals, Parsons originals, and Haggard's "Life In Prison." Many other high profile rock bands soon jump on the country-rock bandwagon, including the Grateful Dead, who make "Sing Me Back Home," and Haggard's latest hit, "Mama Tried," staples of their live shows. With his stature secured, Haggard releases his first "theme" album, The Legend Of Bonnie & Clyde, which coincides with the successful Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway film about the Depression-era bank robbers.
1969 to 1970
Haggard continues exploring his past by recording Same Train, Different Time, a collection of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, "The Singing Brakeman," who along with the Carter Family is credited with creating modern country music. It pales next to Haggard's next original releases, the songs "Okie From Muskogee," "Fightin' Side Of Me," and the album Pride In What I Am, which all take a firm stand on the Vietnam War and the generational clash it is causing. His seemingly anti-hippie sentiments appeal directly to blue collar Middle America, or what Vice President Spiro Agnew calls "the Silent Majority," and pushes Haggard's sales through the roof. "I guess we might as well face the fact that Americans are warriors," he reflects today, "but I feel it's degrading to have Americans at each other's throats. Someone once said that America is a great place, but they harass each other. It's part of our political structure, but at times it seems to be overdone." The political impact of these songs is unprecedented for a country artist, even though Haggard would later admit that "Okie" was partially tongue-in-cheek; its anti-marijuana message certainly does not reflect Haggard's personal attitude toward the drug. He also reveals his prison record publicly, at the urging of Johnny Cash when he appears on Cash's television show, leading to a full pardon from California Governor Ronald Reagan. Haggard's run of hits continues with "Workin' Man Blues," "Mama's Hungry Eyes," and live albums recorded in Philadelphia, and Muskogee, Oklahoma. Continuing to push himself musically, he records another tribute album, this time to Texas Swing pioneer Bob Wills, on which Haggard plays fiddle alongside members of Wills' original band. This career-defining year is capped off with a sweep of the annual Country Music Association awards.
1971 to 1974
Now undisputedly the most popular country artist in the world, and acknowledged "poet of the working man," Haggard continues topping the charts with "Someday We'll Look Back," "Soldier's Last Letter," and "If We Make It Through December." Astronauts on the Apollo 16 mission to the moon take a tape of his music to play in the cockpit. With his pardon, Haggard is linked even closer with the Republican Party in the eyes of the public, although he says the association comes more from a debt of gratitude. In 1973, he plays the White House at the behest of First Lady Pat Nixon, who evidently owns all of his recordings. Haggard manages to maintain his outsider status, and accepts a request from Gram Parsons to produce his next album. Unfortunately, Parsons dies of a heroin overdose in September, 1973. "At the time, I wasn't really aware of what a significant artist he was," Haggard says. "I knew he liked my work and did a lot of my songs, so I was looking forward to working together. That was really a sad loss, because I think he had a lot of great work left in him."
1975 to 1980
Despite Haggard's continuing singles chart success, two events send his career into upheaval. Bonnie Owens files for divorce on the grounds of adultery and temporarily leaves the band, and he signs a new contract with MCA. The deal coincides with the emergence of slick new "countrypolitan" artists and the "urban cowboy" movement, phoney tags that cannot be applied to either Haggard's image and music. His album sales begin declining, something that cannot be offset by his induction into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1977. However, this honour leads to another gig at the White House, this time at the invitation of Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
1981 to 1983
Haggard enters his self-confessed "crazy" period, moving from his ranch to a houseboat on Lake Shasta in northern California. He also invests in developing several businesses on the lake, including a club where he regularly plays, but the plans quickly become a money pit. Haggard hardly notices though much of his time is consumed by the endless booze and coke-fuelled party that ensues with his fellow residents at the lake. "That was really the only time in my life when I can say I went out of control with all those vices, and it didn't really last too long," he says. "I've been sober for 15 years, and don't smoke cigarettes of any kind anymore. It's sad to say that sex is way down my list of priorities now too, probably somewhere after loose shoes." He marries for a third time, to back-up singer Leona Williams, although it's soon evident that she is more concerned with using the union to further her own career. They make the album Heart To Heart together, but fall out not long after. Haggard is forced to pay $25,000 per month in alimony. On the bright side, a new deal with Epic results in Big City, his strongest album in years, and a successful collaboration with George Jones, A Taste Of Yesterday's Wine. A year later, Haggard collaborates with Willie Nelson on the even bigger selling Pancho & Lefty. The popular Townes Van Zant-penned title track becomes both Nelson and Haggard's first foray into music video.
1984 to 1989
Just as Haggard is cleaning himself up, his mother passes away. He pays tribute with the album Songs For The Mama Who Tried, and finds solace with new love Debbie Parret, who quickly becomes wife number four. He also faces a period of transition for country music. "It was pretty clear that things changed then, when the corporate world took over the radio industry. It was like Wal-Mart taking over the local hardware business; everything went into the hands of a very few people. Everything shifted to appealing to kids, and the older people who wanted to hear something more emotional in their music were left out." Haggard's recorded output remains consistent and he bucks the trend with hits "Kern River" (inspired by one of his youthful escapes from the law), "Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink," and "Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star," the last of his 39 chart-topping singles. Despite this success, Haggard's relationship with Epic had always suffered from creative control issues, and when the opportunity arises to jump ship, he signs on with Curb Records, a new venture started by powerful Nashville executive Mike Curb, who promises to promote Haggard's records the right way. In the midst of this, Haggard falls in love with Theresa Lane, a relationship that will ultimately break up his marriage to Parret.
1990 to 1999
Haggard immediately realises that Curb isn't living up to his end of the bargain when his first releases, Blue Jungle and All Night Long vanish without a trace. With no royalties coming in, and the combined expenses of touring, alimony, and debts resulting from bad investments, Haggard is faced with declaring bankruptcy. He is inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, but at the time it seems a hollow achievement he remains locked into his contract with Curb. He continues recording for the label but by this point both parties are counting the days until they can cut their losses. "The problems I've had with labels always stem from the fact that they don't understand what it means to be an artist. If you look at the most successful labels, including Capitol, they were started by artists. There's nothing that anyone can tell me now that I don't understand about my business, so it's beyond me why people feel like they know how to do my job better than I do. There are new kids working at labels now who see dollar signs when they look in my archives, and the old people who didn't like me back then have gone to play golf. I've outlived their asses." While fulfilling his Curb deal with several half-hearted releases, Haggard instead concentrates on his relationship with Lane, whom he marries in 1993, and fathering their children, Haggard's first offspring since his first marriage. He writes his autobiography, which concludes with a vow that he will retire in 2000 after one last farewell tour. "I wrote that book mainly to show people I was still alive. I'd gone from having $25 million to being practically broke. That was not the best time in my life, but with the help of Theresa and the kids, we got through it. Without them, I don't want to think about what I would have done."
2000 to 2002
L.A. Weekly runs a feature story on Haggard's recent tribulations, which catches the eye of Andy Kaulkin, president of Epitaph Records offshoot, Anti. The piece quotes Haggard as saying he is without a record deal and doesn't necessarily want one. Kaulkin recognises an opportunity to work with one of his heroes, and promises Haggard the label will promote any kind of music he wants to make. It's an offer Haggard can't refuse, and he records the widely acclaimed If I Could Only Fly, a naked, deeply personal album that not only reacquaints him with long-time fans, but also attracts many new alt-country fans. Bolstered by touring with the Strangers to packed houses once again, Haggard indulges in going back to many of the songs that first inspired him. Part of this urge is also the result of meeting Lefty Frizzell's original guitarist Norm Stephens, whom Haggard discovers still has his chops even after several decades off the road. Their jam sessions ultimately produce Roots Vol. 1, Haggard's second Anti release, a charming collection of standards. This is followed shortly by The Peer Sessions, a further album of classics first copyrighted by the legendary record executive Ralph Peer, the first person to record Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
2003 to 2004
After parting amicably with Anti/Epitaph, Haggard sets up his own label, Hag Records. The move is the first step at gaining complete control of his music, and this process is aided when rights to much of his MCA catalogue are reverted back to him. With a new home studio as well, Haggard continues to write at a prodigious pace, and his next original release is Haggard Like Never Before. The album gains instant attention through the single "That's The News," a scathing observation of the American media, and the government's spin on the war on terror. Yet, while other anti-war comments by Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks result in a harsh media backlash, it is a testament to Haggard's reputation for always speaking his mind that he remains revered in the eyes of both his fans and critics. "I'm an American, and I have to stand behind what I believe in," he says. "I believe America is in need right now of someone who will speak the truth. We are the greatest military power on Earth, and I really question how our leaders have used that power in recent years. I wish we would go back to fixing our own problems here in North America. I see all that from the backroads, and I know that many of these politicians haven't been on a backroad in their lives."
The Essential Merle Haggard
Okie From Muskogee (Capitol, 1969)
All of Haggard's Capitol releases are worth discovering, but this live album captures him both at the height of his fame, and among his strongest supporters in the American heartland. The band may race through some of the hits, but that's only to squeeze as many of them in as possible. And the intense reception that greets the redneck anthem "Okie," makes this the definitive version.
Big City (Epic, 1981)
A new label, a new decade, a new era where Haggard's style of country is seemingly irrelevant. But that doesn't prevent him from making one of his finest albums, containing several new versions of old favourites. The difference is in his voice, mellowed with age, and now more capable than ever in giving a weeper like "You Don't Have Very Far To Go," all the heartbreak it promises.
If I Could Only Fly (Anti/Epitaph, 2000)
A true comeback thanks to the most unlikely of labels, Haggard rises to the occasion with a stark, at times painful glimpse at how he put his life back together. Once again it's the voice that astounds, and while overall the album doesn't possess the brute force of Johnny Cash's American series, Haggard (as always) is equally powerful in much more subtle ways.