Merle Haggard: As He Is
“Songwriting gets harder and harder, unless you just want to try to write a better version of what you’ve already done,” said Merle Haggard, 73, sitting in a Middle Tennessee studio and making clear that he wants much more than that.
Kris Kristofferson, whose own songs transformed the language of country music, calls Haggard “The greatest artist in American music history.” At the very least, Haggard is among the most skilled writers ever to set pen to paper and pick to string, and he has applied working man’s hours to an artist’s mindset. The April release of Vanguard Records’ I Am What I Am brought his career total to 76 albums in his 73 years, and almost all of those works have featured original material. He recorded 30 albums in the first nine years of his career, before he was 38 years-old.
“I’ve seen it all, and I’ve seen it go away,” he sings on the new album detailing the cultural, political and artistic triumphs and failings he’s witnessed in his time. Haggard, though, hasn’t gone away.
“I keep hoping to find a way to write a song that will move up to number one in my gathering of material, one that’s better than anything I’ve ever written,” he said. “That’s what keeps me alive: That hope that I’ll write the song that’ll knock me out and that will be better than ‘Workin’ Man Blues,’ and better than ‘Mama Tried.’ That’s my reason for believing. You know, a lot of times I thought it was all over.”
Over the past couple of years, there were others who thought it might be over. Haggard’s songs remained stout and incisive, but in November of 2008, he underwent surgery to remove cancer on his lung. It was a scary deal for Haggard, his family and his fans, but within two months he was back performing, and within a year he was, he estimates “95 percent recovered.” His recovery time was not down time, as he remained committed to bringing his music out on the road and to writing the songs that are heard on I Am What I Am. This year, he played six shows with Kristofferson, winning raves (The Chicago Sun-Times’ Dave Hoekstra called that pair “The Rembrandt and Picasso” of country music, with Hag taking the Rembrandt tag because of the human portraits he offers in song. And he’ll spent much of this spring and summer traveling, playing concerts with his band, The Strangers, a combo that has been given a youthful shot in the arm from Haggard’s 17-year-old son, Ben Haggard, who has been contributing lead guitar of late.
The Strangers provide most of the backing for the new album, with young Ben sharing guitar duties with Tim Howard. Co-produced by the elder Haggard and longtime collaborator Lou Bradley and recorded at Haggard’s Shade Tree Manor studio in Northern California, I Am What I Am fits comfortably into the immense Haggard catalogue, though any clenched-fisted sentiments found in some of his earlier work has been replaced by a weary, reflective graciousness. Merle Haggard is done shouting, but not done caring. In 1986, he told interviewer Alanna Nash, I’m changing my image… to one who gives a lesser shit than he used to.” Now, though, he sings, “I do what I do, ‘cause I do give a damn.” Changes in politics and music are met not with indignation but with a simple, “I’ve seen it all, and I’ve seen it go away.” And, far removed from his rambling days, he still finds much to provoke his curiosity. For Haggard, life remains the stuff of songs.
“I’ve always known that I was a gifted person,” he said. “I’ve always felt like I would be punished, severely, if I didn’t continue to make use of that gift. It’s very important that you don’t let the muscle get flabby. It’s really hard, as an old human being, to press as much weight as you pressed when you were a kid.”
Haggard’s childhood provided significant hardship and sadness, both of which continues to channel into song. In “Oil Tanker Train,” he sings a line that could be sung believably by none but Haggard as he relates the way that an oil tanker train “Would rumble and rattle the old boxcar we lived in/And I was a kid then, and I loved that old train.” That’s straight autobiography-in-rhyme, as Haggard was born in 1937 to a mother and father who lived in a converted boxcar in Oildale, California. Father James Haggard had been a fiddle player in Oklahoma, but when the family moved to California after their barn burned to the ground, James put away in his fiddle for the most part, in favor of working hard days for the Santa Fe Railroad.
James died after suffering three brain hemorrhages when Merle was nine years-old, and his death sent the boy reeling into a reckless youth. He hopped a freight train at age 10, and he was somewhat notorious to local authorities by the time he was 14. He was also under the spell of music from heroes Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers and especially Lefty Frizzell: Haggard spent years attempting to mimic Frizzell’s slurred style of singing, and he has always been open, even emphatic, about Frizzell’s impact on his art. In 1953, Frizzell met Haggard at a concert and inviting the young man onstage at Bakersfield’s Modesto Garden.
“That was the first time, and I was hooked,” Haggard later told historian Daniel Cooper.
In that same time period, Haggard was working to learn song-craft. In so doing, he looked beyond his country heroes and took notice of the burgeoning rock and roll scene.
“The first good song I wrote was probably “If You Want To Be My Woman,” he said. “Glen Campbell opened his show with that for years, and I wrote it when I was 17. It was a good example of the rock and roll thing that was happening then; Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins were the kings of the kind of rock and roll I liked. I was trying to be a guitar player, too, and they were both guitar players and both writers.
“Songs that I later wrote, like ‘Workin’ Man Blues,’ were patterned after listening to ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ And so many of my songs were takeoffs of Chuck Berry. He was the first guy I ever heard that did the original rock and roll thing with a guitar, and I think he was the originator of a lot of that. I think Chuck is one of the most underrated heroes in the business. He’s impacted most everyone I know and appreciate, and Chuck had a great influence on the business as a whole.”
Haggard’s Berry-picking lessons were put on-hold in late 1957, when he and a friend were arrested after attempting to “break in” to a restaurant that was still serving customers. After swilling red wine, Haggard took a crowbar to the restaurant’s screen door and was prying a lock when the proprietor said, “Why don’t you boys just come around to the front door like everybody else?”
“What we hadn’t realized is that it wasn’t three a.m. at all,” Haggard wrote in his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. “Hell, it was barely 10 and the place was still open with several customers inside. Drunk as I was, I figured right away we’d made a slight miscalculation.”
When added to his already checkered record, that miscalculation cost Haggard years. He didn’t get out of prison until late 1960, and he left committed to trying to right his ship. In “Mama Tried,” he wrote, “I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole.” He did turn 21 in prison, but he determined in time (and through the self-analysis that comes with solitary confinement) that he would not be a lifer in crime. Bakersfield was bustling by 1960, with Buck Owens, Dallas Frazier, Tommy Collins and others spurring plenty of excitement. Upon Haggard’s release, musicians Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley took an interest in his songs and singing, and Owen and Talley released Haggard’s early sides on their Tally Records. Haggard’s first successful single, “Sing a Sad Song,” was penned by Wynn Stewart. That one peaked at No. 19 on the national country charts, and its sound caught the ear of Leonard Raymond Sipes, the singer-songwriter-entertainer who worked under the name “Tommy Collins.”
“Tommy Collins was a songwriting mentor,” said Haggard, who wrote about Collins in the biographical song, “Leonard.” “Tommy was way down the songwriting road already when I came onboard, and he showed me a lot of pointers: Methods of conjuring up or projecting the right thing after the thought has been conjured. I think it was Tommy who told me, ‘When your song is called ‘XYZ’ or whatever, every line has got to make sense against your title.’ He showed me little methods of proving to yourself whether the line belongs, and ways of finding out whether you were able to get more out of a line if you tried.”
Collins wound up penning some hits for Haggard, George Strait and others, and he released some of the funniest comedy bits searchable on YouTube. Haggard loved the funny stuff, but he was most appreciative of Collins’ tutelage and kindness.
“Well, Leonard gave me lots of inspiration,” he wrote in ‘Leonard.’ “He helped teach me how to write a country song/And he even brought around a bag of groceries/Back before ‘Muskogee’ came along.”
Ah, “Muskogee.” That would be “Okie from Muskogee,” one of Haggard’s most profitable, most discussed and most alternately beloved and reviled songs. He and drummer Ray Edward Burris penned the song after the tour bus passed through Muskogee, Oklahoma. The rumor is that someone was smoking some non-tobacco on the bus, and that the idea was proffered that folks in Muskogee didn’t likely smoke marijuana.
Released in late 1969 while conservatives railed against long-haired, counterculture Vietnam War protesters and the protesters railed against a mainstream culture that would accept such a mess of a war, the song was taken by most listeners as an indictment of those who would question authority. It was a four-week Number One country record, a Country Music Association single of the year in 1970 and a thorn in the side for people who disagreed with its message.
At a 1972 show that was released decades later as Live At The Philharmonic, Kristofferson and his band performed a version of the song “With apologies to our good friend Merle Haggard, who is neither a redneck or a racist, he just happens to be known for probably the only bad song he ever wrote.” Kristofferson has since then changed his opinion of the song: He now considers it an effective character study. Haggard himself has had a somewhat conflicted history with the composition. A few years ago, in an interview with The Tennessean, he called it “a silly song” and said he doubted he’d play it in a concert after the interview. That night at the Ryman Auditorium, he encored with “Okie.”
“It is a character study,” Haggard said in his American Songwriter interview, then revealing that his 1969 self was the character. “It was the photograph that I took of the way things looked through the eyes of a fool. I was just as dumb as a rock at about that time, and most of America was under the same assumptions I was.
“As it’s stayed around now for 40 years, I sing the song now with a different attitude onstage. If you use that song now, it’s a really good snapshot of how dumb we were in the past. They had me fooled, too. I’ve become educated. I think one of the bigger mistakes politicians do is to get embarrassed when somebody catches them changing their opinion. God, what if they learned the truth since they expressed themselves in the past? I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now. I still believed in America then. I don’t know that I do [believe] now.”
In between “Sing a Sad Song” and “Okie,” there was a near-constant stream of creative activity for Haggard. Fuzzy Owen worked as Haggard’s manager, and he and Lewis Talley released a Top 10 Haggard single called “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” and that Liz Anderson-penned song hit country music’s Top 10 in the same 1965 week that Buck Owens’ “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail”—recorded on the west coast and released on L.A.-based Capitol—was in the top spot. Left-coast country was hitting national airwaves with snarl and twang that were lacking from many Nashville recordings, and Capitol had the funds and the interest to sign Haggard away from Tally. As his star rose, he wrote at a frenetic pace, sometimes scribbling lyrics by hand but often asking his then-wife, Bonnie Owens, to take his rhyming dictation.
“Sometimes the songs got to coming too fast for me to write, and sometimes they still do,” he said. “So if I had a lady with me that I trusted, I’d have her write. Bonnie grabbed a lot of stuff that I might have missed. I just want ‘em to write down what I say, not to critique it. Just get it down the way that looks impressive to me, before I lose it. A real good pencil lady is real good to have around.”
In 1966, Haggard recorded his first No. 1 country hit, Liz and Casey Anderson’s “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive.” That song’s recording found Haggard arriving at a sound that combined a plaintive acoustic guitar with James Burton’s lead electric guitar, and the single topped the charts in March of 1967.
“Really, there is no way to describe the ensuing three years of Merle Haggard’s career, no way to elucidate the artistic growth he underwent beginning with those August 1966 sessions,” wrote Daniel Cooper in the liner notes to Haggard’s boxed set, Down Every Road. “For country music, there is nothing comparable, no other time when a country singer has delivered as broad—or varied—and as consistently deep and moving a body of work in so short a time as Merle Haggard did from ‘The Fugitive’ through the close of the 1960s.”
In that period, Haggard released an incredible eight albums, including a live record, and his Strangers band put out an instrumental album on Capitol. In the studio, Haggard sang “Branded Man,” a song that revealed the fear and shame that followed his prison release, death-row ballad “Sing Me Back Home,” plainly worded masterpiece “I Started Loving You Again,” blistering rave-up “Workin’ Man Blues,” the sadder-than-sad “Silver Wings” and numerous other classics. “Okie” brought him, unshielded, to public light, but it did not dim his run of epic songwriting. And, though, “Okie” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” were ideological opposites of friend Johnny Cash’s open-minded “What Is Truth,” the men remained close and their fans were not asked to choose between them in any sort of Toby Keith/Dixie Chicks-style skirmish.
“Johnny Cash and I, we believed in the freedom of speech,” Haggard says today. Haggard also believed in freedom of expression, and he was unfazed when some conservatives who had flocked to “Okie” were shocked by “Irma Jackson,” Haggard’s pro-tolerance take on interracial romance. That one shouldn’t have surprised anyone: He’s recorded Tommy Collins’ similarly minded “Go Home” years earlier. Haggard was speaking his mind, not speaking from a platform.
“Merle is arguably the best songwriter that our genre has ever seen,” said Grammy nominated songwriter Odie Blackmon. “At the level of songwriting he’s achieved, and the honesty and the depth, that man wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s a moody, emotional person, and everyone around him understands that. It’s a little like his burden, his curse.”
The heart-on-sleeve approach extends to the stage, where Haggard’s mood and outlook make their way into each night’s song selection.
“I took a set list onstage for the last time in 1969,” Haggard said. “And what we wound up with was so far away from what we set out to do, I thought it was stupid to put everybody through the stress of that: Why don’t we just walk out there with our songs and our talent, and see what happens?”
Whatever troubles Haggard may have ever had with stage fright have long been assuaged. “I don’t ever worry about going onstage anymore,” he said. “I finally realized that stage fright is the fear of people paying attention to you… and they don’t do that. They’re too wrapped up in their own f***ing shit. So go out and have fun and be yourself, because you can’t be anything else, anyway.”
In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Haggard recorded for Capitol, MCA, Epic and Curb. He learned to play the fiddle for his Bob Wills tribute album, and he turned country fans’ attentions to the Big Easy for his I Love Dixie Blues… So I Recorded Live in New Orleans record. He also adjusted his writing style to fit the changes in his singing voice, which became deeper and mellower over the years. Haggard’s ‘70s records were rhythmically intense and hard-hitting. His ‘80s studio works favored space and clarity and offered a slower, longer burn. Some singer-songwriters espouse the “cream always rises” theory, but Haggard recognizes that many of his finer songs have been album cuts, less suited to radio play than to repeated, attentive listening.
“I had a song called ‘Footlights’ that has become a big song over the years,” he said. “It was never a single, because the record company acted like they didn’t understand.”
Haggard understood not only high high-water marks, but also the excellence of other writers. Through his voice, many listeners first heard the words and melodies of Iris DeMent, Blaze Foley and numerous other superb and under-celebrated writers. In the new century, he has continued to record fine works penned by others, and he has been a voice of reason and reconciliation in an increasingly strident political atmosphere. His own attempted summit between Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks never happened, but he did make the point that political divergence need not necessitate hostility. Of late, his own life contains little in the way of hostility, as he has at long last found happiness in his marriage with wife Theresa Haggard and in his fatherhood. Lately, the sad songs have held a sour ring.
“In order to be honest, I had to write about what was happening now in my life, and I couldn’t identify with some of the lyrics I’d written over the years,” he said. “There have been some good, positive songs that have come from this.”
One such song is “Down At the End of the Road,” where he contemplates his family, his marriage and his contentment with late life. Theresa sings with him on a bouncing take on “Live and Love Always.” And even on “Pretty When It’s New,” a rumination on new love, Haggard offers the caveat, “An old love’s even sweeter, that old saying’s really true.”
And while in conversation Haggard remains politically outspoken (“You can’t just write a bailout check for a billion dollars. That’s as scary and out-of-control as I ever remember”), he is adamant that songs should contain an element of optimism.
“People don’t need to be badgered anymore, I don’t think,” he said. “We need to have music that contributes to the well-being of the spirit. Music that cradles people’s lives and makes things a little easier. That’s what I try to do, and what I want to do. You don’t want to close the door on hope.”