Merle Haggard


 

  Biography: If the question were asked "Who forged the genre that is known today as modern country music?", only a tiny group of country immortals could step forward to share the spotlight. One out of that select handful would be Merle Haggard. Merle wasn't in the delivery room on the morning country music was born; it simply seems like he was. And you won't hear anybody refer to him as the father of country music. But many will swear he's at least its godfather. What 'Gray Poupon' has meant to mustard, Haggard has meant to country music. Like Rock'N Roll without Presley and like Sears without Roebuck, country music without Haggard simply isn't.

Few country devotees be they oldtimers or neophytes are unfamiliar with the craggy Haggard mask of a thousand photographs - that countenance that's been etched by time and experience like the granite face of your favorite cliff. And even fewer are those who are unfamiliar with the evocative Haggard delivery that has spawned art entire school of country vocal stylists.

In the ever-expanding array of country music stars, hitmakers and idols, Haggard walks in no man's shadow. Instead he casts a far-reaching shadow of his own. Rare is the country balladeer that has mastered the idiom at so many different levels as has he.

In listening to his uncanny craftsmanship, one quickly recognizes that this is a consummate troubadour who could have carved his niche as either a songwriter, a musician or a singer so gifted was he in all those areas. Instead he chose to expand and hone his talents in many dimensions simultaneously, developing his name as the quintessential country artiste, rural America's Renaissance man, whose caliber will long provide a standard for all country artists who follow.

Haggard's life path has never been easy, nor has much of it been pretty, as aired in his 1981 book, Sing Me Back Home. His childhood years were spent in Bakersfield ,California and the death of his father,when Merle was just nine years old, became the catalyst that led to a squandered youth. At the same time his love for the wandering songs of such as Jimmie Rodgers, lead to an errant passion for the gleaming, endless railroad tracks and the siren song of slow freights and hobo jungles. And, along the way, to numerous brushes with the law.

Unfocused, unruly and unsettled, Merle learned early to walk the mean streets. As a teenager he took on every unskilled job that would have him, from oil field roustabout to hay-pitcher to short order cook. And that was the bright side. He also saw the insides of various penal institutions for crimes ranging from burglary to auto theft and even to escape. Before he had reached the age of 21, and not long after he married his first wife, Leona, he was serving time in the notorious San Quentin Penitentiary, thanks to a bungled attempt at burglarizing a tavern. But the three stretch within those gray and desolate walls including a stint in solitary confinement (for making home brew) became the experience that finally changed his perspective and the spark that turned his head around. He abruptly assumed the role of a model prisoner and was paroled in 1960. (Over a decade later in 1972, California's governor Ronald Reagan granted him a full pardon).

By the time he regained his freedom, he and Leona had four children but the marriage had already fallen apart. But better times loomed just around the corner.Post-prison life, a typical tale of scratching out a meager survival also became the beginning of his untypical musical career. Although he had made his stage debut at 15 sitting in on a Lefty Frizzell performance, it wasn't until after San Quentin that Merle joined a band as rhythm bass guitarist and began to sing in the clubs and the dives of the infamous "beer can hill" area of Bakersfield.

In one brief stretch his life took a major turnaround. He was signed by Tally Records, owned by close friend Levis Tally, and began cutting singles in a garage behind Tally's house. His first single was 'Singing My Heart Out' which received some regional airplay on the West coast but it was in 1963 that he eventually broke into the top twenty of Billboard's country charts with his first national hit 'Sing a Sad Song'.

Since then the country charts have been his second home. His next few singles - '(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers' , 'Swinging Doors' and 'The Bottle Let Me Down' - all landed within the Top 10. Meanwhile in the midst of this exciting period he married Bonnie Owens who also recorded for Tally and his contract was sold to Capitol Records. And his career was ready to soar to rarefied heights. In 1966 he entered the Number One spot for the first time with 'I'm a Lonesome Fugitive' and he won his first Top Male Vocalist of the Year award from the Academy of Country music.

With a perfectionist's attention to detail he painstakingly pieced together his new band, The Strangers. His diligence in that area as in many others has not gone unrewarded. The Strangers since have become known as one of country music's finest road bands and they themselves have been the recipients of a number of industry accolades, including being six-time winners of the Academy of Country Music's Touring Band of the Year Award, as well as a pair of Music City News awards for Band of the Year. They have also recorded several albums on their own.

In '68 the label released 'The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde' which, not unexpectedly, soared to Number One on all the trade charts. What was unexpected however, was the audience reaction to the B side: With absolutely no promotion or marketing input from the label, the side entered both the Cash Box and Record World charts and climbed to#23(Cash Box).That song,'Today I Started Loving You Again' went on to become one of the most important and lucrative songs of his career.

 

(Other of his famed B sides, including such as 'Silver Wings'(the flip of 'Working Mans Blues') also became a strong audience pleaser, testifying to the impact of his casual and seemingly effortless craftsmanship). And in 1969 with an assist from then band member Eddie Burris, he ventured into the arena of social commentary, voicing his feelings in 'Okie From Muskogee' the song that was to have the most dramatic impact on his career. Released during the height of national conflict over the Viet Nam war it was also to be his most controversial (And another #1 record for Hag).

At the end of the 70's after over a decade with Capitol Records and of marriage to wife Bonnie both associations came to an end. In 1977 Haggard signed with MCA Records and continued his long-term lease on the # I position with a string of chart-topping, singles, including 'Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink' and 'Rainbow Stew'. A year after signing with MCA his marriage with Bonnie was dissolved. (True to quizzical nature of his character, the two still remain friends, and Bonnie continues to sing and tour with Merle.) Immediately after his divorce from Bonnie, he married his third wife, Leona Williams also a recording artist. Eventually Merle departed his longtime home area of Bakersfield and relocated to his current home a 150 acre spread on Lake Shasta.

haggard3.jpg (15157 bytes)In 1981 he signed with Epic Records adding more #1 plaques to his wall including 'Yesterday's Wine' the title single culled from his powerful album duet with country music Titan George Jones. That same year he released a landmark album with another legendary country singer-songwriter (and longtime friend) Willie Nelson now a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. The title cut from that album'Pancho and Lefty' was a Number One record for Merle.

In the mid-80's he and Leona were divorced and his later marriage to Debbie Parret also ended in divorce. Merle eventually married Theresa Ann Lane his current wife and the pair have two children, Janessa and Bennie.

Merle signed with Curb Records in 1990 and his first album for the label was 'Blue Jungle'. His latest album is 'Merle Haggard 1994' in which he once again displays the panoramic range of his classic songwriting skills. It's not the Haggard of old of course, it's an aged-in-the-wood Hag, seasoned by the perspectives of one who's seen just about every path that life has to offer and has lived to write about it.

In 'I Am An Island' he paints the picture of that lethargic, lonesome depression so well known to the rejected lover who chooses solitude to nurse his pain. 'Valentine is as sweet and direct a love song as Haggard has ever put to vinyl, simply sung and simply produced, while 'Troubadour' is an obviously autobiographical tale (except for the line 'I've always been a minor leaguer') that offers a peephole into the life of the traveling musician.

No Haggard album would be complete without a paean or two for the harried working man and this one is no exception as he expresses a laborer's desire for isolation and withdrawal from the rat-race and his fantasy of moving 'Way Back in The Mountains'. Highlighting the LP and standing out as one of its most powerful offerings is the first single 'In My next Life' in which Merle's affinity for the working man once more comes to the fore. The continuing tragedy of the American farmer sets the scene for this tale of disappointment and failure, undying love and commitment crafted with the compassion that has become a Haggard trademark.

As a singer Merle openly admits to 'borrowing' the stylings of his idols Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, in his early years, and speaks of such beyond-the-genre influences upon his music as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Still, it's his own charismatic individuality, along with those rich vocal textures that so well express the heart and soul of Haggard that has always come shining through, In addition to his vocal performance he has also spent a great deal of time perfecting his instrumental skills. Over the years he has also developed into a remarkable lead guitarist as well as a proficient fiddle player, both skills being woven into the fabric of his live performances.

What he has added to the archives of country music as a songwriter, however, will live on far beyond the prestigious accomplishments of the flesh-and-bones performer. In terms of style and material he has brought a dimension of lyrical depth and musical sophistication to country music that was heretofore unavailable. While the bulk of country song material of his time was dealing with the pangs of lost, found or unrequited love, Haggard was digging deep within his own emotional background and setting his dark and somber experience to music. Over the years Merle has become accepted as the bard of uncommon poems of the common working man, anthems born with dirt under their fingernails.

His early years of pain and tribulation provided him with infinite raw material to be spun into the rich imagery that is now indelibly imprinted on the idiom. His days outside the law were woven into 'Lonesome Fugitive', 'Sing Me Back Home' and "Branded Man'; his understanding of his mother's torment led to 'Mama Tried' and 'Hungry Eyes' while his affinity for the hourly laborer produced such as 'Workin' Man's Blues' and '5:01 Blues'.

Integrally related to all his writing and performing skills is Merle's dedication and passion for researching the history of the music that inspires him. His deep love for the roots and the development of numerous forms of music is reflected in such album releases as:

Singer, songwriter, remarkable musician, bandleader and historian Haggard may well be the most well-rounded country talent ever to take the stage in front of a microphone or an audience. Over his career, his has been the pulse of an ever-lonesome fugitive in desperate flight from the prison walls of mediocrity. His has been the voice of the Okie with an attitude fueled by a well-stoked fire of unflinching convictions and bone-deep beliefs. In his music he has hung his soul out on the line, baring himself in those songs clawed out of the soil and bonded together with grit and spit. As a result that music not only resounds in such typical entertainment channels as radio, records and concert dates but has been also been integrated into the university classroom setting where students examine the sociological imp- locations of his works.

His accomplishments would lead some to sum him up with a catch-all cliche like "legend", but legends are about the past, about those who are about to be swept off into some dusty corner record bin somewhere. Haggard can't be pinpointed in the past. And he won't be found rockin' and whittlin with a shoebox full of yesterday's memories. His music speaks to country audiences today while his mind and talents flirt with a new millennium. Merle Haggard's not just a legend with a P.0. Box in once-upon-a-time, he's a permanent condition of country Music's Soul.

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