A few years ago, a radio station was changing format. The management decided to, as they say in the industry, “stunt” for a week or so prior to the debut of their new programming lineup. Then someone came up with the idea of playing nothing but Merle Haggard all day and all night. This type of strategy was sometimes used to keep competitors guessing while simultaneously “cleaning up” the station, facilitating the transition from one style of music to another.
The public was fascinated by the new approach and figured you could do much worse than listen to Haggard in tone. The industry was captivated by the radio station’s new (fake) slogan, inspired by the news station WINS in New York City: “You give us 22 minutes and we give you Merle.”
In his new biography, The Hag: Merle Haggard’s life, times and music (445 p. $ 30, Hachette Books) author Marc Eliot does not get the job done in 22 minutes. More like 400 pages, plus a large section with notes and references. But it’s an enlightening read, especially for those who only know Haggard from his song “Okie from Muskogee.” Eliot claims that Haggard and his band, The Strangers, effectively saved country music as it was in danger of falling into formal pablum.
Eliot – a celebrity filmmaker who has written books about Cary Grant, Barry White, Bruce Springsteen and Walt Disney – takes on the legend of Haggard with an approach that fits the stature of the subject. There is some material that can be classified as delicate, though Eliot certainly could have put it on if he had wanted to. It is not that there is not enough to work with.
Instead, Haggard’s life is presented chronologically with emphasis on his formative years and the damage inflicted on his psyche during this period. Poverty, his father’s death, and multiple imprisonments gave Haggard a personality that was, to say the least, self-destructive. Repeatedly – both in his youth and his later years – he got in the way of his own success.
Haggard was, politely speaking, an maladapted child. His father died after having a stroke when Merle was nine years old, and the boy blamed himself, believing, as children who have sometimes endured a family tragedy, that it was his fault. The boy had contracted a respiratory disease found in farm workers known as “valley fever” a number of weeks before his father’s death, and in his young mind there was a clear connection.
This theme of misplaced responsibility runs throughout Haggard’s history. Eliot often describes his subject’s “enormous ability to feel guilty about things he should not, and not feel guilty about things he should.”
In his teens, Haggard became a chronic prankster and eventually a petty criminal. In several cases, Haggard would spend his time, deserve his release, and then immediately do something to get back in court. This pattern led to a series of stays in juvenile delinquency and later imprisonment. Specifically San Quentin, the oldest prison in California and a facility that rightly had a reputation as a place where convicts had it “hard”. When asked by a judge why he kept sabotaging his future, Haggard said, “I do not like being told what to do.”
Merle Haggard on Gram Parsons: “He was a pussy.”
The young prisoner had a revelation after watching Johnny Cash perform on New Year’s Day in 1960. Unfortunately, this happened while Haggard was still in jail. He was captivated by Cash’s presence (“he had the right attitude”) and decided to become a model prisoner with the aim of securing his probation and resuming his music career.
When Haggard was a guest on Cash’s television program in 1969, the two spoke during rehearsals and discussed Haggard’s fears that his fans would find out about his time in prison. Nearly a decade after his release, Haggard still felt deep shame. Cash urged Haggard to “get clean” about his time behind bars, and when the show aired, viewers witnessed the following exchange:
Cash: Here is a man who writes about his own life and has had a life to write about.
Haggard: Funny you mentioned that, Johnny.
Haggard: San Quentin.
Cash: Why it?
Haggard: The first time I ever saw you perform was in San Quentin.
Cash: I do not remember you being in that show, Merle.
Haggard: I was in the audience, Johnny.
By telling the story of Haggard’s life, Eliot gives the reader insight into the music industry’s intrigue. By presenting this information, Eliot makes it easier to understand why Haggard made choices regarding his career that can be characterized as counterintuitive.
Particularly instructive is Eliot’s account of Haggard’s struggles with Capitol Records (especially Ken Nelson, head of the record company’s county) during his rise to fame in the 1960s. Haggard stubbornly struggled to maintain his artistic integrity and ward off pressure to adapt to the then-popular “Countrypolitan” sound prevalent in Nashville.
Also instructive are the pages devoted to Haggard’s long-standing relationship with Buck Owens, whom Eliot describes as possessing “the face of a hunting dog and the voice of a hiccuping angel.” The two musicians had a largely cordial relationship, but they often acted as friends. One can imagine that things were awkward when Haggard was married (for a period) to Owens’ ex-wife, Bonnie.
Eliot describes a negotiation session between the two musicians, where the knowledgeable Owens bought Haggard’s song “Sing Me Back Home”. Owens could be a ruthless businessman. “As a publisher, he enjoyed getting artists to beg for money,” Eliot explains. Haggard asked for $ 15,000, which was the amount he owed in gambling debt to Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. Owens agreed, not telling Haggard that he had been prepared to give him a $ 35,000 check, which was waiting in his desk drawer.
Eliot, who has written about the Eagles and the country rock sound that flourished in California in the early 1970s, explores Haggard’s influence on the genre. His music was loved by the Grateful Dead, who often performed “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home”. Gram Parsons of the Flying Burrito Brothers introduced the Rolling Stones to the Haggard songbook, and the experience is evident in songs like “Torn and Frayed” and “Sweet Virginia.”
Although some rockers loved Haggard, both for his music and his personality, Eliot says the high respect was generally not mutual. When Parsons asked Haggard to produce a record for him, the older man considered the project, but eventually bowed. Haggard on Parsons: “He was a pussy.”
Nevertheless, the rockers’ love for Merle continued to flow, as exemplified by the Pure Prairie League song “I’ll Fix Your Flat Tire, Merle,” in which the narrator spies Haggard are stuck on the side of the road. It’s a two-minute blast of fanboy lust, with a chorus containing a unique couplet: “I’ll fix your flat tire, Merle / Don’t get your sweet country picking finger all covered with erl / You’re a honky, you know it, but Merle, you have soul / And I’ll fix your flat tire, Merle. ”
Eliot writes with authority in Hagen. The text exhibits a high degree of knowledge, and his insight into Haggard’s character is enlightening. It is noteworthy that Eliot conducted over 100 new interviews during the writing of the book. However, a reader may wonder if Eliot has ever written scripts for TV shows with real crime, or perhaps MTV’s “Behind the Music”.
Several chapters end in paragraphs with one sentence, lines asking to be delivered by a stentori announcer and then marked by a dramatic “bum-bum-BUUUM” musical boom. An example: “Merle’s life was about to take a deep dive downward, and for a while he would no longer see the light.” Or this: “He had not counted on the brick wall of self-destruction that stood in his way.” Not to mention: “And it only got worse from there.”
Literary melodrama aside, Hagen argues solidly for Haggard’s status as a musical icon, an artist who exerted a strong and lasting influence. By steadfastly returning to the inspiration of pioneers like Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills, Haggard managed to stem the tide of bland and mediocre people who at one point threatened to overtake the music he loved. Or as Eliot described Haggard’s performance of recording the 1966 album Revolving doors and the bottle let me fall, “Merle Haggard and the Strangers had given back country music.”