New Biography Explores the Legend of Merle Haggard

Some years ago, a radio station was about to switch its format. Management decided to, as they say in the business, “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 “sanitizing” the station, easing the transition from one style of music to another.

The public was intrigued by the new approach, figuring that you could do much worse than listening to Haggard by the ton. The industry was captivated by the radio station’s new (bogus) slogan, inspired by all-news station WINS in New York City: “You give us 22 minutes, and we’ll give you the Merle.”

In his new biography, The Hag:  The Life, Times, and Music of Merle Haggard (445 pp. $30, Hachette Books) author Marc Eliot doesn’t get the job done in 22 minutes. More like 400 pages, plus a hefty section of notes and references. But it is an enlightening read, particularly for those who only know Haggard from his song “Okie from Muskogee.” Eliot contends that Haggard and his band, the Strangers, effectively saved country music when it was in danger of descending into formulaic pablum.

Eliot — a celebrity biographer who has written books about Cary Grant, Barry White, Bruce Springsteen, and Walt Disney — takes on the legend of Haggard with an approach befitting the subject’s stature. There is some material that might be classified as salacious, though Eliot certainly could have piled it on if he had wanted to. It’s not like there isn’t plenty to work with.

Instead, Haggard’s life is presented chronologically, with an emphasis on his formative years and the damage that was done to his psyche during this period. Poverty, the death of his father, and multiple incarcerations gave Haggard a personality that was, to say the least, self-destructive. Repeatedly – in both his youth and his later years – he would get in the way of his own success.

Haggard was, politely speaking, a maladjusted child. His father died after suffering a stroke when Merle was nine years old, and the boy blamed himself, believing, as children who have endured a family tragedy sometimes do, that it was his fault. The boy had contracted a respiratory disease found in agricultural workers known as “Valley Fever” a number of weeks before his father’s death, and in his young mind, there was a definite connection.

This theme of misplaced responsibility runs throughout Haggard’s story. Frequently, Eliot details his subject’s “enormous capacity for feeling guilty about things he shouldn’t and feeling no guilt for things he should.”

During his teenage years, Haggard became a chronic truant and eventually a petty criminal. In multiple instances, Haggard would do his time, earn his release, and then promptly do something to get himself back in court. This pattern led to a series of stays in juvenile correction facilities and, later, prison. Specifically, San Quentin, the oldest prison in California and a facility that justifiably had a reputation as a place where convicts did “hard time.” When asked by a judge why he kept sabotaging his future, Haggard said, “I don’t like being told what to do.”

Merle Haggard on Gram Parsons: “He was a pussy.”

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The young prisoner had an epiphany after seeing Johnny Cash perform on New Year’s Day in 1960. Unfortunately, this occurred while Haggard was still in jail. He was captivated by Cash’s presence (“he had the right attitude”) and resolved to become a model prisoner, with the aim of securing his parole and resuming his music career.

When Haggard was a guest on Cash’s television program in 1969, the two spoke during rehearsals, discussing Haggard’s fear of his fans finding out about his time in prison. Almost a decade after his release, Haggard still felt profound shame. Cash encouraged Haggard to “come 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 mention that, Johnny.
Cash: What?
Haggard: San Quentin.
Cash: Why’s that?
Haggard: The first time I ever saw you perform, it was at San Quentin.
Cash: I don’t remember your being in that show, Merle.
Haggard: I was in the audience, Johnny.

In relating the story of Haggard’s life, Eliot gives the reader insight into the machinations of the music business. By presenting this information, Eliot makes it easier to understand why Haggard made choices regarding his career that might be characterized as counterintuitive.

Particularly instructive is Eliot’s account of Haggard’s struggles with Capitol Records (in particular Ken Nelson, the head of the label’s county division) during his ascent to fame during the 1960s. Haggard stubbornly fought to maintain his artistic integrity and stave off pressure to conform to the then-popular “Countrypolitan” sound that was prevalent in Nashville.

Merle Haggard at the height of his fame in 1971, when he was named Performer of the Year by the Country Music Association. - PUBLIC DOMAIN

Merle Haggard at the height of his fame in 1971, when he was named Performer of the Year by the Country Music Association.

Public domain

Also instructive are the pages devoted to Haggard’s longtime relationship with Buck Owens, whom Eliot describes as possessing “the face of a hound dog and the voice of a hiccupping angel.” The two musicians had a largely cordial relationship, but they often functioned as frenemies. One can imagine that things were awkward when Haggard was married (for a time) to Owens’ ex-wife, Bonnie.

Eliot describes a negotiation session between the two musicians, in which the savvy Owens bought Haggard’s song “Sing Me Back Home.” Owens could be a ruthless businessman. “As a publisher, he enjoyed making artists beg for money,” Eliot explains. Haggard asked for $15,000, which was the amount he owed in gambling debts to the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. Owens agreed, not telling Haggard that he had been prepared to give him a check made out for $35,000 that was waiting in his desk drawer.

Eliot, who has written about the Eagles and the country-rock sound that blossomed in California during the early 1970s, explores Haggard’s influence on the genre. His music was beloved by the Grateful Dead, who frequently 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 lessons learned are obvious in songs like “Torn and Frayed” and “Sweet Virginia.”

Though some rockers loved Haggard, both for his music and his persona, Eliot says that the high regard was generally not mutual. When Parsons asked Haggard to produce a record for him, the older man considered the project but ultimately bowed out. 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 stuck on the side of the road. It’s a two-minute blast of fanboy lust, featuring 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, I know, but Merle, you got soul / And I’ll fix your flat tire, Merle.”

Eliot writes with authority in The Hag. The text evinces a high degree of knowledge, and his insights into Haggard’s character are illuminating. Significantly, Eliot conducted over 100 new interviews in the course of writing the book. However, a reader might wonder if Eliot has ever penned scripts for true-crime television shows, or maybe MTV’s “Behind the Music.”

Numerous chapters end in one-sentence paragraphs, lines that beg to be delivered by a stentorian announcer and then punctuated with a dramatic “bum-bum-BUUUM” musical flourish. Case in point: “Merle’s life was about to take a deep downward plunge, and for a while, he would no longer see the light.” Or this one: “He hadn’t 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, The Hag makes a solid case for Haggard’s status as a musical icon, an artist who exerted a powerful and lasting influence. By steadfastly returning to the inspiration provided by pioneers like Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills, Haggard managed to stem the tide of blandness and mediocrity that, at one point, threatened to overtake the music that he loved. Or, as Eliot described Haggard’s achievement in recording the 1966 album Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down, “Merle Haggard and the Strangers had given country music back its balls.”

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