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The Fighter: The Life & Times of Merle Haggard

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When Merle was 11, his brother, Lowell, gave him a used Bronson guitar. "For a boy who was shy," Haggard wrote, "that guitar gave me a new and exciting way of saying something." Lefty Frizzell's "I Love You a Thousand Ways" became a hit a couple of years later, and Merle learned to perfectly replicate the pleading phrasing of Frizzell's hillbilly tenor. Haggard loved the "brilliance and clarity" of Frizzell's music, and he studied Lefty's easy charisma onstage, which came less naturally to Haggard. "For three or four years I didn't sing anything but Lefty Frizzell songs," he wrote, "and then because Lefty was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers I learned to imitate him, too."

When Merle was 14, he and a friend bought tickets to see Frizzell perform at the Rainbow Gardens in Bakersfield. They got so drunk on Burgie beer before the show that they passed out on the front lawn and missed the first set. Two years later, when Frizzell returned to Bakersfield, Haggard snuck backstage. Someone told Frizzell that Haggard could impersonate him, so Frizzell gave him an audition. Frizzell was so bowled over he refused to go on unless Haggard performed first. Haggard sang two Jimmie Rodgers songs and Hank Williams' 'You Win Again," and decided then and there that he wanted to be a professional country singer. "It's like the guy who catches his first fish," Haggard says. "I was really the one who was hooked."

In 1956, when he was 19, Haggard married his 16-year-old girlfriend, Leona Hobbs, a beautiful, dark-haired girl he met at a local hamburger stand. Haggard has called their relationship one of "the great battles in history" – he recounts nearly strangling her in one fight shortly before their 1965 split.

Through most of his teens, Haggard never saw himself as a real criminal, just a misguided guy who got into bad jams. In Sing Me Back Home, he points out that often when he'd steal a car, he'd return it cleaned up, with gas in the tank. But with his new wife and no steady income, his criminal pursuits got more serious. He forged a check in Arizona, robbed a California gas station and broke into safes. On the day his first daughter, Dana, was born, Haggard, then 19, was in jail for car theft.

In 1957, Haggard and a friend were home drinking wine when they launched a plan to rob a cafe owned by an acquaintance of Merle's. With Leona and infant Dana wrapped in a blanket in the backseat, Haggard drove up to the back door of the cafe and started to pick the lock. Haggard was so drunk he thought it was three in the morning – but it was really 10 p.m. and the cafe was still open. The owner came out back, confused. "Why don't you boys come around to the front door?" he said. Haggard took off, but he got caught with his headlights off half a block away. Haggard escaped jail the next day. He was recaptured at his brother's house the following evening, with a bottle of whiskey in his hand, and returned to custody, where he was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.

In San Quentin, Haggard got caught for being drunk on beer he brewed in his cell and spent seven days in solitary confinement, with just a pair of pajama pants, a Bible and a mattress that was taken away every morning at 5 a.m. During his confinement, Haggard struck up a conversation through the air vents with convicted rapist Caryl Chessman, whose case was at the center of a battle over the death penalty in the U.S. Supreme Court. Chessman's execution partly inspired one of Haggard's greatest songs, "Sing Me Back Home." Haggard says that week in solitary was the turning point in his life. "I thought, 'You might better change your locality and get into another area of life, because this is pretty dangerous right here,'" he says. In 1959, he got a glimpse of what that new area might be when Johnny Cash came to perform at San Quentin on New Year's Day. "I didn't care for his music before that – I thought it was corny," Haggard says. "He couldn't sing a lick that day, but he had the crowd right in the palm of his hand. I became a Johnny Cash fan that day."

Several years later, Haggard ran into Cash in the men's room before a TV appearance in Chicago in 1963. As they stood at the urinal, Cash asked if they'd met before. Haggard said no but that he was in the audience at San Quentin in 1959: "I told him, 'You came in there, left, and my life changed.'"

By the time Haggard was paroled from San Quentin, in 1960, the Bakersfield scene was swinging with a new style of country music – harder and rowdier than Nashville, driven by Telecaster guitars, electric bass and rockabilly beats. "Nashville was more fruit-jar drinkers, blue-grass-country than California," says Fuzzy Owen, who played steel guitar in local clubs and had a record label, Tally Records, with his cousin Lewis Talley. "We had a different atmosphere in our music. We wanted a brighter sound, and we was kind of wild." Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens were the biggest Bakersfield stars (the Beatles covered Owens' 1963 hit "Act Naturally" on Help!), and Haggard found work as a fillin guitarist at local clubs like High-Pockets, the Clover Club and the Blackboard, which he calls "the epitome of the country redneck honky-tonk." In 1960, Haggard took second place in a local talent show and landed a job playing at the Lucky Spot, along with Fuzzy Owen. "When Merle come off the stage, he come back and introduced himself, and I said, 'Boy, that's the best damn singing I ever heard,'" says Owen. "He said, Well, if you like it so much, why don't you record me?'"

The two cut Haggard's composition "Skid Row," with one of Owen's tunes, "Singin' My Heart Out," as the B side. Owen pressed 200 copies, and the record got some local airplay. Owen told Haggard to call him when he had some new material. Soon after, Haggard landed a gig as the bass player for Wynn Stewart's band in Las Vegas. He earned $225 a week but spent far more on booze and gambling and often had to call his mother to wire him more money.

After a year in Vegas, Haggard went home broke, with his marriage on the rocks. Before he left, he asked Stewart if he could record a song the star had recently written, "Sing a Sad Song." "He had it all tailored for himself," says Haggard, "ready to record. It was a big thing of him to let me have that song, and I'll always be thankful." The single, released on Owen's Tally label, hit Number 19 on the Billboard country charts. It was followed by a Johnny Cash-style novelty song, "Sam Hill," and a duet with Bonnie Owens (who had previously been married to Buck Owens and would later marry Haggard), "Just Between the Two of Us," both of which also made the charts. Haggard's next single, "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," written by California songwriter Liz Anderson, cracked the Top 10 and helped Haggard get a contract with Capitol Records.

From early in his career, Haggard was more interested in being a musician than an entertainer, rarely bantering or even addressing the crowd. This caused trouble in some places. "People had a hard time accepting Merle Haggard," Jack McFadden, Buck Owens' manager, once said. "I got a call from a guy in Minneapolis one morning . . . He said, '[Merle] walks out on the stage, picks up his guitar, he don't even say hello, he don't say nothin'. And I've never seen anybody do that before.' I said, 'Well, how's he singing?' He said, 'Oh, he sounds great.' I said, Well, you don't have anything to bitch about.'"

In 1966, Haggard had his first Number One song with Anderson's "The Fugitive." The song was about a TV show popular at the time, but it hinted at Haggard's story: "I raised a lot of Cain back in my younger days/While Mama used to pray my crops would fail/Now I'm a hunted fugitive with just two ways/Outrun the law or spend my life in jail."

Though he sang about outlaws, Haggard was terrified to let people know about his own criminal past. "The last thing in the world I wanted to do," he says, "was walk up like David Allan Coe and say, 'Hey, I've been to prison, look at me.'"

"The amazing thing about Merle," says Kristofferson, "is that he's never said, 'I'm the real thing, and these other guys are just going through the motions.'"

It was Cash who eventually persuaded Haggard to talk about his past on Cash's TV show in 1969: "He told me, 'They're going to find out anyway. If you own up to it, you'll be a hero.'"

As Haggard began to write about the circumstances of his life in songs like "Mama Tried," "Hungry Eyes" and "Workin' Man Blues" (which he says was his attempt to create a defining song, like Cash had done with "Folsom Prison Blues"), he came to be viewed as a rebel icon and folk hero, an inheritor of the traditions of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. The Grateful Dead named their 1970 album Workingman's Dead in tribute to Haggard, and the Rolling Stones were influenced by Haggard, most directly on 1968's Beggars Banquet. "I was definitely listening to Merle by then," Keith Richards says, "and when you're a songwriter and musician, what goes in your ear tends to come out of your fingers."

But if Haggard started out as a hero to the hippies, that changed with one song: 1969's "Okie From Muskogee." Released three weeks after Woodstock, the song stood up for small-town values, baiting longhairs and war protesters in lines like "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD/ We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin' right and bein' free."

"Okie" became Haggard's biggest hit and earned him entertainer of the year from the Country Music Association. Haggard was invited to play Pat Nixon's birthday party at the White House (which he struggled through with a raging hangover). In 1972, he was granted an official pardon by California governor Ronald Reagan.

Haggard has always wavered on how seriously he intended "Okie." Soon after its release, he wrote a followup, "Somewhere in Between," which tried to spell out his political position more precisely, but the song was never released. (It is now available on the Bear Family box set Merle Haggard: The Studio Recordings 1969-1976) Haggard still struggles with how to explain "Okie." "The reason I wrote it was because I was dumb as a rock," he told a crowd recently. Then, confusingly, he added, "Another reason is it needed to be written."

Kristofferson, who as a young songwriter in Nashville idolized Haggard as "the closest thing to Hank Williams walking the streets," took to performing a left-wing parody of "Okie." "I remember saying at the time, 'Maybe that's the only bad song he ever wrote,'" Kristofferson says. "I was wrong. That song is saying, 'I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,' and coming from his background in California, that's like saying, 'I'm black and I'm proud.'"

Bob Dylan sees it another way. "I always thought everybody got 'Okie From Muskogee' wrong," he says. "It's one of the funniest satires ever. If Randy Newman would have written and sung it, nobody would have thought twice."

"Okie" made Haggard the most successful country artist of the early 1970s, but he resented being made into a political symbol. "I've never been a Republican, I've never been a Democrat, and I've never voted," he says. "I've never brought that up before – you're the first one to know that."

Just as he resented being made a political symbol, Haggard ran away from being a star. For his follow-up to "Okie," Haggard wanted to release "Irma Jackson," a tortured song about interracial romance (not a popular subject at country radio at the time). Capitol released the jingoistic "The Fightin' Side of Me" instead. Not long after, Haggard was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, which would have put him in front of the biggest audience of his career, but he ditched rehearsals because he thought the skit designed for his segment made him appear "fruity."

"When you say, 'Who's the great California songwriter?' people say, 'Brian Wilson,'" says California guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin. "And he is, for a particular California. But Merle is the voice of another California."

Alvin singles out "Kern River" – about a girl drowning in the treacherous waters that separated Bakersfield from the Okie settlements – as one of the great evocations of place and class in the Golden State. "It's amazingly deep and complicated," he says. "I hear a lot of California in those two and a half minutes." Dylan loves "Kern River" too, but for other reasons. "Sometimes you forget about how much naturalborn heartbreak there is in a Merle Haggard song, because of all the boomtown oil-well Dust Bowl honky-tonk imagery of his music," he says. "I mean, 'Kern River' is a beautiful lament, but let's not forget it's about his girlfriend dying."

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