The Fighter: The Life & Times of Merle Haggard

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In 1970, Haggard built a mansion on the Kern River, where he lived with his second wife, Bonnie Owens, and he bought a cabin up at Lake Shasta, which he'd first seen out the window of a train when he ran away from home as a teenager. He says he realized he was a celebrity one day in the early Seventies when he was shopping at Nudie's, the Hollywood Western-wear boutique: "Both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart came up and told me how much they admired me."

Haggard drove Cadillac Eldorados and wore ostrich boots and bought several planes, which he piloted himself on late-night fishing expeditions and Vegas gambling binges. "People are still paying for the fun we had in the Seventies," he says.

"One night I was in bed and the phone rang," recalls Strangers drummer Biff Adam, Haggard's longtime aide-de-camp. "It was Merle calling from Lake Shasta, and he said, 'Hey, there's a bear up here trying to break in my cabin. Will you go out to the ranch and get my 30-30, and fly it up here?' I said, 'Merle, you don't want to kill that bear.' He said, 'No, no, I just want to scare him.' I said, 'OK.' I go out and get the rifle, get the plane out of the hangar, I'm on the runway ready to take off, and the guy in the tower said, 'Hey, Biff. Hag just called. He said don't worry, they've made friends with that bear, they fed him. He said, 'You can go back to bed.'"

Flying a Cessna 206 one night out of Vandenberg Air Force Base near Santa Barbara, Haggard noticed strange lights above the plane. "It looked like a big searchlight coming from behind us, and it lit up the whole cockpit," Haggard says. "The pilot called the control tower at Vandenberg and said, What'd you do, shoot a rocket at us?' He said, 'What you talking about?' 'Well, we saw these bright lights up here over the top of us.' 'Well, it didn't come from here.'"

Haggard came to believe the light was from a UFO, and it sparked a lifelong curiosity about extraterrestrial life. (In 2003, he started the Merle Haggard UFO Music Fest in Roswell, New Mexico, near the site of the alleged UFO landing in 1947. A guitar pick from the festival is buried in Johnny Cash's coffin.)

"You'd have to be crazy to believe there's not life out there," Haggard says. "People say, 'If we find life, then we'll know that there's life everywhere.' Bullshit. We know it now if you have a brain. I think the government is extremely puzzled, and they're aware that we're not the smartest bear in the woods. There's some other intelligence around that's observing our progress. Who knows, I mean, this may be an experiment. This planet. The whole gamut may be an experiment being conducted by some superior race."

The hits slowed down in the 1980s, but the party revved up. After splitting with his third wife, country singer Leona Williams, Haggard moved onto a houseboat on Lake Shasta. In 1983, he bought a stake in the Silverthorn Resort, a marina with a cafe, bait shop and nightclub. He hosted wet-T-shirt contests, slept all day and fished at night. "I had my toothbrush tied to the boat and let it dangle in the water," Haggard wrote in My House of Memories. "We drank cayenne-pepper drinks and wore very little clothes . . . There were lots of drugs, women, good friends, good music and fun."

Around this time, Haggard and his buddy Willie Nelson recorded Pancho and Lefty, a laid-back album about boozing, chasing girls and skipping out on responsibilities to go fishing – with a hint of the fallout to come. "We were living pretty hard in that time period," says Nelson. The album's finest track, a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," was cut after four in the morning. Haggard had already gone to bed, Nelson says, but they needed him for the final verse. "We went over to the condo, woke up of Merle and said, 'It's your turn.'"

Haggard's verse on "Pancho and Lefty" is one of his greatest performances – strong, unsentimental, yet conveying all the tragedy of the lyrics about the inevitable bad end that can come from a life of rambling. "Merle is a genial old boy," says Nelson. "He did it about half in his sleep, but Hag sings pretty good in his sleep."

Haggard's mother, Flossie, died in 1984, and his close friend Lewis Talley died two years later, while having sex with a woman on Haggard's boat. Haggard married a waitress named Debbie Parret in 1985, but it didn't take. "I was partyin' pretty hard. I'd canceled all my dates, and I was in heavy mourning. And I was probably smoking pot, smoking Camels and drinking George Dickel – we did that for about five months. It was an isolated time when I really lost it for a while. Losing my best friend, and bad love affairs, you know. And spending way too much money."

Haggard met his current wife, Theresa, during those wild times. She was 26 years old, newly divorced, and one night her mother persuaded her to come see Haggard perform at Silverthorn, even though she was more of a ZZ Top fan. After the show, Theresa met Haggard's guitarist, Clint Strong, and the two went back to Strong's room. But Haggard kept calling, inviting them to his boat. "Finally," Theresa says, "Clint goes, 'Merle wants us to come over, but I have to tell you one thing: Watch out for that guy.'"

The party was in full swing, Theresa remembers. "Merle was sitting in the corner. I locked eyes with him, and I could feel my face just turn beet-red." Strong invited Theresa to come to the show in Vegas the next night. After the gig, Haggard asked Strong to go to the bus and get a guitar. "He said, 'I'll take her up to the room, and we'll meet you up there,'" Theresa says. When Strong returned with the guitar, Haggard wouldn't let him in. "There's bangin' on the door, and it's Clint," Theresa says. "And Merle says, 'Get the fuck out of here! She's my woman now. You don't know how to treat a woman. Get the hell out of here, or I'm going to fire your ass.' I went on a month tour with him, and we were pretty much together."

Theresa didn't believe she could have kids, so when she got pregnant in 1989, she says, "It was a blessing." They named their daughter Jenessa – the name came to Haggard in a dream – and moved off the houseboat to the ranch full time. "We got worried the baby might fall overboard," Theresa says. "So Merle fixed up a cabin at the end of the property, and we moved in after he brought me home from the hospital."

Three years later, Theresa gave birth to Benion, named after Benny Binion, the colorful, criminal owner of the Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas whom Haggard says was like a father to him. The same day Benion was born, Haggard was served with papers at the hospital claiming he owed creditors $14 million. "Once again, I was paying a high price for cheap thrills and bad decisions," he wrote in My House of Memories. "And I was dunned at one of the most memorable moments in my life."

Despite his new family, the early 1990s was the darkest period of Haggard's career. He is unclear about exactly what happened to all his money, but he alludes to corrupt business managers and lawyers, bad decisions made under the influence of various substances, and conspiracies. "It was overwhelming," he says. "I was almost 60 years old, had one child and another just born – they kept me from going crazy, kept me from killing a few people. There were a couple of people didn't know how close they were. There was people wanting to do it for me. And all I'd had to do was wink – it was that close."

Two of Haggard's overlooked records from this period – with the uninspired titles 1994 and 1996 – tell much of the story. The production is hokey, but the best, songs are heartbreaking: After all the difficult circumstances Haggard had overcome in his life, he sounds as if he's finally been beaten. "In my next life," he sings, "I want to be your hero, something better than I turned out to be." And in "Troubadour," "I'll always be a minor-leaguer, probably never get no bigger/I just love to play my old guitar."

If his 1990s albums were commercial duds, they paved the way for Haggard's re-emergence in this decade, beginning with the 2000 album If I Could Only Fly. "Merle's very emotional," says Theresa, sitting under an umbrella on the front patio one afternoon. "He takes everything so seriously, whether it's something on the news or a new song that just comes out. He's a real busy man in his mind – I'm 23 years younger than him, and I cannot keep up. I try to get him to slow down a little."

In addition to helping Haggard quit caffeine, red meat and cigarettes, Theresa introduced him to a regimen of herbs and supplements, and got him doing yoga. "He's a very good yogi. The first time we did it, he said, 'This stuff is like a high!'"

"He's such a thinker," she continues, "and yoga is kind of nonthinking. It does him so much good to not think. He asked me, 'Why would you want to not think?' I said, 'Well, you might want to give your mind a rest.'"

The Strangers are the longest-running, most exciting band in country music, a wiry, daredevil outfit that specializes in a swinging hybrid of country and jazz. Haggard formed the Strangers (named for his first hit) in 1965. Three of its members – Biff Adam, steel-guitar player Norm Hamlet and horn man Don Markham – have been in the group for more than 35 years.

The Strangers don't operate like most bands. Haggard does not hold formal rehearsals – the entire group will likely not be in a room together until soundcheck at the first show on a tour. He doesn't prepare set lists, either – no one knows what song is coming until Haggard starts to play it. "Merle likes to keep you guessing," says Adam. "Nobody ever knows who is going to take the next turnaround until Merle points at you, and it's 'Go!' When you play with Merle, you are never gawking at the good-looking girls. You can't." Three Strangers – musical director Scott Joss, who plays fiddle and guitar; pianist Doug Colosio; and bassist Kevin Williams – whom Haggard calls "the Three Musketeers," live nearby, and some afternoons Haggard pays the guys $50 to come by to jam for a couple of hours. Today, they set up in Haggard's crowded living room: Williams on a stool against the fireplace; Joss next to the TV on a chair from the dining table; Colosio wedged in behind the couch, his keyboard hidden from view so it looks like he's playing the back of the sofa.

The guys are on call whenever Haggard feels like practicing or recording; their job description includes missing dinners at home, canceling vacations and adapting to any new musical circumstance that might arise. "Whatever way the wind blows in his mind, that's the way he goes," says Joss. "Sometimes we don't all understand where he's going, but that's the joy of it. He's willing to take the chance and see where it takes him."

Today Haggard is wearing a long-sleeve gray T-shirt under a camouflage jacket, blue jeans that hang loose on his skinny legs and cream-colored loafers. An identical pair of loafers sits on the bookshelf behind him. The group warms up with old favorites: Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #9," "Stardust," which Haggard considers one of the best songs ever written, and "Corrine, Corrina." When Haggard sings, he uses his whole body – his right leg shakes, his shoulders pull from side to side, his neck stretches as he reaches to hit the notes. His voice may not be as forceful as when he was younger, but it's subtler, more elegant. "Merle is one of the great interpreters of song," says singer Peter Wolf, who recently recorded a duet with Haggard for his own new album. He says the experience was "not unlike being there with Ray Charles or Sinatra. You hear that Sinatra had a way of bringing out the story in the lyrics, but I didn't realize how true that was until Merle comes in and does this song, and I just heard it in a whole new way."

Haggard is also an underrated, inventive guitar player. Today, he picks out single-note solos and riffs that at times sound like they're about to collapse onto each other, then resolve in some unusual, beautiful way. After a while he finds a Mexican-sounding chord progression he likes, and repeats it until he finds a line to go with it. "She came in with her own fandango," he tries, rifling off an old Wills line. "Da da da dee do do do da da dee deh . . . "

Theresa, in the kitchen fixing a bacon sandwich for Ben, notices Haggard's up to something, and rushes in to add her own line: "She danced to Grappelli and Django?" "Write it down!" shouts Haggard, then adds, "She did a fine waltz and a tango!" "She had her own kind of lingo?" says Theresa.

The song goes around the room, with everyone kicking in lines, until Haggard gives up after a few minutes and starts to play Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On," another of his favorites. "Hank was a small guy," Haggard says. "But that ol boy had a 10-inch dick. There are photos."

Soon, Haggard wants to listen to demos from a new album he's working on that the guys have been casually referring to as "the rock & roll record."

"I've played this more than I've played any of my records in 20 years," he says. One tune, called "It's Gonna Be Me," stands out with its heavy bass line and lyrics that stake Haggard's claim to singing about what's wrong with the country today.

"Who's gonna say the people's mad?" he growls. "Who's gonna say the music's bad?/ Who's gonna say it's lost its soul?/Who's gonna get the shysters told?/It's gonna be me." "Not sure where it came from," he says. "Anger. I'm speaking for the simple majority – not necessarily the 'silent majority' but the people that mind their business and don't bitch about nothing. I do all the bitching for 'em."

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