Two of the most iconic voices of the Bakersfield sound, Dwight Yoakam and Merle Haggard had a musical kinship that ran deep. Their many collaborations included “Beer Can Hill” (also with Buck Owens), and a remake of “Swinging Doors,” with Yoakam also covering several of the Hag’s songs over the years including “Holding Things Together,” which contains what he deems the ultimate verse in all of music. Here are Yoakam’s poignant, passionate words about the late legend, as told to Rolling Stone‘s Patrick Doyle.
To say Merle Haggard was one of the very greatest would be an inadequate understatement. The word ‘genius’ is used too often to describe people. But I would put Merle Haggard’s artistic genius up against anybody in history, in terms of pop culture and chronicling human experience, love and loss, and the gamut of human emotion.
I’ve been posting a lot of [Haggard] songs for fans. I started thinking about his ability to transcend all the tragedy in his personal life. It started with his father dying when he was 10 years old. He was coming home from church with his mother on a Wednesday night; his father had not gone to church with him. His father was at the kitchen table. He wasn’t moving, and they realized there was something wrong. His father was shockingly young [when he died], in his early Forties, I believe. He had a stroke just from the life he had lived trying to help his family survive. He was migrant worker and it was a tough work for those migrant Okies who had blown out of the Dust Bowl when they moved to California.
Merle’s sister said that [their father’s death] probably shaped him more than any other event in his life. It overwhelmed him. He talked about witnessing the strongest man on earth, his father, in this state — and he was completely helpless. He passed away a few days after that, and Merle couldn’t contain himself. He never settled down as a young teenager. It was a very Steinbeck world — Grapes of Wrath was the world he was literally born into, the labor camps. He wrote about it on “Mama’s Hungry Eyes”:
A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labor camp
Stand out in this memory I revived;
Cause my daddy raised a family there, with two hard working hands
And tried to feed my mama’s hungry eyes
It’s one of the songs that shaped my experience as a songwriter and taught me what the standard should be for expressing the emotions about the human experience, the shared experiences we have.
His real life was larger than life. I think he was 19 when he was arrested. He used to laughingly say it was one of the stupidest burglaries ever attempted: He broke into a bar that he and a buddy had been drinking in earlier. They were drunk and tried to break into the safe while the bar was still open, so they were caught red-handed. He’d been in a juvenile hall over the years; he had a lot of trouble. I was always taken with Merle by the conflict of his desire to like people and the scar that he carried from that prison experience at such a young age. That wouldn’t allow him to fully trust anybody ever, it seemed. And out of that dichotomy came these songs.
He never really escaped being the fugitive that he was in life. A lot of people didn’t know he had been in prison at that point. He didn’t talk about it publicly; he was ashamed of it. And Johnny Cash famously told him on his show in ’69 or ’70. . . He said, “Merle, I think you owe it to yourself and the public to talk about your life.” Because that’s where Merle saw Johnny the first time, at one of the prison shows [Cash] performed in San Quentin, when Merle was a 20-year-old inmate. Of course, he wrote “Mama Tried,” which was kind of a fictionalized account of that experience. The other one is “Sing Me Back Home”: