It all came from that evening, in spring 1946.
Merle Haggard was nine. He had been at a Church of Christ prayer meeting outside Bakersfield, California, with his mother, Flossie. The young boy didn’t like church. This night he meant to race home, where he knew his father, James Haggard – a genial man who had once taken his son by the hand and led him to a friend’s house to pick out a fox terrier that the boy named Jack – would be waiting. Merle jumped across the railroad tracks on the way to the family’s boxcar home, ahead of his mother. “Before I even got to the yard, I could tell something was wrong,” he later recalled. “There was no sign of Jack anywhere. I tried to ignore a chill I felt coming up my back… The light was out in the front room, and I could see only one little light at the back of the house… Then I saw him.”
“He was sitting in the shadows in the big chair… I could see tears running down his cheeks. I’d never seen my Daddy cry before.” James had been driving when he suffered a stroke. He had managed to steer the car home and get himself into the chair. “I been waitin’ for you and Merle to come home.”
Haggard spent many years – maybe all the years that followed – trying to fathom that evening. “Something went out of my world that I was never able to replace,” he wrote. When the family took James to the hospital after his stroke, he reached out in the car to his son and touched him gently. Merle was present during check-in, when James suffered a brain hemorrhage. Days later, he was hit with another, which killed him. It was a transformative loss for Merle, the central event of his life. In later years, “I began to realize that things would have been different, maybe better, if he’d lived,” he told Rolling Stone’s Jason Fine. Haggard, still a child, ran away and lived as a rebel from that season forward – his home no longer held meaning or comfort for him. His rebellion turned into lawbreaking, until he saw other men die, or lose their souls irretrievably, along that same path. He turned to the dream that his father longed for – making music – but had never felt free to pursue. Haggard thrived at it, as if redeeming a heritage.
From the start, he commanded attention with his voice. In contrast to Hank Williams’ nervy drawl or Johnny Cash’s rough-hewn, colloquial way of sharing predicaments, Haggard began with an impossibly beautiful voice. His brandy-toned, barroom plea could glide up a scale fluidly, without any discernible steps; it was a prodigy’s feat, like Frank Sinatra’s young mellifluence or Jim Reeves’ plaintive Western croon.
Haggard’s voice yielded hard truths – songs about hearts lost in alcohol’s shadow, men who couldn’t find honest support and lived outside the law. Though his audience didn’t know it for years, he was often singing about himself. Of all the country artists who bore or brandished an outlaw image, Haggard had come up against that life, and paid for it. That authenticity helped make him one of the most revered singers and songwriters that country music ever delivered. By the end of his life, 38 of his albums appeared on Billboard‘s country-music top 10 charts; more than a dozen made it to Number One. He also had 38 Number One singles. Hits like “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried” – about lives forfeited in punishment or desperation – found their way into Americans’ conscience. Some, though – most famously, “Okie From Muskogee” – kindled the worst instincts of the nation’s temperament and fears.
Over the course of the years, Haggard went from being a voice of the heartbroken and displaced to inciting reactionaries and flag-wavers, to becoming a dissenter himself, both politically and artistically. He’d arrive at truths – or at love – only to question those verities. He could even seem diffident about his voice, perhaps country’s greatest vocal instrument. He rested on nothing; he knew a deeper rest and certainty were coming.
“There is a restlessness in my soul,” he once said, “that I’ve never conquered, not with motion, marriages or meaning… [It’s] still there to a degree. And it will be till the day I die.”
In the late 1960s, Merle Haggard famously declared himself an Okie from Muskogee. He meant it as a way of identifying with, and standing for, endangered values, as America was in a social ferment that divided generations, regions, political convictions and ways of living. New things were in the air – drug use and youth revolt. The audience Haggard was speaking to saw this change as a threat, as an alien incursion that filled the streets and headlines, that derided patriotism and long-held common notions of decency. Haggard’s imagery seemed hackneyed – “We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse” – but it spoke powerfully and immediately to people who felt under attack.
Haggard must have known, though, that when he invoked the word “Okie,” he was also summoning a history of people who had themselves been seen as a peril, an invading populace: the Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and other parts of the Southern Plains who had fled the ruin of the Great Depression in the 1930s. They were all called Okies when they flooded into the western United States – a place that wanted no part of them. The disdain and occasional violence they met with was dramatized by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Haggard was a part of that heritage, though his family never saw themselves as people in flight. His parents ran a successful-enough farm around Checotah, Oklahoma, 25 miles south of Muskogee, but after a mysterious fire – suspected as arson – destroyed their barn, they moved with their two children, Lowell and Lillian, to the Bakersfield region of Southern California. The Haggards, like other Okie emigrants, weren’t welcome in Bakersfield itself. Instead, they located in a migrant settlement, Oildale, near the Kern River – not in a shantytown, but in a railroad boxcar that James adapted into a mobile home. Merle Haggard was born on April 6th, 1937. “We lived like the Beverly Hillbillies,” he once said. His father wasn’t sure the family should stay in California, but Flossie wouldn’t hear of leaving. “We’re not going back to Oklahoma,” Merle recalled her telling his father, in the singer’s first autobiography, 1981’s Sing Me Back Home. “We’re not goin’ to lose all we’ve worked for – might as well get this travelin’ out of your head.”
Merle had a special concern for his father. “[He] was a large gentle man,” he wrote. “The thing I remember most about him now was the way he could smile so easy and make everybody feel everything was all right… My mother was a more serious-type person, given to worry when there was little to worry about.” He also wrote, “Sometimes I’d toss in bed at night and wonder what it was Daddy wanted out of life. I got to thinking that he must have dreams he was letting go by and I knew he had great love for music, but he didn’t seem to work at it much.” Before getting married, James had played fiddle in honky-tonk bars, but Flossie was a pious member of the conservative Church of Christ. She didn’t approve of musicians who played for such purposes, and reformed James to fit her beliefs. In California, he became a carpenter for the Santa Fe railroad.
Merle, like his father, loved music – as a small child, he would insist on hearing a daily country program on the radio. By early adolescence, he had already identified his musical touchstones – the early-20th-century Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers; Western swing musician, songwriter and bandleader Bob Wills; singer-songwriter Hank Williams, who died at age 29 in the back seat of his Cadillac en route to a New Year’s Day show in 1953; and definitive honky-tonk singer Lefty Frizzell. Flossie recognized her son’s interest in music, but she wanted to steer it to something respectable. She got Merle violin lessons in the first grade – but he didn’t want to learn violin. He wanted to play fiddle, like his father, without formal training. He had a natural aptitude for it, his sister, Lillian, told The New Yorker in 1990. “‘I don’t know, Sis,’ he’d tell me. ‘My fingers just do it.’ The teacher told my mother that she was wasting her money. I think he got his first guitar when he was around 10. He loved it.”
Merle’s mother knew he felt unmoored; she couldn’t contain him. After James’ death, Flossie took work as a bookkeeper, and Merle became, as Lillian described him, “a latchkey kid, unsupervised… Merle needed what they call now ‘after-death counseling.’ He felt he was to blame for his dad’s death. He felt he was a burden to his mother. He was always ornery… There had never been any wild children in the family, no previous pattern of independent behavior, so the bull was out of the barn before anyone recognized it.” That bull never wanted to be captive again. “When I was very young,” he wrote, “I decided what I didn’t want to be. I was determined not to spend my life in some set pattern.” School didn’t absorb Merle, and church bored him. At age 10, he and a friend loaded pillowcases with food and hopped a freight car, as so many Dust Bowl émigrés had done. They didn’t get far; a train-yard officer found them along the tracks in Fresno, California. The flight troubled Merle’s mother – why didn’t he use his father’s train pass? She wanted her son to stay at home and in school – he was too young for such a dangerous escapade. But even though he was a child, Merle had eyed the horizon; he would run at that horizon over and over, harder and harder, until 1958, when he met a high wall.
Haggard’s exploits and rebellion grew bigger and more exciting, and more foolish and dangerous. As a child, he behaved like a street-wise adult. In 1951, at 14, Merle and his friend Bob Teague ventured to see Lefty Frizzell in concert at the Rainbow Gardens in Bakersfield, but both got so drunk they passed out and missed the first set. (They revived in time for his second performance.) That same year, he and Teague hitchhiked to Texas to try to find Frizzell’s home. They had also purchased a pistol and a switchblade, and on their way home, they were arrested and spent five days in jail. In Modesto, California, the teenage Haggard played guitar one night in a club for beer. He and a friend also visited a brothel in Amarillo, Texas. He bought new boots for the occasion. “I think the cowboy boots affected me more,” he said. “I mean, the gal just affirmed what I already knew, but the cowboy boots made a new man out of me.” He would end up in about 17 youth correctional facilities or jails. He escaped from many of them, only to eventually get apprehended again. He and others were beaten or punished heartlessly by guards, and one night, a boy sleeping in a bunk next to him was knifed. “It was the cells I was in that corrupted me,” he said. “My idols changed during those years, from Jimmie Rodgers to Bonnie and Clyde. Hell, people were after me, running me down like I was a criminal.” Haggard stole several cars, committed petty thefts, and was nearly lynched one night by men looking for somebody who had raped and murdered a girl in the vicinity of Haggard’s escape. Another time, in Oildale, during an attempted robbery, he and a friend badly beat a young man who others had taunted as “retarded”; they broke his jaw. “I’d changed from that little boy who wanted to be just like his daddy,” Haggard wrote in Sing Me Back Home. “It was the sickest and most degrading thing I ever did… Was I going to become like those goddamned people I’d hated so bad? I felt bad. Worse, I felt guilty.”
In 1956, Haggard married the first of his five wives: Leona Hobbs, a young woman he’d met one night while on his way to a Bakersfield drive-in stand. He was 19, she was around 16, and the two lived with his brother, Lowell, and his wife. It could’ve been a critical moment; Haggard started to play in clubs during this time, and became an increasingly skillful singer. But their relationship turned ugly. “My youngest daughter, Kelli,” Haggard wrote in 1981, “has a theory about me and her mother. She says God must have wanted to punish us both for some terrible event, so He gave us each other.” Haggard was playing Bakersfield clubs during the time – sometimes for free, sometimes for pay – and believed Leona was trying to undermine him. “She liked to hear me sing,” he recounted, “or at least that’s what people said she said behind my back. To my face, it was always a different story. She was always making fun… I overheard [guitarist] Roy Nichols ask her once why she hadn’t been down to the club to hear me sing. She just laughed and told him she had better things to do.” For his part, Haggard wasn’t ready for the confines of his marriage, which would eventually produce four children. When he went on the run – or ended up in jail, as he did for nine months after stealing a car – he didn’t leave means of support for Leona. He missed the delivery of their first child, Dana, during that stretch. Shortly thereafter, he robbed a gas station where he had once worked and headed out to New Mexico to seek work in the oil fields, but there were no jobs and Haggard returned home. The losses were quickly adding up for a young life. “In 1957, I was 20 years old,” he said. “I had spent nearly half my life running away or behind bars.”
At Christmastime in 1957, he brought Leona along for what proved his dumbest and most ill-fortuned debacle, when he and a friend attempted a restaurant burglary. “We were out of work,” Haggard later told The New Yorker. “We thought the place was closed; we were so drunk we thought it was 3 a.m., when it was only 10:30 at night.” When the perplexed owner walked in, Haggard took off running, leaving Leona and his infant outside in his car’s back seat. He was promptly caught – and almost just as promptly escaped, walking out of the jail unnoticed the next morning. Local police were through with Haggard; they issued a shoot-on-sight order. He was rearrested and spent two months in a minimum-security prison while California decided what to do with him. When a guard slipped Haggard’s new prison assignment through the bars of his cell, he stared in disbelief at the order. “Hey, there’s been a mistake,” he said. It read, “Destination: San Quentin.” Merle Haggard had been given a six-month-to-15-year sentence.
San Quentin is a legendary and painful place – opened in 1852, it is the oldest prison in California and has the state’s only death row for males. Haggard arrived there in February 1958, at age 20. Not knowing whether he would be there for months or years was a torment. “God,” he wrote, “that does something to a man’s mind that never heals up right.” An inmate friend, James “Rabbit” Kendrick, began planning an escape, and Haggard contemplated joining him. He witnessed things at San Quentin that forever haunted him: “Horrors too terrible to think about, much less talk about… Some times when I lay in my bunk, I could hear men crying out in pain from being raped by other inmates.”
During a stay in isolation – for being found drunk on beer he brewed in his own cell – Haggard came to know Caryl Chessman, in conversations through an air vent. Chessman was the most famous man on death row in America. In May 1948, he had been convicted of robbery, kidnapping and rape, and sentenced to death – the first convict in America to receive the death penalty for a nonlethal kidnapping. Haggard recalled that on the night before Chessman’s execution by cyanide gas on May 2nd, 1960, “there was a strange feeling all over the prison. The men said very little. It was so quiet it was scary… We could hear people singing hymns out on the hillside. Between the songs we could hear prayers.” Haggard would also see his friend Kendrick – who had succeeded in escaping but was recaptured after he shot and killed a police officer – put on death row. Kendrick had told Merle, “You’ve got talent. You can be somebody someday.” Chessman’s and Kendrick’s deaths stayed with Haggard, as did Kendrick’s encouragement. He later turned the memories into the opening lines of his finest song, “Sing Me Back Home”: “The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom/
I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest/And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell/’Let my guitar-playing friend do my request.'”
The deaths, the time in isolation, Leona’s failure to visit (she had become pregnant by another man) all changed Merle Haggard. He also saw Johnny Cash play at San Quentin on a New Year’s Day. The singer’s empathy with the convicts, his commitment to providing them with whatever uplift possible, showed Haggard a new way forward. “I didn’t care for his music before that – I thought it was corny,” Haggard said. “But he had the crowd right in the palm of his hand.” Haggard and Cash later became close and devoted friends. Many years later, before Cash died in 2003, Haggard visited his friend in the hospital’s ICU, dressed in a doctor’s coat. Haggard recalled the moment to Rolling Stone: “Cash said, ‘What are you doing here, Haggard?’ I said, ‘I’m here because I love you.'”
Haggard was paroled from San Quentin in October 1960, 90 days after his stay in isolation. Leona did not meet him, but he returned to Bakersfield, to her and his children and his music; he began to assemble musicians and sing in clubs. He had changed; he had internalized his crimes into his memory, though he would always be a restless man, and a troubled one. Sometimes those aspects created his songs, and sometimes they created havoc and hurt, for him and others.
How did it all go from those early abject years to the glory and magnificent success that soon followed? Much of what redeemed Haggard was already latent – the ability to sing skillfully and expressively. At age 13, when Lefty Frizzell’s “I Love You a Thousand Ways” was a hit, Haggard learned to emulate Frizzell’s remarkable voice. Because Frizzell was a disciple of Jimmie Rodgers, Haggard learned Rodgers’ croon and yodel too. (“He was a great imitator,” says Willie Nelson. “He could do Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Buck Owens.”) In time, Haggard used his own voice to convey his own truths. The opening verse of “Mama Tried” summed up his life after his father’s death: “The first thing I remember knowing/Was a lonesome whistle blowing/And a young’un’s dream of growing up to ride/On a freight train leaving town/Not knowing where I’m bound/And no one could change my mind, but Mama tried.”
Once back in Bakersfield, Haggard made his mark as a performer. The town emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a Southwestern reaction against the increasingly polished, mannered and orchestrated sound that came to characterize much of Nashville’s country-music production and songwriting. Buck Owens’ backings were lean and lively; they stripped away some of the lachrymose fiddles and steel-guitar beauty, and instead brought something like a rockabilly edginess. Dwight Yoakam remembers Haggard explaining the difference between the two sounds: “He said, ‘Country music in Nashville came out of the church, and country music in California came out of honky-tonks and bars.'”
Haggard had a pop instinct: His first hit, 1963’s “Sing a Sad Song” – a composition given to him by friend and mentor Wynn Stewart – was an artful sob tale sung in a magnificent range. His voice won the attention of Capitol Records (which had also signed Owens). What followed was a staggering run of country hits, the lyrics of which were a complicated medley of pain. “He came on the scene with a bang,” says Nelson. “He wrote more Number One hits than me, Kris [Kristofferson], anybody. He was a great one to follow.” Sixties tracks like “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” and “The Fugitive,” both by Liz Anderson, and Haggard’s own “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” built a persona of a drunk man drowning his losses, or a man in flight – both forms of escape. Subsequent hits filled out the picture more and, unbeknownst to Haggard’s listeners, veered into autobiography. “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried” were all convict songs – tales of men who would never make it out of prison alive, or if they did, might never find a home in the outside world.
It would take Haggard years to own up to the fact that his songs were increasingly his own story. Before he could, he almost made that story worse. In the mid-1960s, he returned to Bakersfield after a successful tour with Hank Snow, Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare, eager to share the success with Leona, only to discover that she had taken the children and left. He tracked her down to her mother’s home, where she was with her new boyfriend. “Rage overtook me,” Haggard related in his memoir My House of Memories. “A tired and jealous man, hearing a wife with a history of cheating talk about her current affair, will lose control.” Haggard went for Leona’s throat, and her boyfriend didn’t intervene. “In seconds, I was choking her… That day, I could have earned myself a return trip to San Quentin, where I could have wound up like Rabbit or Caryl Chessman. And at that moment, I fully intended to. I had wrapped my hands around her throat, and I could not seem to remove them. I choked her until she was gagging.” Two friends, including Bonnie Owens, intervened. They saved both Leona and Merle, but by the time it was over, he no longer loved her.
It was Cash who persuaded Haggard to come clean about his secrets. One night, on Cash’s national ABC-TV show, he told Merle he believed he had seen him before. When Haggard allowed that it had been at San Quentin, on January 1st, 1959, Cash said he didn’t remember that they had both played on the stage that day. Haggard told Cash they hadn’t; rather, Haggard had been in the audience. Cash’s stratagem worked. Both a country and a popular audience respected Haggard’s candor. “Johnny Cash once told me, ‘Hag, you’re the guy people think I am.'” It also made for an intricate picture: Haggard didn’t celebrate the criminal life, nor did he revile what he had learned.
By the late 1960s, Haggard had emerged as one of country music’s greatest artists – an incomparable singer, bandleader and hitmaker, and with 1969’s “Workin’ Man Blues,” even a folk hero, something like Jimmie Rodgers (whose music he extensively covered in a 1969 double album, Same Train, A Different Time) or Woody Guthrie, giving voice to the working class, the poor, migrants, drifters, those doomed or in flight, those who had been misjudged. Haggard told GQ in 2012 that he was comfortable being seen that way: “I sometimes feel like I’m standing up for the people that don’t have the nerve to stand up for themselves. I just enjoyed winning for the loser. I’d never been around anything except losers my whole life… I had been sad and angry, and now I was composed and in a position to do good for the sad and angry.”
But Haggard followed “Workin’ Man Blues” in 1969 with “Okie From Muskogee,” the most controversial work of his career – a song that defined him for many, and that he answered for during the rest of his life. “Okie” was an anti-counterculture song in an incendiary time; the music felt sweet – it almost made the song feel like gentle mockery, but there was nothing gentle about its effect. “That’s how I got into it with the hippies,” he said. “I thought they were unqualified to judge America, and I thought about them lookin’ down their noses at something that I cherished very much, and it pissed me off.” In Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, author David Cantwell noted, “Everywhere [Merle Haggard and the Strangers] went, every show, ‘Okie’ did more than prompt enthusiastic applause. There was an unanticipated adulation racing through the crowds… Merle had somehow stumbled upon a song that expressed previously inchoate fears, spoke out loud gripes and anxieties otherwise only whispered, and now people were using his song, were using him, to connect themselves to these larger concerns and to one another.” Haggard played the song for the Nixon White House, and was asked to endorse segregationist George Wallace during his presidential run; he declined. Haggard, in fact, wanted to issue “Irma Jackson,” a song about an interracial love affair, as his next single but was talked into releasing “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” an even more inflammatory screed aimed at protesters’ criticisms of America.
Over the years, Haggard has accounted for “Okie” in numerous ways. In 1970, referring to the hippies that the song targeted, he told Rolling Stone, “I don’t like their views on life, their filth, their visible self-disrespect.” In 2003, though, he told No Depression magazine, “I was dumb as a rock when I wrote ‘Okie From Muskogee.’ That’s being honest with you at the moment, and a lot of things that I said [then] I sing with a different intention now.” Haggard became a regular marijuana user himself at age 41, on the advice of a physician, he told GQ. “The only thing they didn’t tell me,” he said, “was how habit-forming it was.” He was an on-and-off pot smoker for the rest of his life. (In the 2015 video of Haggard and Willie Nelson’s “It’s All Going to Pot,” from Django & Jimmie, both singers are seen smoking joints together.)
The massive success of “Okie From Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me” obscured that he also made some tremendous other work in the time that followed – notably his testimonial to Bob Wills (A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, 1970), and from 1971 to 1977, a string of often exceptional albums. Much of this was music that dug deep into despair, and empathy. Sometimes – in Hag and Someday We’ll Look Back (both 1971), If We Make It Through December (1974) – those qualities turned inward; these were portraits of a haunted man who doubted the love he had embraced, who was ready to strike out for another place and life, a refuge from an imagined past or delusory future.
On the powerful A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today (1977), he paid respect to his heroes Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell (the latter had died in 1975) and reasserted an identification with and concern for the disadvantaged, though one track, “I’m a White Boy,” risked some troubling notions: “I don’t want no handout livin’/And don’t want a part of anything they’re givin’/I’m proud and white, and I’ve got a song to sing.” (In The Running Kind, Cantwell referred to the song as “an aggrieved-feeling white reply to James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.'”)
Still, Haggard’s jingoist anthems had the effect of deepening his mystifying complexity on all levels. He was both a compassionate and angry man – a lovely-voiced singer whose smooth tone disguised a capacity for animosity, and like Bob Dylan, an artist and thinker who sometimes seemed in conflict with his own art and thoughts.
Haggard had overcome his youthful wildness – at least, arguably, the lawless part of it – but he could still undercut stability as soon as he made a partner of it. By the time he ended with Leona Hobbs, in 1965, Haggard had already started a relationship with Bonnie Owens, Buck’s former wife. (He stole her from Fuzzy Owen, the man who first recorded Haggard and later served as the singer’s manager until the end of Haggard’s life.) He and Bonnie soon married, and recorded and toured together. They divorced in 1978, but continued a friendship that endured until Owens’ death in 2006. (The two shared the writing credit for “Today I Started Loving You Again,” a song about the bond they felt.) After Owens, Haggard immediately married Leona Williams, who also sang with his band. The couple released a duet album in 1983, Heart to Heart, the same year Haggard released his classic collaboration with Nelson, Pancho & Lefty.
Like his marriage to the earlier Leona, Haggard’s relationship with Williams turned bitter. One day near the end of their marriage, Haggard related in My House of Memories, Williams called Merle. “I begged her to come back,” Haggard wrote. “I had been doing that for six months and suddenly got sick of myself and my pleading. Something inside me snapped. I instantly went from sorrow to anger. When she phoned again, I said, ‘Can you hear me?’
“‘Yes,’ she said.
“‘Can you hear me real good?’
“‘Yes,’ she said again.
“‘Fuck you!’ I shouted.”
These were wild years for Haggard – the only time in his life, he said later, that he dabbled with hard drugs. After the break with Williams, “I went out and got some of the best cocaine I could find, because that was a drug that could numb my feelings,” he told R.J. Smith in 2000, “and it did what I wanted it to do.” He lived aboard a houseboat on Lake Shasta in California, and kept a party going, hosting wet-T-shirt contests and sleeping all day. “A famous female country-music star and I once spent five days nude on the boat,” Haggard wrote in House of Memories. “We snorted drugs the entire time and didn’t go to sleep once.”
Haggard wrote about a time when a friend, Upshaw, came aboard the boat, worried about the singer: “He found me passed out with a woman. He called our names, but we didn’t move. He began to shake us, and still there was no response.
“Finally, the woman and I came around.
“I thought I was out of it from sheer exhaustion more than the drugs. But Upshaw and everyone else sized it up differently.
“I apparently told Upshaw he had just saved my life, and then sat on the bed and wept. He and I must have cried for 30 minutes, Upshaw says.”
Haggard’s sister, Lillian, thought that Merle’s reckless behavior was rooted in the loneliness of his childhood: “He hated it then, and he hates to be alone now. He used to give toys away to get neighbor kids to play with him. Sometimes I think he’s still doing that.”
Haggard hated being alone enough that in 1985 he married a waitress friend, Debbie Parret, who had taken care of him. “I knew an hour after the wedding it was a mistake,” he said. Around that time, he met Theresa Ann Lane; actually, he stole her from his guitarist at the time, Clint Strong. If the relationship at first seemed as impulsive as some of Haggard’s other choices, it also proved the one that lasted. Haggard divorced Parret, then married Lane in September 1993. The couple had two children, Jenessa and Ben, and settled at the singer’s ranch, outside Redding, California. Theresa reformed Merle as much as anybody ever had or ever would. She persuaded him to quit caffeine, red meat and cigarettes, and to take up a course of herbal supplements. Haggard would also eventually straighten out his often-troubled finances, though not before he had to declare bankruptcy, in 1993.
Haggard’s recorded output gradually lessened over the years, but, like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, he entered an autumnal creative renaissance. With If I Could Only Fly (2000), Roots, Vol. 1 (2001), Like Never Before (2003), Chicago Wind (2005), The Bluegrass Sessions (2007), I Am What I Am (2010), Working in Tennessee (2011), and two collaborative sets – Last of the Breed, with Nelson and Ray Price (2007), and his most recent release, Django & Jimmie, with Nelson (2015) – Haggard made not just terrific albums but also music that mixed traditional sounds with surprising radicalism. (Though his politics never settled into ideological patterns, he increasingly found himself at odds with America’s war policies, and took great hope in the meaning of Barack Obama’s election.) It’s as if with every new work, maybe every new day, he examined where he stood: Where is this all headed, both for the nation and for himself? He could be hard on both – especially himself. “I’ve never known of any singer with a quality voice to last past 60 years old,” he told The New Yorker in 1990. “I’ll be 52 in April. I know it’s gotta be over before long. I’m enjoyin’ my last few years… It catches up with you. I used to be able to come in half lit, worryin’ about something else – where I’m goin’ after the show is over, something – and give it about 20 percent of my concentration, and walk away with a standing ovation. I don’t – I can’t – do one like that anymore.”
In this regard, Haggard was too hard on himself. Many singers – Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Scott, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, among others – could compensate for a loss of range or even pitch by relinquishing their voices to their age. If they couldn’t always hit the same rhythmic bounce, erotic spirit or nimble inflections that had once made them inventive, they instead let their singing bare their vulnerability. Their timing dragged occasionally as if in a rueful afterthought, their grain coarsened enough to illuminate a longing that could no longer be realistically pleased. Haggard could do this as well as Sinatra did in his remarkable later years. It hardly mattered that Haggard worked from country- and blues-derived practices, whereas Sinatra drew from Billie Holiday’s ideal of control, which made a song’s words seem like unpremeditated thoughts communicated artlessly among intimates, in the moment. Sinatra, Holiday and Haggard were essentially barroom singers. Desire and grief both thrived best in darkened spaces, including places of the heart.
Grief was the one thing that Haggard didn’t try to reinvent every day. In 1997, he had heart surgery. He was only 60, but his face and carriage made him seem older. He could still appear fierce – friends sometimes described him as possessing a “prison-yard stare” that you wanted to avoid. “I felt a sorrow for Merle, even when he smiled,” says Yoakam. “It was all around him.” In 2008, Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer. He underwent surgery late in the year; surgeons removed part of his upper-right lung. “There was a good possibility it was over,” he told Rolling Stone the following year. “When it hits your lungs, it’s usually everywhere else. A guy’s gotta think – realistically. I was just hoping I’d made the right spiritual preparations.”
A few weeks after the surgery, Haggard was playing shows in Bakersfield again, and during the six years that followed, he made I Am What I Am and Working in Tennessee. He performed with Nelson, Jamey Johnson and Kris Kristofferson. “He’d call me up at 3 a.m. to talk about writing,” Johnson says. “Once he said, ‘I woke up this morning and I had a spot on my leg about the size of a quarter. It didn’t hurt, so I reached down and pinched the living shit out of it.’ That was his sense of humor.”
Haggard had effectively willed himself a latter-day reclamation, but he doubted he’d ever see a hit again. Then, in 2015, he and Nelson recorded the masterful Django & Jimmie – the title was a tribute to the singers’ early heroes, French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. The album went to Number One immediately upon its June release. In December, though, Haggard was hospitalized for pneumonia at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California. He recovered but canceled concerts.
On February 6th, Haggard played Mandalay Bay Ballroom in Las Vegas. When singer Toby Keith visited Haggard at Mandalay, Keith embraced Haggard and was alarmed at how frail he seemed. Haggard told Keith he had to play the show; he needed the payday for his band, the Strangers. Keith offered to pay the band for him. Haggard declined, but according to actor W. Earl Brown, he asked Keith, “How many songs of mine do you know?” Keith replied he knew them all. “All of ’em?” said Haggard. “Well, stay nearby.” A few songs in, during “Ramblin’ Fever,” Haggard looked over and pointed at Keith, who stepped in and sang the lead vocal. “Merle’s infected lungs were spent,” wrote Brown. “He couldn’t draw enough air to sing any longer.” It was one of Haggard’s last shows.
In the coming weeks, his condition worsened; as the end neared, Haggard asked to be brought out to his tour bus, parked outside his ranch home near Redding. He died on the bus on April 6th, his 79th birthday, with his family attending him. Haggard had once declared, “I’m not an ordinary man.” It was the one certitude he allowed himself. He hadn’t been ordinary since 1946, when the world he trusted passed away. To solve that loss, he gave many of us a solace he likely never allowed himself, until a morning 70 years later, when he finally rested in the dark embrace that held his father, and that now held Merle Haggard as well.