Merle Haggard: The Outlaw
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.”
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