Backstage with Merle Haggard

No Lies Radio Music – By Teri Perticone – Saturday March 30, 2019

Merle Ronald Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016) was an American country singer, songwriter, guitarist, and fiddler. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard and his band the Strangers helped create the Bakersfield sound, which is characterized by the twang of the Fender Telecaster mixed with the sound of the steel guitar, vocal harmony styles in which the words are minimal, and a rough edge not heard on the more polished Nashville sound recordings of the same era.

Haggard was born in Oildale, California, during the Great Depression. His childhood was troubled after the death of his father, and he was incarcerated several times in his youth. After being released from San Quentin State Prison in 1960, he managed to turn his life around and launch a successful country music career, gaining popularity with his songs about the working class that occasionally contained themes contrary to the prevailing anti-Vietnam War sentiment of much popular music of the time. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, he had 38 number-one hits on the US country charts, several of which also made the Billboard all-genre singles chart.[1] Haggard continued to release successful albums into the 2000s.


Kennedy Center Honors Merle Haggard Dec 28,2010

Haggard’s parents, Flossie Mae (née Harp) and James Francis Haggard.[8] The family moved to California from their home in Checotah, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression, after their barn burned in 1934.[9]

They settled with their two elder children, Lowell and Lillian, in an apartment in Bakersfield, while James started working for the Santa Fe Railroad. A woman who owned a boxcar placed in Oildale, a nearby town, asked Haggard’s father about the possibility of converting it into a house. He remodeled the boxcar, and soon after moved in, also purchasing the lot, where Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937.[10][11] The property was eventually expanded by building a bathroom, a second bedroom, a kitchen, and a breakfast nook in the adjacent lot.[10]

His father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945,[11] an event that deeply affected Haggard during his childhood and the rest of his life. To support the family, his mother worked as a bookkeeper.[12] At 12, his brother, Lowell, gave him his used guitar. Haggard learned to play alone,[10] with the records he had at home, influenced by Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams.[13] As his mother was absent due to work, Haggard became progressively rebellious. His mother sent him for a weekend to a juvenile detention center to change his attitude, but it worsened.[14]

Haggard committed a number of minor offenses, such as thefts and writing bad checks. He was sent to a juvenile detention center for shoplifting in 1950.[15] When he was 14, Haggard ran away to Texas with his friend Bob Teague.[13] He rode freight trains and hitchhiked throughout the state.[16][17]

When he returned the same year, he and his friend were arrested for robbery. Haggard and Teague were released when the real robbers were found. Haggard was later sent to the juvenile detention center, from which he and his friend escaped again to Modesto, California. He worked a series of laborer jobs, including driving a potato truck, being a short order cook, a hay pitcher, and an oil well shooter.[16] His debut performance was with Teague in a Modesto bar named “Fun Center”, for which he was paid US$5 and given free beer.[18]

He returned to Bakersfield in 1951, and was again arrested for truancy and petty larceny and sent to a juvenile detention center. After another escape, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security installation. He was released 15 months later, but was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt. After Haggard’s release, he and Teague saw Lefty Frizzell in concert. After hearing Haggard sing along to his songs backstage, Frizzell refused to sing unless Haggard was allowed to sing first. He sang songs that were well received by the audience. Because of this positive reception, Haggard decided to pursue a career in music. While working as a farmhand or in oil fields, he played in nightclubs.

Married and plagued by financial issues,[13] he was arrested in 1957 shortly after he tried to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse.[19] He was sent to Bakersfield Jail,[12] and after an escape attempt, was transferred to San Quentin Prison on February 21, 1958.[20] While in prison, Haggard learned that his wife was expecting another man’s child, which pressed him psychologically. He was fired from a series of prison jobs, and planned to escape along with another inmate nicknamed “Rabbit,” but was convinced not to escape by fellow inmates.[21]

While at San Quentin, Haggard started a gambling and brewing racket with his cellmate. After he was caught drunk, he was sent for a week to solitary confinement where he encountered Caryl Chessman, an author and death-row inmate.[22] Meanwhile, “Rabbit” had successfully escaped, only to shoot a police officer and be returned to San Quentin for execution.[21] Chessman’s predicament, along with the execution of “Rabbit,” inspired Haggard to change his life.[22] He soon earned a high school equivalency diploma and kept a steady job in the prison’s textile plant.[22] He also played for the prison’s country music band,[23] attributing a performance by Johnny Cash at the prison on New Year’s Day 1959 as his main inspiration to join it.[24] He was released from San Quentin on parole in 1960.[25]

In 1972, after Haggard had become an established country music star, then-California governor Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full and unconditional pardon for his past crimes.[26]

Early career

Upon his release from San Quentin in 1960, Haggard started digging ditches for his brother’s electrical contracting company. Soon, he was performing again, and later began recording with Tally Records. The Bakersfield sound was developing in the area as a reaction against the overproduced Nashville sound.

Towards the end of the decade, Haggard composed several number-one hits, including “Mama Tried,” “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” “Hungry Eyes,” and “Sing Me Back Home.”[33] Daniel Cooper calls “Sing Me Back Home” “a ballad that works on so many different levels of the soul it defies one’s every attempt to analyze it.”

“Okie from Muskogee”

In 1969, Haggard and The Strangers released “Okie From Muskogee,” with lyrics ostensibly reflecting the singer’s pride in being from Middle America where people are conventionally patriotic, don’t smoke marijuana, don’t take LSD, don’t protest by burning draft cards or otherwise challenge authority.[37] In the ensuing years, Haggard gave varying statements regarding whether he intended the song as a humorous satire or a serious political statement in support of conservative values.

In a 2003 interview with No Depression magazine, Haggard said, “I had different views in the ’70s. As a human being, I’ve learned [more]. I have more culture now. 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. My views on marijuana have totally changed. I think we were brainwashed and I think anybody that doesn’t know that needs to get up and read and look around, get their own information. It’s a cooperative government project to make us think marijuana should be outlawed.”

In 1981, Haggard published an autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. Haggard also changed record labels again in 1981, moving to Epic and releasing one of his most critically acclaimed albums, Big City, on which he was backed by The Strangers.

Between 1981 and 1985, Haggard scored 12 more top-10 country hits, with nine of them reaching number one, including “My Favorite Memory,” “Going Where the Lonely Go,” “Someday When Things Are Good,” and “Natural High.” In addition, Haggard recorded two chart-topping duets with George Jones—”Yesterdays’ Wine” in 1982—and with Willie Nelson—”Pancho and Lefty” in 1983. Nelson believed the 1983 Academy Award-winning film Tender Mercies, about the life of fictional singer Mac Sledge, was based on the life of Merle Haggard. Actor Robert Duvall and other filmmakers denied this and claimed the character was based on nobody in particular. Duvall, however, said he was a big fan of Haggard’s.[56]

In 1983, Haggard and his third wife Leona Williams divorced after five stormy years of marriage. The split served as a license to party for Haggard, who spent much of the next decade becoming mired in alcohol and drug problems.[57][58] Haggard has stated that he was in his own mid-life crisis, or “male menopause,” around this time. He said in an interview from this period: “Things that you’ve enjoyed for years don’t seem nearly as important, and you’re at war with yourself as to what’s happening. ‘Why don’t I like that anymore? Why do I like this now?’ And finally, I think you actually go through a biological change, you just, you become another…. Your body is getting ready to die and your mind doesn’t agree.”[35] He was briefly a heavy user of cocaine, but managed to kick the habit.[57] Despite these issues, he won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his 1984 remake of “That’s The Way Love Goes.”


merle haggard i think i’ll just stay here and drink

Haggard was hampered by financial woes well into the 1990s, as his presence on the charts diminished in favor of newer country singers, such as George Strait and Randy Travis. Haggard’s last number-one hit was “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” from his smash album Chill Factor in 1988.[59]

In 1989, Haggard recorded a song, “Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn,” in response to the Supreme Court’s decision not to allow banning flag burning, considering it to be “speech” and therefore protected under the First Amendment. After CBS Records Nashville avoided releasing the song, Haggard bought his way out of the contract and signed with Curb Records, which was willing to release the song. Haggard commented about the situation, “I’ve never been a guy that can do what people told me…. It’s always been my nature to fight the system.”[60]

Comeback

In 2000, Haggard made a comeback of sorts, signing with the independent record label Anti and releasing the spare If I Could Only Fly to critical acclaim. He followed it in 2001 with Roots, vol. 1, a collection of Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Hank Thompson covers, along with three Haggard originals. The album, recorded in Haggard’s living room with no overdubs, featured Haggard’s longtime bandmates, The Strangers, as well as Frizzell’s original lead guitarist, Norman Stephens. In December 2004, Haggard spoke at length on Larry King Live about his incarceration as a young man and said it was “hell” and “the scariest experience of my life.”[61]

Haggard and The Strangers number-one hit single “Mama Tried” is featured in the 2003 film Radio with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Ed Harris, as well as in Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers with Liv Tyler. In addition, his and The Strangers song “Swingin’ Doors” can be heard in the film Crash (2004),[64] and his 1981 hit “Big City”, where he is backed by The Strangers, is heard in Joel and Ethan Coen’s film Fargo.[65]


Merle haggard Momma Tried


Merle Haggard Big City

Cigarette and drug use

Haggard said he started smoking marijuana when he was 41 years old. He admitted that in 1983, he bought “$2,000 (worth) of cocaine” and partied for five months afterward, when he said he finally realized his condition and quit for good.[57] He quit smoking cigarettes in 1991, and stopped smoking marijuana in 1995.[92] However, a Rolling Stone magazine interview in 2009 indicated that he had resumed regular marijuana smoking.[90]


It’s All Going to Pot” Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard

Illness and death

Haggard underwent angioplasty in 1995 to unblock clogged arteries.[93] On November 9, 2008, it was announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer in May and undergone surgery on November 3, during which part of his lung was removed.[94] Haggard returned home on November 8.[95] Less than two months after his cancer surgery, he played two shows on January 2 and 3, 2009, in Bakersfield at Buck Owens Crystal Palace, and continued to tour and record until shortly before his death.

He described himself as a student of music, philosophy and communication. He would discuss jazzman Howard Roberts guitar playing, life after death and the unique speaking technique of Garner Ted Armstrong of The World Tomorrow with enthusiasm and authority. When both his friends Ted Armstrong and Johnny Cash died just three days apart, in September 2003, Haggard commented, “After Johnny Cash died, I lost a real close friend in Garner Ted Armstrong. He was like a professor to me. What education I have, I owe to him.” [96] Haggard said he was driven by a desire to play guitar and have total knowledge of it. He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records and many encyclopedias. He said those books describe him as a country singer, balladeer, composer of “Okie from Muskogee” and “the poet of the common man.” But Merle Haggard hoped the world would remember him as “the greatest jazz guitar player in the world that loved to play country.”[97]


merle haggard – are the good times really over

On December 5, 2015, Haggard was treated at an undisclosed hospital in California for pneumonia.[98] He made a recovery, but postponed several concerts.[98]


Merle Haggard ~ Someday When Things Are Good ~

In March 2016, Haggard was once again hospitalized.[99] His concerts for April were canceled due to his ongoing double pneumonia.[100] On the morning of April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday, he died of complications from pneumonia at his home in Palo Cedro, Shasta County, California.[6][101][102] Haggard was buried in a private funeral at his ranch on April 9, 2016; longtime friend Marty Stuart officiated.[103][104]

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Kern River Blues: Haggard’s Final Tune

Video source: www.youtube.com

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