Merle Haggard: As He Is (Part 2)

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Haggard’s childhood provided significant hardship and sadness, both of which continues to channel into song. In “Oil Tanker Train,” he sings a line that could be sung believably by none but Haggard as he relates the way that an oil tanker train “Would rumble and rattle the old boxcar we lived in/And I was a kid then, and I loved that old train.” That’s straight autobiography-in-rhyme, as Haggard was born in 1937 to a mother and father who lived in a converted boxcar in Oildale, California. Father James Haggard had been a fiddle player in Oklahoma, but when the family moved to California after their barn burned to the ground, James put away in his fiddle for the most part, in favor of working hard days for the Santa Fe Railroad.

James died after suffering three brain hemorrhages when Merle was nine years-old, and his death sent the boy reeling into a reckless youth. He hopped a freight train at age 10, and he was somewhat notorious to local authorities by the time he was 14. He was also under the spell of music from heroes Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers and especially Lefty Frizzell: Haggard spent years attempting to mimic Frizzell’s slurred style of singing, and he has always been open, even emphatic, about Frizzell’s impact on his art. In 1953, Frizzell met Haggard at a concert and inviting the young man onstage at Bakersfield’s Modesto Garden.

“That was the first time, and I was hooked,” Haggard later told historian Daniel Cooper.

In that same time period, Haggard was working to learn song-craft. In so doing, he looked beyond his country heroes and took notice of the burgeoning rock and roll scene.

“The first good song I wrote was probably “If You Want To Be My Woman,” he said. “Glen Campbell opened his show with that for years, and I wrote it when I was 17. It was a good example of the rock and roll thing that was happening then; Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins were the kings of the kind of rock and roll I liked. I was trying to be a guitar player, too, and they were both guitar players and both writers.

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“Songs that I later wrote, like ‘Workin’ Man Blues,’ were patterned after listening to ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ And so many of my songs were takeoffs of Chuck Berry. He was the first guy I ever heard that did the original rock and roll thing with a guitar, and I think he was the originator of a lot of that. I think Chuck is one of the most underrated heroes in the business. He’s impacted most everyone I know and appreciate, and Chuck had a great influence on the business as a whole.”

Haggard’s Berry-picking lessons were put on-hold in late 1957, when he and a friend were arrested after attempting to “break in” to a restaurant that was still serving customers. After swilling red wine, Haggard took a crowbar to the restaurant’s screen door and was prying a lock when the proprietor said, “Why don’t you boys just come around to the front door like everybody else?”

“What we hadn’t realized is that it wasn’t three a.m. at all,” Haggard wrote in his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. “Hell, it was barely 10 and the place was still open with several customers inside. Drunk as I was, I figured right away we’d made a slight miscalculation.”

When added to his already checkered record, that miscalculation cost Haggard years. He didn’t get out of prison until late 1960, and he left committed to trying to right his ship. In “Mama Tried,” he wrote, “I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole.” He did turn 21 in prison, but he determined in time (and through the self-analysis that comes with solitary confinement) that he would not be a lifer in crime. Bakersfield was bustling by 1960, with Buck Owens, Dallas Frazier, Tommy Collins and others spurring plenty of excitement. Upon Haggard’s release, musicians Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley took an interest in his songs and singing, and Owen and Talley released Haggard’s early sides on their Tally Records. Haggard’s first successful single, “Sing a Sad Song,” was penned by Wynn Stewart. That one peaked at No. 19 on the national country charts, and its sound caught the ear of Leonard Raymond Sipes, the singer-songwriter-entertainer who worked under the name “Tommy Collins.”

“Tommy Collins was a songwriting mentor,” said Haggard, who wrote about Collins in the biographical song, “Leonard.” “Tommy was way down the songwriting road already when I came onboard, and he showed me a lot of pointers: Methods of conjuring up or projecting the right thing after the thought has been conjured. I think it was Tommy who told me, ‘When your song is called ‘XYZ’ or whatever, every line has got to make sense against your title.’ He showed me little methods of proving to yourself whether the line belongs, and ways of finding out whether you were able to get more out of a line if you tried.”

Collins wound up penning some hits for Haggard, George Strait and others, and he released some of the funniest comedy bits searchable on YouTube. Haggard loved the funny stuff, but he was most appreciative of Collins’ tutelage and kindness.

“Well, Leonard gave me lots of inspiration,” he wrote in ‘Leonard.’ “He helped teach me how to write a country song/And he even brought around a bag of groceries/Back before ‘Muskogee’ came along.”

Ah, “Muskogee.” That would be “Okie from Muskogee,” one of Haggard’s most profitable, most discussed and most alternately beloved and reviled songs. He and drummer Ray Edward Burris penned the song after the tour bus passed through Muskogee, Oklahoma. The rumor is that someone was smoking some non-tobacco on the bus, and that the idea was proffered that folks in Muskogee didn’t likely smoke marijuana.

Released in late 1969 while conservatives railed against long-haired, counterculture Vietnam War protesters and the protesters railed against a mainstream culture that would accept such a mess of a war, the song was taken by most listeners as an indictment of those who would question authority. It was a four-week Number One country record, a Country Music Association single of the year in 1970 and a thorn in the side for people who disagreed with its message.

At a 1972 show that was released decades later as Live At The Philharmonic, Kristofferson and his band performed a version of the song “With apologies to our good friend Merle Haggard, who is neither a redneck or a racist, he just happens to be known for probably the only bad song he ever wrote.” Kristofferson has since then changed his opinion of the song: He now considers it an effective character study. Haggard himself has had a somewhat conflicted history with the composition. A few years ago, in an interview with The Tennessean, he called it “a silly song” and said he doubted he’d play it in a concert after the interview. That night at the Ryman Auditorium, he encored with “Okie.”

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