Merle Haggard often gets name-checked in contemporary country songs. It’s a quick way to tip a hat to tradition and add a helping of honky-tonk cred. Haggard’s 41 No. 1 country hits and place in country’s Mount Rushmore aside, his name personifies the hard life that was once synonymous with the genre.
Prison sentences, multiple divorces, dust-ups with fellow musicians, drinking and drug abuse—Haggard’s lived it all and spun his misfortunes into some of the greatest songs of the last 40 years.
Born April 6, 1937 in Bakersfield, Calif., Haggard started playing guitar and fiddle when he was 12. He recalls, “A lady came by the house selling violin lessons door to door. I took nine lessons, then the lady told my mother, ‘You’re wasting your money.’ I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I’m not any good.’ Then she said, ‘Your son’s ear is too good. He won’t concentrate on the sheet music because he can play without it.’ When I heard that, I realized I had the ability.”
But Haggard had an equal ability for playing with trouble. He lost his dad when he was 9 and spent the rest of a wild, restless youth in and out of juvenile detention centers. In 1957, after a botched burglary attempt of a restaurant in broad daylight—Haggard thought it was 3:30 a.m., when it was actually 10:30 a.m.—the 19-year-old was sentenced to 15 years in the biggest of big houses, San Quentin.
What might’ve spelled the end became a new beginning. Upon his release in 1960 (he received a full pardon for his crimes by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972), Haggard dug ditches and worked as an electrician by day. At night, he hit the West Coast bars with guitar in hand, mining his troubled past for songs and singing like his life depended on it.
He landed his big break in 1962 in Las Vegas, after being invited on stage to sing with country star Wynn Stewart. Stewart even went so far as to give Haggard “Sing Me a Sad Song,” a song he’d planned to record for himself. Released on Tally Records, it took Haggard into the country charts in 1964, peaking at No. 19.
Soon, Haggard was zooming alongside Buck Owens, as deans of the Bakersfield scene. Starting with his debut album Strangers in 1965, Haggard has released 75 records, topped the country charts with classics such as “Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “If We Make It Through December.” He won countless awards (including three Grammys), toured relentlessly and survived every musical trend thrown in his path. His singular, expressive voice was one of the most recognizable in country and has influenced a generation of country singers and songwriters.
On April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday, Haggard left this earth surrounded by family after a series of heath struggles. What follows is an interview with him from 2007 where he chatted with us about Johnny Cash, jail and wild nights with George Jones. Farewell, Hag. Thank you for a lifetime of music and memories.
What were some of the first songs that gave you goosebumps as a kid?
I got them from Hank Williams’ “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me.” Lefty Frizzell’s “I Love You a Thousand Ways.” And Ernest Tubb’s “Another Story, Another Time, Another Place.” If you could send a country record in a rocket ship to another planet to describe how it’s supposed to be done, that record would be my choice.
Do you remember writing your first song?
I wrote “If You Want to Be My Woman” when I was 15. It was the first that I kept. I wrote a lot of other songs—probably 1,500 of them—that didn’t really stick. But I just kept on trying to write. I got in with the Bakersfield gang and started playing the clubs. Fuzzy Owen was probably my greatest teacher. [Owen was Haggard’s longtime manager.] He knew that I had the desire and helped me quite a bit.
The Bakersfield sound is often described as a reaction against the lush Nashville sound of the late ’50s/early ’60s. Is that how you saw it?
No, we were just trying to make a living (laughs). It was what was required out there. Nashville didn’t have anything to do with it. The barrooms and honky-tonks were every other door on the street in Bakersfield, and every other beer joint had a band. It would be hard for you to imagine what it was like. You wouldn’t believe the freedom. Everything hadn’t been declared illegal yet, and it was a swingin’ deal, boy, I tell you (laughs). That was a period that came and went that’ll never happen again. It’s a shame.
In “Mama Tried” you wrote, “She tried to raise me right but I refused.” How do you view your wild youth now?
I finished the eighth grade and did a few weeks of the ninth grade, but they didn’t act like they were seriously interested in teaching anything. I wanted to go to work, but there was a truancy law in California that wouldn’t allow me to. So I got a false identification and tried that. Pretty soon they caught me and sent me to road camp for kids, Camp Owens, where you dig ditches all day. I went through about five days of that and got my ass out of there. That started a trend that went on for seven years. I escaped from 17 of those detention centers. Because of that record, when they had a chance to send me away, they did. I went to San Quentin [for attempted burglary] when I was 19. It was a wake-up call for a young man.
What gave you the strength, the determination to get through San Quentin?
I just held my breath. Think of the most horrible thing you can think of and you’ll be somewhere close. I remember the first day. We traveled in a bus for five hours and got there after midnight. That prison was a spectacular sight at night, with the lights and walls, and the screams and the hollers. If you’re not scared by that, then you don’t have blood in your veins. We were shackled and chained. They were walking us across the big yard, and there were four large buildings around us, about a 100-foot high. The prisoners could see us coming in from their cells, and they were whistling at us and calling us names. I thought I’d walked into hell. I wasn’t far from wrong. It’s been over 50 years, and I remember it vividly. I was lucky that I lived through it, and I came out and things got better.
When you got out and started to have some success, Johnny Cash brought you on his TV show and introduced you to a larger audience.
I told Johnny that I was at San Quentin when he came to play a show in ’58. He looked at me for a long time before he ever said anything. “You were there?” “Yeah, I was in the audience,” I said. “I was a convict.” It just knocked him down. He didn’t know what to think. When I did his television show, he said, “You ought to let me tell the folks where you’ve been. If I do, you’ll never have to worry about the tabloids. People will be on your side. If you don’t tell them, they’ll find out and criticize you.” I was apprehensive but trusted and admired him enough to go along with it. He was right. It was the best thing to do.
When you were having a string of hits in the ’60s, you were on Capitol, the same label as the Beatles. Were you a fan?
Of course, I was a fan, and they were fans of mine, too. They were wiping everyone else off the scene. I was about the only country boy who was getting any action during Beatlemania. It wasn’t too many years ago that Ringo came to my house. Just showed up out of nowhere. He called and said, “Do you have a studio?” So we recorded some stuff, and we have that in our archives
You and George Jones are old running buddies. Can you tell us a good Jones story?
I once recorded a song called “I Threw Away the Rose.” It had some real low notes in it. George heard it and liked it so much he jumped on a jet in the middle of Ohio somewhere and left his tour. Nobody knew where he was. It was on the news—“George Jones missing!” My wife and band and I were in a little old motel in Amarillo, Texas. Suddenly, about 3:00 in the morning, all hell broke loose. I got up and looked out the door, and there was George next door. He had Fuzzy in a rollaway bed and was rolling him out into the street. He saw me peeking out the door in my shorts. I said, “What in the hell are you doing?” He said, “Man, where did you get that fucking low note?” I guess the song just knocked him down when he heard it. He stayed with us for a few days, then finally we had to send him back. That was the first time I’d been around him. He was a terrorist, I guess you’d say, on a small scale, when he got to doing the wrong things. Maybe they was the right things, I don’t know. He had a lot of fun.
What do you think of today’s country songs?
I got a BMI award recently and went to the ceremony. I noticed that for the other people that were winning the awards, there were 15 publishers and writers on one song. I thought, “What in the hell?” And I’m sorry, I wouldn’t have recorded any of the songs. They just didn’t have anything to them. You go and find a No. 1 song now, and I defy you to whistle it to me. I don’t want to criticize, but I’m disappointed that there don’t seem to be any new melodies. What’s happened? There seems to be one melody that they all like, and it winds up with some gal screaming it at the top of her voice. You think it’s over with, then there’ll be another stanza of screaming. And when it’s over, everyone throws their babies in the air and says, “Oh my god, isn’t that great?” And I’m thinking, “What in the hell are they hearing?” That’s the way it strikes me (laughs).
Any advice for songwriters?
Songwriting is an individual task. Mine comes from inside somewhere. Unexpectedly. I may go a year and never write anything, then write five songs in one day. I’ve been scared that it was over with a lot of times. I thought, “Well, this is it. I guess I’m not gonna write anymore.” And then I’ll come back and write something. It’s drawing from experience. Lefty Frizzell once said, “You don’t have to have lived the things you sing about, but you got to believe them.” And I think that’s true. But it’s better if you’ve experienced it.
—By Bill DeMain, From Issue 107, Sept/Oct. 2007
Category: In Case You Haven't Heard