NPR’s Steve Inskeep talks to Haggard biographer Marc Eliot about his book: The witch. Haggard spent his early years going from family tragedy to odd jobs to broken marriages, petty crime and prison.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SING A SAD SONG”)
MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) Sing me a song of sadness, and sing it…
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The late Merle Haggard sang about breakups, work, love, fights, American flags, getting drunk and still working.
(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “WORKIN’ MAN BLUES”)
HAGGARD: (Singing) Well, hey, hey, the worker, the worker like me. I’ve never been on welfare, and that’s one place I won’t be.
INSKEEP: He sang all the country music stereotypes, but is it really a stereotype if you helped write the stereotype and before that was your life? A new biography examines the story of Merle Haggard, who spent her early years going from family tragedy to odd jobs to broken marriages, petty crime and prison. Before her death in 2016, Merle Haggard came on this program and opened up about her childhood love of jumping on freight trains, including one that ran through the mountains.
(SOUND CLIP FROM NPR ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
HAGGARD: And it was in the winter. And there was snow, and there was ice. And two other bums and I crammed into the ice compartment of an old refrigerated car.
INSKEEP: What did you learn from that?
HAGGARD: Oh, take enough money to get on a bus.
This kind of life left an imprint on Merle Haggard. His biographer, Marc Eliot, met Haggard when he was a country music star with both talent and charm. But also…
MARC ELIOT: I could feel a sense of restlessness. I always think of writing a biography as a mystery, as a Raymond Chandler mystery.
INSKEEP: Eliot set out to find the source of this unrest, and the story took him back to the birth of Haggard in the 1930s.
ELIOT: Well, his dad was an Okie from Oklahoma. You know, Okie was a pejorative term, something Californians called what they considered immigrants. They were just not welcome.
INSKEEP: They are economic refugees, so to speak, in the Great Depression, fleeing the Dust Bowl. Is it correct?
ELIOT: That’s right. Merle’s father decided to move to California and start a new life. And “Okie From Muskogee”, which is a song about pride – it was about being proud of his father and being from Oklahoma.
(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE”)
HAGGARD: (singing) And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, a place where even the squares can have fun. We always wave Old Glory at the courthouse, and white lightning is always the biggest thrill of all.
ELIOT: Merle loved his father so much. They were practically inseparable. And every night after dinner they listened to country music on the radio. And that’s where Merle first heard Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, all those legends. They had a profound influence on him.
And then, at the age of 9, Merle’s father died suddenly. And like many children, Merle blamed himself. And her life suddenly became one of acting out with lots of theft, auto theft, placement in correctional schools, local jails. The only thing he had going for him was to play the guitar.
(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “MAMA TRIED”)
HAGGARD: (Singing) I got 21 years in prison to life without parole. No one could guide me, but mom tried. Mom tried. Mom tried to raise me better, but her plea, I refused. That leaves only me to blame because mom tried.
INSKEEP: What was the crime that finally sent him to San Quentin, the big prison in Northern California?
ELIOT: Well, he and his friend decided to rob a restaurant. They drank a lot. And as they were breaking in, the restaurant owner came by and said – he heard noise there – and said, why aren’t you using the storefront? Were open.
ELIOT: And both boys were arrested. Merle went before the same judge each time he was arrested. And finally, this judge was fed up with him. And to teach Merle a lesson, he sentenced him to an indeterminate 15-year sentence. He was only 19 when it happened. And it really burned even deeper into that feeling of loneliness and not trusting anyone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BRANDED MAN”)
HAGGARD: (singing) I paid the debt I owed them, but they still aren’t satisfied. Now I’m a scarred man in the cold.
INSKEEP: Haggard emerged after three years and sang his way to fame, but never lost that inner restlessness. He openly sang about past failures, but apparently composed parts of his memoirs. Its lyrics reflected classic country music politics — pro-flag, anti-protest — but it celebrated the election of the first black president. His biographer says this white singer was connected to people of color. Life as Okie and in prison made him feel for the underdog.
ELIOT: He idealized his own pain. You know, he turned it into something he could express. And what’s great about his writing is that there are hardly any metaphors. It’s almost journalistic. “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” (ph), for example. It’s a song where you don’t need an image. You see what it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THE BOTTLE LET ME DOWN”)
HAGGARD: (singing) I’ve always had a bottle to turn to, and lately, I turn to every day. And I hurt in an old, familiar way.
ELIOT: When you listen to Merle Haggard, it’s not country music like, say, Willie Nelson’s music is country music – you know, bright, bubbly, fun. It’s a bit darker. But his music – because of his playing, which was getting better and better -, his writing and his incredible voice made him unique. I think if it was played on the same radio stations that, say, play Frank Sinatra or that era, it would be just as accepted. I think he was so good.
INSKEEP: Marc Eliot is the author of “The Hag: The Life, Times And Music Of Merle Haggard”. Thanks a lot.
ELIOT: Thank you.
(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “WORKIN’ MAN BLUES”)
HAGGARD: (Singing) I’ll drink my beer in a tavern. Sing some of those working man blues.
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