Merle Haggard Sings Us Back Home
I didn’t like country music. Truth is, I probably didn’t really know what it was at all. Whiny, nasal, twang twang twang and a lot of songs about grown up stuff that didn’t interest me. It was easy to dismiss in Cleveland, Ohio, even then the self-proclaimed “Rock & Roll Capitol of the World.”
But like all kids, I liked danger, naughty things, grown-up endeavors. Even more, I loved live music – hearing it played, watching fingers conjure strings and skins into notes and songs. It fascinated me, and so, with a slew of Kentucky- and West Virginia-born golf pros, I would often find myself at a two level club called Peabody’s with a ginger-ale sweating harder than I was, and my breath held awaiting the next revelation.
That’s when I heard “Big City,” a swinging bit of bounce that decries urban dwelling, overpopulation and crammed spaces. “Keep your retirement, and your so-called social security... big city, turn me loose and set me free,” the song purred. Like a siren on a rock, the silky guitar, the reeling fiddle, the gulping cry of the steel, the oaky male voice pulled me to the bandstand wanting to hear, to understand, to internalize this free spirit notion that jettisoned everything I was taught to want.
I was maybe 12 or 13. Certainly shouldn’t have been out that late. But the bands were used to seeing the kid who could go invisible, who had a million questions – all about the music – and a bottomless hunger for what the songs could contain.
Armed with the knowledge Big City was also the name of the album, I made my way to Record Theater – and saw this breath-taking adult male on a steel bed, against a cheap motel wall with a window behind him and a Telecaster across his lap. His eyes bore witness to things I knew I couldn’t know, and his level gaze said he didn’t cower or buckle to convention.
I bought the record.
Dropping the needle, the twin fiddles were even brighter and shinier than the band – aptly named Deadly Earnest & the Honky Tonk Heroes -- at the bar. The steel swung up like a lariat, twirling around the melody and as the rhythm came around, a voice that was husky, dusky, oak and good tobacco proclaimed sans ceremony “I’m tired of this dirty old city/ tired of working too hard and not enough play...”
There was no flex, no anger, no force. Instead, Merle Haggard delivered a witness about where he was, how it was and what was going to happen: the singer was headed to Montana, to live free with a headful of clean mountain air.
At the time, I couldn’t know how strong-willed and clear-minded Haggard was; I just knew I wanted to be that free, that willing to ditch the conventional yoke and enjoy my days.
As a bass rocked back and forth on the next track, that dusty, earthen baritone exhaled a string of details from a romance that hung weightless like dandelion fur, floating around the singer with a cozyness that suggested “My Favorite Memory of All” was hardly over. That was Haggard: a man who could intone “that time we made love in the hall” and buckle a 12-year old’s knees with no real knowledge of what any of that meant.
The train beat choogling of “Great Old American Guest,” the upward spiral of the break-up survivor’s “Think I’m Gonna Live Forever” and the see-sawing tumble of “Texas Fiddle Song” were unlike anything I’d heard on my Carole King or Aerosmith albums. Even the silky, stoic “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go” opened a portal to ache I’d never considered.
But it was the post Steinbeck-feeling “Are The Good Times Really Over” that tugged at me: painting a picture of a nation compromised, a way of life flickering out, but especially his palpable disappointment at how shallow and lost his culture was. A few bass notes that hit and flattened, a horn rising up and brushes on the drums, it was classic Haggard in its elegiac dignity for something he held dear.
“Are we headed down hill, like a snow bell headed for Hell/ With no kind of chance for the flag or the Liberty Bell/ Wish a Ford and a Chevy would still last 10 years like they should/ Is the best of the free life behind us now, are the good times really over for good?” he mused on a chorus that rose up and receded into itself.
He was mourning something so big, it was beyond me – even as it offended my burgeoning feminism via the fledgling Ms. Magazine with his recriminating scold “back before microwave ovens, when a girl could still cook and still would...” Yet, I could feel the chagrin like I could feel my own heart beat.
“Good Times” ushered in an awareness my kick-ball playing, Shirley Temple-sipping self had never considered. Life can erode. Nothing is guaranteed. Taking our blessings for granted can endanger them. It’s that thing of sudden awareness: once you know, you can’t not know.
And so I became aware. Who knew a record could do that? But Big City did.
Suddenly, country was a complicated place. It spoke in novels over 3 and 4 minutes of melody. Adult things, real life, tangles of hearts and emotions. I wanted more, and I started diving in. Over the course of the next several years, I learned about “Mama Tried,” “Okie from Muskogee,” “Mis’ry & Gin,” “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Silver Wings,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Somewhere Between,” “Swingin’ Doors.”
He was the child of Dust Bowl refugees, raised in a railroad car after they fled to California – in true Steinbeckian fashion – escaping the drought and the Great Depression. He was 9 when his father died of a brain tumor; he started getting into the trouble that would ultimately land him in San Quentin not much later.
Romantic confusion. Thwarted hope. Soldiering on.
They were all part of it. My father loved train songs: Haggard sang Jimmie Rodgers’ songs, and wrote his own. But there was also – beyond the hawkish patriotism -- social justice. “Irma Johnson” sang of inter-racial romance; “The Immigrant” took on illegal aliens used for cheap labor; “Holding Things Together” impaled the betrayal of a mother’s desertion; “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” was a yearning song of poverty and the pain it causes a mother.
Haggard opened my suburban eyes. I knew the ghetto of Cleveland, the idea of inner city poor. But this was something else again. Intrigued, I kept buying cheap records, kept putting dimes in the jukebox, making requests of the local country bands.
And when The Miami Herald needed a country writer, Merle Haggard helped qualify me for the gig. Knowing his music helped legitimize a college sophomore from the Midwest as “expert enough” to take the beat. I never got to talk to Haggard for the storied South Florida newspaper, but Going Where The Lonely Go, Kern River, That’s The Way Love Goes and duet albums A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine with George Jones and Pancho & Lefty with Willie Nelson followed.
As a kid, caught in the crosswinds of a rough divorce and an imploding father, Merle Haggard made me feel less alone. “Shopping For Dresses,” “If We Make It Through December,” “Goin’ Where The Lonely Go” made sense in a way they wouldn’t have without the dissonance and desolation of getting by, making it work as the Performance South Florida correspondent, freelancing for anyone who’d pay
— from The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tower Records Pulse magazine, Trouser Press, Music in Tampa and Orlando to Black Miami Weekly, Rock & Soul, The Weekly News, a third tier men’s mag named Fast Lane, eventually Country Song Round-Up.
I interviewed, Willie, Waylon, Cash, Dolly, Tammy and Kristofferson several times. But the Hag remained elusive.
Undaunted, I kept sending queries, kept looking for the assignment that mattered enough to get the “yes.” If I couldn’t crack Rolling Stone, perhaps SPIN, the alternative monthly that spanned punk, new wave, hip hop, Mellencamp and Madonna.
And SPIN said “Yes.” So did Haggard, even if the execution became excruciating. I flew to Nashville in an ice storm, spun a car into a ditch – and Haggard never showed up. I went to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where he was staying while taping the “Dolly” variety show, was told there was a death, he couldn’t do it.
The editors at SPIN were like acrobats on trapezes: Richard Gehr, John Leland, Glenn O’Brien. Some of the best pop culture writers and editors ever. But every delay, every switch, my stomach tightened. What if the next guy wasn’t intrigued? What if they got offended that this old hillbilly didn’t give a damn about them? It could only get worse.
Allen Brown, the yeoman label publicist who’d marshaled me through Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, the Highwaymen, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, had a plan. He would fly me – again. To Lake Shasta. On New Year’s Eve.
“Are you sure? It’s my birthday.”
“Yes, he says he’ll do it.”
Cut to a young woman at a pay phone in the greyness of almost nowhere, cold damp permeating, being told “Yeah, it’s not happening.” Cut to a young woman trying to get home, racing through SFO and getting the last seat on a plane to LA. Cut to a young woman both furious – and so concerned about losing her assignment that she couldn’t enjoy her birthday.
Three weeks later, Haggard played the Celebrity Theater. The appointed time was 6 pm. I showed up looking as guileless as possible: white cotton sweater, pale pink jeans, braid with a lace bow, light pink buster brown lace-ups.
Once again, Fuzzy Owens came off the bus, and said, “Yeah, Hag’s not feeling like it. I’m so sorry.”
Never mind that the IRS had padlocked the buses in Arizona the day before, and they’d had to negotiate to get back on them. Never mind the fact that he was tired, or stressed, or whatever. I’d had it.
“WHAT?” I seethed. “WHAT?! NO! No way, not again. I have flown all over this country, almost died in a car wreck, gave up my birthday and flew to Lake Shasta, now this? Mama Tried, my ass. You tell your boss if the answer is ‘no,’ he can tell me to my face.”
Fuzzy gulped, went as red as the hair on his head, and went back on the bus. A few moments later, he waved and said, “C’mon.” He followed me to back of the bus where the Mighty Merle was huddled over a cup of a coffee, formidable Mount Rushmore scowl on his face, eyes piercing like lasers.
“Now what’s this you’re telling Fuzzy...” came the words, half bemused, half amused, with no eye contact.
There... he... was... I could smell him, touch him. All I had to was get the questions answered. All I had to do was, well, get him to look up.
“I told him Mama Tried, my ass... Your Mama didn’t teach you to drag people all over the country and keep standing them up. She raised you better than that, and it’s not...”
My voice was turning to a squeak. I could feel the tears loading. Nothing would be more humiliating than to burst into tears in front of a legend. Keep it together; keep it together.
I could hear the laughing. Like marshmallow boulders, it rolled over me – deep and soft, but clearly, radically amused. Mad again, I shot him a look. How could he think this was funny? This was for... well, well... SPIN magazine!
“That’s not nice, and it’s not funny,” I barked more Chihuahua than mastiff. “And it’s not fair. You know I need this. You agreed. And you keep jerking me around.”
Haggard couldn’t believe the insolence. Fuzzy’s jaw went slack.
“Okay, you got one question...”
Pulling every ounce of smart, strong and focus, I looked him in those scorching hot coal eyes, exhaled and said, “Given your place as the person who is the emblematic for the working man, the blue collar, the guy struggling to get by, does the burden of having to be that voice become too much? And do you ever lose hope in the fact that things never truly get better? How do you cope with that in your writing?”
Haggard blinked twice, pressed his lips together, lifted his eyes to his tour manager. Without drawing a breath, he said, “Get her a Coke,” then slid over. One hip shifted a little to the side in disbelief, then I gathered up the Peruvian basket purse, the small brick of a tape recorder – and slid in beside him.
“We’re gonna do this?” I asked, tension pouring out of me.
“Yes,” he laughed. “I guess we’re gonna do this.”
So began three incredible interview sessions for SPIN. About landing in solitary in San Quentin, Bakersfield’s legendary honky tonk strip, hopping trains as a kid running away, Bob Wills’ singer Tommy Duncan being his absolute favorite male vocalist, stories about Roger Miller and Johnny Cash, how “Okie” came to be written – and how they all knew they had a major hit; confessing that he was in love with Dolly Parton, whom he toured with, and adding having just seen the sleek late ‘80s model, “what I miss most about Dolly is her fat little hands.”
He was lonesome, feisty, political, grounded, earthy, real. He was unrepentant and at times mad. Like Kristofferson’s “Pilgrim #33,” he was a walking contradiction. For if in “Okie from Muskogee,” he opened with the declaration, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee...,” by this point, it was widely known that the Hag – like Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson – were partakers of the herb.
We talked on the phone. We talked at shows. We talked after the shows. This was an era before cell phones, where the ballet of co-ordination had to be specific. But where before the victim wasn’t so sure he wanted in, now Haggard was a willing participant – and he was willing to talk about all sorts of things.
John Leland, the final editor, could now put a line for completion through this story. The interview was done. Now it was just needing “turned in.” There was a lot to arrange, many quotes to set up.
“I was thinking we should do this as a Q&A, very stripped back. Let who he is come through via the exchange.”
“But I...” I interrupted clearly disappointed.
“It’s not as easy as you think,” Leland signed off.
It wasn’t. A great Q&A isn’t merely the conversation as it happens. It’s knowing what to pull out, how to put it together. The best way to represent the discussions and still get to the heart of what you want to say is tricky.
It was a lesson. Taking all this knowledge and making it add up to something meaningful. But no transitions or set-ups, nothing to explain the music – or create a sense of how it’s being said.
When I saw Haggard a few months after publication, he was playing LA’s Forum for a Marlboro Country show with the Judds, KT Oslin, Alabama and some others. Ushered out to the bus by Fuzzy, it was a Fellini festival of characters: ex-wife Bonnie Owens, who sang in the show, looking after him, a Chihuahua named Tuffy, various agents and handlers, a zaftig blond who evoked Mae West overflowing a white cocktail dress, introducing herself as Rose Vegas.
“Would you sign this?” I asked shyly, never one for autographs. It was too ghermy. But like having your parent sign your report card, it felt like closing the entire experience.
He looked at Tracy Chapman’s picture on the cover, looked at me. I flipped the SPIN open, where Chris Carroll’s 8 stark black and white frames of a man in white shirt, dark jacket and fedora against the elements seemed to metaphorically say so much.
He studied those pictures, studied the pages. Knitting his brows, he assessed what was brought, then solemnly inscribed “from Merle Haggard, to Holly” and handed it back. He wanted to know how I’d been, cast a sideways glance at my boyfriend and started telling me about his life being optioned for a film.
He chuckled, like “ain’t that some stuff.” You could tell, he thought Hollywood was mostly silly, with a bit of greed thrown in. Looked around at the agents, looked at me and winked. He asked what was on my mind, “You gonna watch the show?”
“Of course,” I said, not quite a quarter century old.
“Well, good, and kid...”
“You done good.”
Haggard would cross my path here and there. Farm Aids. Feature stories. Reissues. Award shows. I never tried to jump up and make him “see” me. Too much of that around him. But he was always there, face of granite, etched by time, eyes that see all, miss nothing as they sweep and swallow an expanse.
Even more than the conversations, there were those songs. On a bad night, a drink of good bourbon and Goin’ Where The Lonely Go could be all you need. Sliding into a long drive, Big City would see you on your way. If it’s needing to get up, Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink could top off your tanks.
Just this year, there was Django + Jimmie, a pair-up with Nelson that saw them revisiting Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright),” as well as singing each other’s songs. And with that bawdy twinkle in their eye, the two men also flashed that devilish grin and dropped “It’s All Goin’ To Pot” on 4-20.
Talking about their recent project, Haggard was visibly pleased. He’d come a long way from the George Strait Cowboy Rides Away Tour two years prior where he’d had to cancel for health; but where he’d pulled out the stops for Lee Ann Womack and her girls, sitting like teenagers on folding chairs in the arena.
Even then, lungs failing, Haggard was formidable. He’d said in that first interview, “I want my tombstone to read: Here lies the best damned jazz guitarist in the world.” He laughed when he said it, and right now those words wash back hard.
He might never be Django Reinhardt, but he played like a man consumed by music – and one who knew his way around fretboard. And he sang those old songs, low and deep and smoky. There wasn’t a one of us who wasn’t squirming in our seats, because he was just so intuitive and so good.
Sitting here listening to him exhale “Mis’ry & Gin” over and over again, its hard to absorb the news. He was the kind of singer who was so natural, his voice just melted the songs. Like Sinatra, he was a singular stylist who understood songs from the inside out. Haggard was an American original.
Tonight, with the eighth notes dropping one after another, he makes me cry. Not for me, not for him – his suffering’s over – but for the fact, I can’t see another one anywhere who will move us like he did.
In these days of power-belters, novelty singers, basic song structurers and bromide slinging pop stars, someone who keeps it as real and as down as the Hag is unthinkable. Nobody writes about prison from a place of shame, poverty mixed with dignity, want in a way that suggests earning your way.
Merle Haggard did just that. The man who talked about pot, sex, jazz and blues the last time we spoke has gone to the other side. No doubt Ray Price was waiting, saying “we’ve got this piano player...” and suggesting they call up two fiddlers and get busy.
Something tells me Haggard’s ready. Fire up the angel band, heaven’s a honky tonk tonight.
6 April 2016