Updated: Feb 1
THE LIFE, TIMES, AND MUSIC OF MERLE HAGGARD
Can you imagine a world without the music of Merle Haggard? I can't, and if you really dig deep into his teen life you'll find that he was one bad decision away from decimating his chances at a career in music forever. It is no secret that Merle, despite coming from a loving home with a doting mother, and Father, had a rebellious streak that was clearly detectable very early on. For one thing, he did not like school or going to church. About the only thing he really did like was listening to music. He loved Jimmy Rodgers, and Lefty Frizzell most of all.
Merle also loved spending time with his Father, which often included fishing, and listening to the Opry. As stated previously, Merle had a rebellious streak early on, but it was exacerbated when his Father quite suddenly died. Merle was just a grade schooler, and knew that somehow, he was personally responsible. An irrational train of logic that dogged his early life, and precipitated the impending trouble with the law. It is from this lens that Marc Elliot's The Hag starts, and takes us on a meticulous journey of the cause, and effect of Merle Haggard's inner world.
Though tough, and resourceful, Merle was incredibly vulnerable emotionally. Merle consistently made decisions that hurt him financially, and caused heartache. Unlike the vitriol espoused concerning Merle's drug usage, Merle did not smoke pot or use drugs at all throughout the 60s, and 70's. But after the breakup with Bonnie, that changed. Though Merle says that he started smoking pot in the 80's because the doctor told him to. He also started popping pills, and using cocaine.
At one point, Johnny Cash, and Tammy Wynette were called by one of Merle's daughters to intervene, and they did. Either would attend Merle's shows, and sit with him after to keep him away from using cocaine. It worked. Merle was eternally grateful to his friends. When he found out that Johnny was in the hospital nearing his end, Merle snuck in, and spoke to Johnny, who was still coherent. They had a good laugh. Johnny died a month later.
There was too much heartache in Merle's life, which explains why he sang with so much conviction, and heart. The whole drug thing was a way to self medicate.
For example, did you know his oldest daughter gave up her baby for adoption? The father was Tammy Wynette's husband George Richey.. Did you know that his first wife became pregnant with another man's child while Merle was in prison? Did you know that Marty Robbins refused to sing a duet with Merle, despite being his opening act?
Not to mention the unconventional arrangements in his marriages, the mismanagement of funds, and how Merle was viewed by some as a bottomless piggy bank. The latter led Merle to filing bankruptcy, but he was able to pull through after selling half of his songwriter royalties to Buck Owens for a pittance. Despite all of these unfortunate situations plus so many more, Merle did not really seem to harbor ill will towards those that slighted him. The only exception being, if you hurt those he truly loved.
There is much to unpack in this book, but there were also some errors that annoyed me.
For example, in one chapter the author misstates That's The Way Love Goes as That's The Way Life Goes.. What the author does very well is introduce information that is not commonly known about Merle. He crafted a narrative centered around the perceptions of some of Merle's friends like Fuzzy Owens, who was like a father to Merle throughout his professional career. Merle's expansive career included thirty eight number ones, four Grammys, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, and in 2010, he was bestowed with a Kennedy Center Honor. He was also the first country artist on the cover of Time Magazine.
Merle had the opportunity to undergo non chemo treatment, and was told it could extend his life. He refused. His second to last album went to number one which firmly established his successful comeback. Is it possible that Merle felt he had given all he had? He had reached the highest honors in country music, and all music generally speaking. With over 54 albums released, I don't think we can complain about the immense gift he left for us all.
This is a great read, especially for fans like me. The portrait is of a wildly talented man that despite the odds made it on his own terms. The book is also about self-undoing, missed opportunities, and the imperfectness, and frailty of humans. I walked away feeling that Merle wasn't successful despite his flaws. He actually may have reached the ultimate heights because of
his imperfections. Life is the beautiful struggle for love, and belonging. Merle was a victor over that struggle, even though at times, he didn't know it, but I think he did in the end..
The Hag will be part of us forever, and nothing, not even death can ever take him away,not ever..