Merle Haggard is one of the most intriguing and mercurial characters not just in country music but in all of popular music, and that's what PBS' "American Masters" series digs into in its latest entry, "Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself."
The 83-minute documentary, filmed over a three-year period by co-producer and director Gandulf Hennig, premieres at 9 p.m Wednesday. It's a richly detailed, impressively researched profile of the man who has written hundreds of songs over the last half century, including such contemporary country classics as "Okie From Muskogee," "The Fightin' Side of Me," "If We Make It Through December," "Mama Tried" and "Mama's Hungry Eyes."
The show benefits significantly from the candor Haggard unfailingly exhibits. He is blessed with the gift of being able to see life — his own and that which goes on around him — accurately yet nonjudgmentally, a trait that figures prominently into what has made his body of work so valuable.
Some two dozen additional interviewees — including Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall, Keith Richards, Dwight Yoakam, Alison Krauss, John Fogerty, both his ex-wives and several of his children — seem far more impressed with what the musician has done with the cards he was dealt than Haggard is.
It covers his childhood in Oildale, outside of Bakersfield, and highlights his close relationship with his father, who died when Merle was 9. That loss may well have paved the way for the life of petty crime he embarked on as a teen and which ultimately led to his incarceration for nearly two years at San Quentin prison.
Haggard retells the story of seeing Johnny Cash perform at the prison in 1958, a performance that moved him to develop his own music, which also was fundamentally inspired by the vocal style of Lefty Frizzell.
The anchor points of his life story are all in place, and the show gives a lot of attention to the eloquence of his songs' lyrics — although there's less about the joy he derives from playing his guitar with other musicians.
The show also ignores the importance to the "Bakersfield sound" that he and other country acts of the time developed thanks in no small part to the innovations on the electric guitar from Fullerton's Leo Fender. But it's hard to touch all the relevant points in 83 minutes and still leave time for music.
What the program does convey strongly is the unique vision that Haggard has always tapped and continues to do as one who legitimately can be called an American master.