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Merle Haggard's country classics capture the common man with uncommon grace

Merle Haggard's country classics capture the common man with uncommon grace
Merle Haggard performs in San Bernardino onJuly 8, 2003. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The death of country music legend Merle Haggard is inspiration to revisit some of the artist’s insight into the world, via his own words. In this 2004 profile in The Times, Haggard opened up about his time in prison, the wisdom passed down to him by Johnny Cash and how “the best songs feel like they've always been here.” Here's former staff writer Robert Hilburn's article, originally published June 20, 2004.

Merle Haggard, the country music star who really did turn 21 in prison, just like it says in one of his songs, figures it cost the IRS nearly $100,000 the day an agent came to his ranch near here to try to figure out what goes into writing a hit.

Haggard's tax return was apparently kicked out by the computer for too many business deductions and the agent wanted the songwriter to show him how the 200-acre spread in the mountains helped him do his work.

During a walk around the grounds, Haggard explained how a creek inspired one song, a flower bed led to another and a bulldog jump-started a third.

"Finally, this fellow looks at me and says, 'Why, Mr. Haggard, everything you do is a write-off,' and he started pointing out other things I should have declared," the songwriter says, laughing so hard his whole body shakes.

"What he saw was that writing for me is an impulse. I don't sit down with a pencil and paper and try to come up with songs. I look for songs in the world around me."

That world runs through Haggard's songs.

Listen to his "White Line Fever" and you can picture being on the bus with him night after night, watching the highway lines roll by, or listen to "Tulare Dust" and you can relive with him the longing a boy in the San Joaquin Valley had for the glamour of the big city. Then listen to the gritty "Big City" and you understand why he retreated to the calm countryside.

In his early album cover photos, Haggard had the rugged good looks and charisma of a young Johnny Cash. Now he's 67, and lines cross his face like stretches of barbed wire, and there is a story behind each of them. Restlessness and home, lust and devotion, heartache and good times, protest and patriotism -- all have etched his life, and his songs.

Country music tends to be so sentimental and homespun it's easy to stumble into self-parody, but Haggard has brought a freshness to the themes that places him alongside Hank Williams and Willie Nelson as one of the greatest country music writers.

"There are lots of people who have written hits, but most songs don't stick with us because you know and I know and the songwriter knows he's just telling us about something that never really happened. But then you listen to Hank Williams' 'I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You),' and everybody knows this ol' boy had his heart stepped on more than a few times. That's what I've always wanted people to feel when they hear my songs."

Haggard estimates he has written 10,000 songs, but finds only a fraction of them worth recording. Most of the great ones didn't start flowing until he got a tip from one of his musical heroes, Johnny Cash.

He first saw Cash when the Man in Black played San Quentin prison in the late '50s while Haggard was a prisoner there. Years later, when Haggard started turning out country hits himself, he met Cash and mentioned he had seen him at San Quentin.

"John looked at me and said, 'That's funny, Merle, because I don't remember you being on the show,'" Haggard says with a grin.

"So, I told him, 'I wasn't on the show. I was in the audience.' "

They had a good laugh, but Haggard says Cash gave him advice that changed his life.

The young singer told Cash his greatest fear was that some tabloid would reveal his prison background and kill his career. Write a song about those days yourself, Cash told him, and fans will love your honesty.

That led to "Mama Tried," which spent four weeks at No. 1 on the country charts in 1968 and remains a signature song. It's a salute to his mother and a lament about how he, as a restless teenager, refused to follow her advice.

Like so many Haggard songs, it tells its story so simply that it's hard to see the craft involved.

--

And I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole.

No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried.

Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied.

That leaves only me to blame 'cause Mama tried.

--

Every line in the song is true except "life without parole."

"I guess I was just trying to make it all a bit more dramatic," Haggard says over a late lunch of black-eyed peas with his wife and two children.

"But there was a bit of truth to it. When they sent me to prison, they sent me to maximum security. On my papers, they wrote 'incorrigible.' I didn't know if I would ever get out. That's a feeling you never forget, so it came to me when I was writing the song."

When young songwriters today ask for advice, Haggard passes along Cash's suggestion to write from experience.

"The most important thing in a song is simplicity," Haggard tells them. "You've got to remember songs are meant to be sung. You are not writing poetry. The best songs feel like they've always been here."

Lyrical grist

Haggard didn't come into this world with many advantages, but his background gave him a head start when it came to writing country songs. He knew what it was like to struggle.

His Dust Bowl-era parents, James and Flossie Haggard, drove to California from Oklahoma in 1935 with all their possessions in a homemade trailer attached to the back of a battered 1926 Chevy.

During his early years, Haggard lived in a converted refrigerator car alongside the Santa Fe Railway tracks in Oildale, a weed patch near Bakersfield. His father, who worked as a carpenter for the railroad, died when Merle was 9, and his mother took a job as a bookkeeper for a meat-packing firm. Not wanting to be a burden, a teenage Haggard ran away from home. He hopped freights, picked hay and got into lots of trouble.

By 17, Merle had spent two years in reform school. Three years later he and a friend were arrested during an attempted burglary in which they were so "juiced up" they didn't realize the cafe was still open the night they tried to break in the back door. He aggravated things by fleeing the jail, though he maintains he was encouraged by guards to think he was free to go.

The judge sentenced him to San Quentin for a maximum of 15 years. He began to realize that he was going to spend his entire life behind bars if he didn't change his ways. And when he saw how the inmates went wild for Johnny Cash at that fabled prison concert, he began to remember how he'd daydreamed of a music career.

Learning to duck trouble, Haggard was paroled after three years (later pardoned by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan) and began following up on those dreams.

As a child, Haggard had been exposed to a lot of music, from Bing Crosby to Hank Williams. He later fell under the spell of the rock 'n' roll of Elvis Presley, the country blues of Jimmie Rodgers, the western swing of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and, most important, Lefty Frizzell, one of the most influential of all country music singers. Haggard taught himself to play guitar on an instrument handed down by an older brother and became so good after his prison days, he got jobs in Bakersfield and Las Vegas clubs. Singing was the next step. Even as a teenager, when he sang songs he'd heard on the radio, adults complimented him, suggesting he sounded "just like the record."

Once he started singing in clubs, he realized the best way to distinguish himself was to write his own material. And he says the years of playing guitar helped him greatly in doing that.

"I'd recommend anyone who wants to write songs to learn to play an instrument because if you only know three chords, you can only write a song with three chords and that's fine, but if you want to compete with the Willie Nelsons and the Hoagy Carmichaels, you're going to have to know more than three chords. The more chords you know the more choices you have when you start to write melodies."

Writing came naturally to young Haggard, who recalls teachers scolding him in grade school because he'd often just gaze out the window during class. One wrote on his report card, "If he would pay attention in class and not look out the window, he might do well in school." But he wasn't just woolgathering, he says. "I was thinking about songs."

Haggard says the melodies often arrive along with the words. The key is finding something -- an emotion, a scene, a memory -- that triggers the flow.

"When young musicians ask for songwriting hints, I know it must frustrate them when I tell them, 'The songs just come to me, at any time and any place,' " he says. (He once wrote a song in the 150 yards it took to walk from the limousine to the back of the stage.)

Every step in a Haggard song feels like one he has taken himself, and he recalls the story behind each song the way most of us remember first dates.

Memories and promise

For someone who has spent thousands of nights on stages around the world, maybe it's natural to live on a ranch so far off the interstate that you pass five "no trespassing" signs and several cattle guards before arriving at the unmarked driveway.

Haggard has sold tens of millions of records, but there is little about his modest ranch house or its furnishings to suggest he handled his money well. As his two autobiographies outline, his life has been filled with gambling, drugs, breakups and bankruptcy.

Like so many other country veterans, he has been plagued for years by the ache of pretty much being put out to pasture by commercial radio, even though he continues to do absorbing work. His last Top 10 country single was 15 years ago.

There is an air of melancholy in the air as Haggard sits in a chair in his den and stares at the TV, which is tuned most of the day to CNN. The two things that brighten Haggard's mood are his family (he and his fifth wife, Theresa, have two school-age children, Jenessa and Ben) and songwriting.

Sifting through a stack of his hit lyrics that's been handed to him, he downplays the idea there is science or even art involved in writing. As he talks about individual songs, however, you see the principles that guide him.

He nods as he thumbs through the pages -- looking casually at the words to lots of his No. 1 hits, including "Workin' Man Blues," "Branded Man" and "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am." He stops at "Swinging Doors," his first big success as a writer.

With its mix of rowdy, honky-tonk music and sentimental lyrics, 1966's "Swinging Doors" defines barroom loneliness.

--

This old smoke-filled bar is something I'm not used to.

But I gave up my home to see you satisfied.

And I just called to let you know where I'll be living.

It's not much, but I feel welcome here inside.

--

Haggard studies the lyrics. "That song was written to make money," he says, almost apologetically. "I just tried to write something I thought people who were coming to see me in bars and clubs would relate to.

"That's the way a lot of writers start out. You are concerned about getting enough money for your family, so you try to figure out what people are going to like. You should never really forget that someone is going to be listening to a song, but you eventually start looking beyond just your audience to find something that also speaks to you."

He picks up another piece of paper. It's "House of Memories," a slow, haunting ballad also written in the mid-'60s but not one of his biggest hits.

"Now, here's a song I still like," he says. "It feels a little more me. To me, every word fits in the song. Nothing is in there just for show. That's one of the most important lessons a writer can learn. You can't fall in love with a $50 word or what you think is a clever rhyme and try to squeeze it into a song if it doesn't work."

Love rekindled

--

Today, I started loving you again.

I'm right back where I've really always been.

I got over you just long enough

To let my heartache mend.

Then today I started loving you again.

--"I Started Loving You Again," 1968

--

The odd thing about this ballad is that it was never a hit single for Haggard, simply an album track. Yet it has been recorded by more than 400 artists, including Willie Nelson and Buddy Jewel, last year's winner in the country version of "American Idol."

The tune is considered a classic country ballad, a song with such a ring of authenticity and truth that it makes listeners feel it's their own story.

Here's how it came about.

At one point in the late '60s, Haggard had spent three months on tour, a young country star who was so hot that he'd end up with 65 consecutive Top 10 singles.

He was so drained he lost track of everything around him -- even his wife at the time, Bonnie Owens, a singer with his band. All of his energy went into getting to the next town and through the next show.

Back in California on the first day of a week's break, a tired Haggard looked at his wife and felt a warmth he had lost along the road. "It's like today I started loving you again," he told her tenderly.

Owens, who knew a good song title when she heard it, urged him to write the thought down. Sure enough, Haggard, recalling the line a few days later, wrote "I Started Loving You Again" in 10 minutes on hotel stationery.

Songs spilling out

--

If we make it through December

Everything's gonna be all right I know.

It's the coldest time of winter

And I shiver when I see the fallin' snow.

-- "If We Make It Through December," 1973

--

There was a lot of economic hardship in the country in the early '70s, but Haggard didn't think of writing a song about it until he sat down with Roy Nichols during a coffee break at a recording session.

Nichols was the lead guitarist in Haggard's band, the Strangers, and he had just gotten married for the sixth time. "So I just kinda turned to him and said, 'Roy, what's the chances of this being the real deal for you?' and he said, 'If we make it through December, I think we'll be all right.' "

Haggard was intrigued by the answer and asked his friend to explain.

"He looked at me and said something like, 'Merle, you've got to remember, you've kind of made it big time and you forget how hard it is around December for the average guy making a paycheck. It's a tough month with Christmas and all.'

"And I got to thinking even while he was talking about the gas wars going on back then and the troubles with the auto industry and the problems in the country, and I also thought back to when I had a young daughter and no job and it was hard to find one because I had this criminal record. And I started writing the song, but it never would have happened without Roy's remarks."

The ballad, written with the softness of a prayer, spent four weeks at No. 1 on the country charts and even crossed over to the pop Top 30.

"Big City," another evocative Haggard tune from the early '80s, also grew out of a casual conversation.

Haggard was in Los Angeles recording a new album. He already had 22 tracks down when he went out to the tour bus to pick up something. His longtime driver, Dean Holloway, was in a funk.

"I asked him what was wrong and he said, 'I hate this,' and I thought he was talking about the bus, but he was talking about the town.

"In trying to make him feel better, I said, 'You just gave me an idea for a song. Let's write a song called "Big City," ' and that's what we did. I actually wrote 99% of it, but I gave him half the royalties because he inspired it. And he deserved it because he unleashed all that energy in me. It takes a lot of energy to write a song, I don't know why. But you can't be lazy and be a songwriter."

The song, the title of one of Haggard's most popular albums, was one of his 38 No. 1 hits -- more than pals Cash and Nelson combined. It's a midtempo tune, propelled by a loping country shuffle.

Haggard frowns, however, when he looks at the song's lyrics on the paper in front of him.

"I'll go over lines before I record a song, but I don't do a lot of editing," he says. "I'm lucky, I guess, but the songs pretty much come out the way I want them to be. But there's something in 'Big City' that I know I got wrong."

He points to the opening lines:

--

I'm tired of this dirty old city,

Entirely too much work and never enough play.

And I'm tired of these dirty old sidewalks

Think I'll walk off my steady job today.

--

"That is the way I wrote it, but it shouldn't have been 'play,' it should have been 'pay.' 'Play' works as a rhyme, but 'pay' is a more substantial image, and that's how I sing it now. I like 'Big City,' but I always sing 'pay,' never 'play.' "

Courting controversy

--

I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,

A place where even squares can have a ball.

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,

And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all.

"Okie From Muskogee," 1969

--

Thirty-five years after he wrote what is probably his best-known song, Haggard still has trouble explaining his feelings about it.

In some interviews, he has said he wrote it for his father. "Dad was proud of being an Okie. That's where 'Okie From Muskogee' came from. He was the guy in the song." In others, however, Haggard has maintained that it was just a joke that he came up with one night while riding the bus through Oklahoma.

Haggard continues to sing the hit, which is so infectious that it was easy to embrace even if the commentary seemed extreme. He was invited by the Nixons to sing it at the White House (which he did) and invited by the liberal-leaning Smothers Brothers to sing it on their TV show (which he did).

Haggard still seems so mistrustful of authority that it's easy to imagine the attitude reaches back to the sadistic treatment he says he regularly encountered in youth authority camps and prison.

But for all his wariness, Haggard is fiercely proud of the country and its troops overseas.

His "That's the News" early last year was the most compelling of the many songs about the Iraq war. Long before criticism of the war became widespread, Haggard chided the government and the media for declaring that the war was over when American soldiers were still dying in Iraq.

"Sometimes you've got to trust what you write, even if you don't fully know what it's about," Haggard says, going back to the "Okie" song. "Even though I talk about subject matter being important, the most important thing is feeling ... a feeling of truth.

"That's why I recorded it. I knew I was writing something controversial, that it was going to kill a lot of the leftist fans I had going. But I felt something truthful in there. It was a confusing time, and I think I was just asking some questions about where we were going. It was more that than trying to be some redneck statement."

Home fires beckon

From the highest point on Haggard's hillside property, you can see Lake Shasta, where he has spent hundreds of hours fishing, and it's just a short stroll from the house to one of the many ponds and creeks. He doesn't hunt on the property, so deer and other animals come from miles around for sanctuary.

"Someday soon, I'm going to make a decision and break away and just spend all my time with my family," Haggard says, as he heads down a path to a picnic table a few hundred feet from the house. It's sunset and his family is waiting with dinner. "But that doesn't mean I'll ever stop writing. The great thing is I can do that right here."

Even if the country music world doesn't seem to be waiting for new Haggard songs the way it once did, he is still driven to express himself.

"It gets harder the longer you write to find something fresh to say. When you finish a song, you don't just ask yourself if you like it but if it is something you haven't said before.

"The thing that keeps you going is that you think your next song may be your 'Stardust.' People ask me how are you going to top 'Mama Tried' or 'House of Memories'? Well, that's the challenge, isn't it?"

------------

Five songs for the ages

You could make many top five lists of Haggard's best, one each for his restless youth songs, his heartbreak songs, his love, road and even commentary songs. Here's one from each category.

1."Mama Tried" 1968. This is one of the greatest country songs ever written, another installment in Haggard's memorable series of often complex and contradictory tales of the working man's blues. It's a tribute to his mother's mostly fruitless struggle to steer him right.

2."House of Memories" 1966. When Haggard sings, "My house is a prison, where memories surround me / There's no place to hide where your memory won't find me," it's all the more haunting when you remember the painful years he spent in prison and reform school. This heartbreaking ballad, with a melody as mournful as its imagery, is about as dark as pop gets.

3."I Started Loving You Again" 1968. What makes the good times so sweet in this gentle ballad about renewed love is the memory of the bad times: "What a fool I was to think I could get by / With only these few million tears I've cried / I should have known the worst was yet to come / And that crying time for me had just begun."

4."White Line Fever" 1969. With a melody that echoes the gentle hum of tires on the road, this midtempo tune begins: "White line fever, a sickness born down deep within my soul / White line fever, the years keep flyin' by like the highline poles."

5."That's the News" 2003. Backed by an understated melody, Haggard chides both the Bush administration and the media for accepting the "mission accomplished" claim in Iraq: "Politicians do all the talking: soldiers pay the dues / Suddenly the war is over, that's the news."

------------

Ways to sample the classics

Here are some of the best Haggard retrospectives, along with a recent album that demonstrates his continued excellence.

1."20 Greatest Hits" Capitol. If you are new to Haggard and want to sample his work, this CD contains most of the early classics, including "Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home."

2."40 No. 1 Hits" Capitol. This is for the more committed Haggard fan, a two-disc set that focuses on the early Capitol hits but also reaches into his later Epic and MCA catalogs for such jewels as "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink."

3."Down Every Road" Capitol. This boxed set is for the Haggard loyalist. There are 100 songs spread over four discs, and just about every one is memorable in some way. Haggard is arguably the most influential country singer of his generation, modernizing Lefty Frizzell's way of stretching words or phrases to add a distinctive character.

4."Haggard Like Never Before" Hag.

In this 2003 CD, he's playful (the title tune), provocative ("That's the News"), heartbroken ("I Dreamed You Didn't Love Me"), and still finds time for a marvelous version of Woody Guthrie's "Philadelphia Lawyer."

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