By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Talk meanders to Marty Haggard, the troubled son whose erratic behavior, general malfeasance and two-part National Enquirer "Daddy Dearest" hatchet job led Haggard to seek a restraining order against him last year. "He went on that radio show, told that story 'bout me locking him in the trunk," Haggard says. "And Cash, man, he's really angry. He said, 'God may forgive him, but I won't.'" Brumley blinks at that one: "Cash said that?" "Hell, yes. Marty went down to Nashville, took money from Cash, took money from just about everybody I know down there. I'd paid off a $65,000 note on a house of his. Honestly, I think it was that head injury -- he was in a terrible head-on collision, you know."
Haggard, clad in a shiny black track suit and a pair of those corny running shoes with built-in blinking lights, shakes his head and swigs off a handy half-pint of George Dickel Tennessee Whisky. Haggard doesn't drink much these days, swore off cigarettes over a decade ago, but right now, like a bebop jazz cat, he's using the juice, breaking free, kick-starting his brain up into a loose, uninhibited musicality. They get back to work on the vocals. Haggard studies his verses, singing them two or three times, giving each run-through entirely different readings, phrasing the notes in distinct modifications within each bar of music. It's an impressive display of technique, and once he settles on the preferred approach, he nails it. One take.
As engineer Lou Bradley rewinds for playback, Theresa, Haggard's (fifth) wife, and a couple of the kids drift in. She's a slim blond in her mid-30s, a quiet yet forceful presence. "I've got some potato soup and corn bread for your lunch, Merle," she tells him. Haggard, giddy from his just-concluded performance, shoots back, "Well, that's fine, but did you make enough for Al and Lou and Jonny? Here, listen to this . . ." Bradley rolls the tape of Brumley Jr.'s "Marching Across Jordan," and at the close Theresa opines that "it feels just like church." Haggard ponders that a moment, tilts the bottle again and shouts, "Yessir, the devil's gonna get pissed off when he hears that!"
A peck on the cheek, a pat on the head, and the family withdraws. Haggard sends Brumley into the booth for his part on the next tune, riding him with merciless glee until every syllable is satisfactorily delivered. It's clear that Haggard is never as happy as when he's in control, and that the object of that control is nothing less than perfection -- and that goes for his lunch, too. Not long after the family departs, he suddenly says, "I'll be right back," and disappears for 15 minutes. An hour or so after his return, the phone rings. It's Theresa. Haggard gets on the phone. "What?" he cries. "Someone put bacon in your potato soup? Who in the world'd do that?" Evil grin. "And keep on cookin' it. Potato soup's no good unless it's really cooked well."
Haggard's back in the booth now, pipe in hand. Flic-CLICK. Sssssssssssssss. A long draw. A huge cloud of blue smoke, a hand signal to Bradley, and he's singing -- charged and transported. Haggard's voice flows with understated, hypnotic style, drawing as much from precise doses of theatrical emotion as it does from breath control and intonation, the set of the jaw and the distance between mouth and microphone.
It's another one-take job. The song is a Brumley Sr. composition. "Al's daddy wrote it," Haggard explains, "and it was one of my daddy's favorites. I remember him singin' it to me when I was a kid, us sitting together on the living-room couch." Hearing Haggard deliver "I Dreamed I Saw Mama and Daddy" -- in which the protagonist encounters the spirits of his deceased parents, who whisper, "Oh look, it's our little boy" -- is chilling.
MUCH OF WHAT MADE MERLE HAGGARD THE mile-high artistic figure he is can be found in this particular subject, for it was the death of his father that scarred and shaped his psyche, introducing the disarray that would become a recurring and perversely sustaining element in his life. Without his beloved daddy's anchor, Haggard drifted into a series of ill-advised misadventures that eventually got him thrown in prison. This almost entirely self-imposed strife has led Haggard to refine the art of playing both ends against the middle in virtually every aspect of his personal and professional life, and is, perhaps, the key to understanding his character and successes.
Oildale, a tough little burg just across the Kern River from Bakersfield, was Haggard's point of entry, born there to Oklahoma immigrants James and Flossie Haggard on April 6, 1937. Nine years later, James suffered a stroke and soon died, leaving Flossie to raise Merle and his older brother and sister. By the time Merle was in his early teens, he was already roaming as far off as Texas, getting stomped by misanthropic rednecks, picked up by police cruisers, and winning friends via an uncanny ability to sing just like Lefty Frizzell, the Lone Star honky-tonk god ã who'd made history in 1951 by dominating the Billboard Top 10 with four concurrent hit songs.
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