By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As a youth, Haggard had knocked around the joints, as fan and performer, and been in and out of various juvenile detention facilities, accruing both considerable musical skill and a not-insignificant criminal rap sheet. Eventually, the latter dominated his life, and after he was caught fleeing a break-in scene with a heisted check machine, the ensuing federal charge and his history as an incorrigible landed him in San Quentin, his home away from home from 1957 until 1960.
By 1961, Haggard seemed, despite his evident talent, like just another Bakersfield screw-up, striving to stay out of trouble and make enough money to raise his quickly growing family. The launch of his music career was fortuitous: One day at KERO television, which broadcast Cousin Herb's Trading Post Gang, producer Al Brumley Jr., then 23, got a phone call from a stranger asking if he'd be willing to listen to his brother-in-law, whom he described as "a pretty good singer." "I said, 'Well, bring him in,'" Brumley recalls. "I always kept a guitar in the office there, and so he walks in, and he was Merle. I could tell right off the bat that he had it, so we put him on the show. He started at two nights a week, and then he was on three nights a week, and everything started from there."
At that time the cast of Cousin Herb included Roy Nichols, the former Maddox Brothers & Rose and Lefty Frizzell guitarist who was, as Brumley says, "idolized by everyone." Other regulars were a young Bonnie Owens, who'd caused a sensation as a singing waitress at several local nightclubs, and Fuzzy Owen, a respected Bakersfield singer-songwriter who'd recently partnered with California honky-tonk hero Lewis Tally to found Tally Records, an indie label operating out of a nearby garage. It was not long after Haggard's first appearance at KERO, Brumley says, "that Fuzzy began making statements to the effect of 'I'm going to make him a star.'"
Owen made good on the promise, succeeding to a far greater degree than anyone at KERO had imagined and igniting one of the most complex and longest-running dramas in country-music history. In '61, Merle Haggard was a charismatic and beautiful young man, the shadow of his recent incarceration casting an air of melancholy mystery about him. With the young singer's clear-toned voice, natural proclivity for curling a phrase in all the right spots and desperate need to find a steady job that he would not loathe, Owen had found a prospect worth developing. Haggard had found a man to trust; not long after Tally began recording him, Capitol hitmaker Ken Nelson, who had already made Buck Owens a major star, approached Haggard and offered him a deal -- the ticket out of Kern County and onto national stages. Haggard did not hesitate. "No," he answered. It didn't take long to outgrow Tally, however, and the Owen-Tally-Haggard team eventually, and gladly, signed on with Capitol. By 1965, Haggard's carefully crafted sound was a commercial smash.
As a writer, Haggard radically expanded the psychology and themes of country music. Cheating songs gave way to tales of revenge and cruelty, even bald misogyny ("I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can"); celebrating the underdog took on unorthodox new proportions ("I'll Be a Hero (When I Strike)"). In Haggard's hands, flag-waving became an aggressive, accusatory affair, and an ongoing theme, from the late '60s' "Fightin' Side of Me" to 1988's "Me and Crippled Soldiers." His sound, often with deep acoustic guitar rhythms and angular, tricky steel- and electric-guitar fills, was austere, stark, and his voice slid through the mix as a rich counterpoint of tradition and audacity.
IN THE SHADETREE STUDIO, WHERE THE GILDED Hall of Fame plaque seems to loom over Haggard's shoulder, the high-hog dreams seem long since past. Finally, Haggard shoots a direct question: "Just what exactly is it you came up here to find out?" The answer is obvious: Why in the hell are you recording hundreds of new songs with what seems like not a chance that anybody will ever hear them?
"Well," he says, "we got some real good possibilities. We got some record contracts. But what we're findin' out is, everybody since Gene Autry -- including Bing Crosby and Bob Wills, all the people who pioneered modern recorded music -- they never got paid! And people are still not gettin' paid. And I started realizin' it, and the minute I did, they started thinkin', 'Uh-oh, got a problem here.' So they tried to murder me, musically, tried to put my music in a casket. Curb did."
Scowling, voice even-toned, Haggard sounds like the old campaigner regrouping between skirmishes, assessing casualties, surveying the replacement troops: "It's a lot easier to bullshit the young boys and young girls they're signing to these fantastic record deals that aren't worth the paper they're written on. Oh, they might get paid ã the first two or three checks, but it's a fraction of what they've got comin' and it'll be the last money they get, and if they want any more they're goin' to have to hire a law firm to go after it."