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Love and Hell

Photo © Jim Marshall ®
Induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame is as high an honor as any country performer can attain, a validation reaching far beyond engraved-plaque prestige and industry recognition. When California singer Merle Haggard got the Hall of Fame nod in 1994, he took the stage, slick and dignified in a beaded, black-on-black outfit. With an intense gaze into the audience, Haggard produced a thick roll of paper, announcing that it was a list of all those deserving thanks. It unscrolled, hit the floor and kept rolling a good six feet across the stage. Behind him, horror froze the gleaming smile on presenter Marty Stuart's face; Nashville held its breath. "First of all," Haggard solemnly intoned, "I'd like to thank Andy Gump, my plumber -- you're doin' a great job keepin' my toilets workin', Andy . . ." Haggard stared into the camera. A pause, a wicked grin, the briefest of acknowledgments, and he walked off the stage.

That moment of potential chaos -- carried live on network television -- made it clear that while Haggard may have been pardoned by the state of California, he has certainly never reformed. After almost 40 years in the business, stacks of awards, dozens of gold records (38 No. 1 hits), he remains a musical and social renegade, beholden to none. Part jailbird, part sensitive troubadour, all-around rugged individualist, Haggard stomps to his own distinctive, internal syncopation.

Without doubt, Haggard rates as one of the greatest artists the Golden State has ever produced, a folk-song chronicler and outspoken crusader trafficking in generally ignored subject matter. From dust-bowl émigrés to itinerant Chicano field laborers, much of his music is born of and reflective upon life in California. Haggard has managed it on such a grandly sweeping and successful scale that he's wholly unrivaled. Yet today, at age 62, with all his considerable talents intact, he operates in a strange, cloudy netherworld.

For the past few years, Haggard has avoided almost entirely the conventional trappings and obligations of the music business. He has no binding recording contract and is in no hurry to sign one. (For the Record, Haggard's current RCA set of remakes of his hits, is strictly an open-ended option deal and, with duets featuring hot country duo Brooks & Dunn and pop pinup Jewel, rates as simple exploitation.) The public's only access to his music -- since radio has not played a new Haggard release since 1994's In My Next Life -- is at personal appearances. Haggard just doesn't give a damn about the hustle and hype, and, since being released from his contract with Curb Records in 1996, has been between tours that tend to favor outlying sub-suburban venues, steadily recording and writing -- stacking up, by his count, a total of some 130 unreleased tracks.

Thus Haggard's Shadetree Manor studio has become his focal point and spiritual center. Tucked among the rolling hills of Palo Cedro, in the middle of an expansive nowhere flanked by Mount Shasta and active volcano Lassen, the sprawling, razor-wire-walled compound is Haggard's own empire. Entering the studio on a cold, rainy morning, one first notices a reverently displayed series of photographs and memorabilia that represent the singer's idols and tribal history: an on-set group shot from Buck Owens' pre-superstardom Washington TV show, featuring Buck's then-wife, Bonnie Owens, Haggard's longtime horn player Don Markham and a very young Loretta Lynn; a portrait of the cast from the Bakersfield hillbilly TV show Cousin Herb's Trading Post Gang, depicting cohorts Bonnie Owens, Roy Nichols and Fuzzy Owen. There's a huge enlargement of a color snapshot of influential California country singer Wynn Stewart, and a framed 45-rpm record with an engraved plaque that reads, "The last recording ever made by Wynn Stewart." There's a framed portrait of Bob Wills, and scattered throughout are gold records, dozens of BMI song awards, an assortment of other trophies, honors.

The second thing one notices is the tangy aroma of freshly burned cannabis ("Son," Haggard said in 1974, "Muskogee is the only place I don't smoke it"), and the ã third is Haggard's eyes, dark and unblinking. That gaze -- probing, intimidating, curious -- is like staring down into a vortex. The ruts and wrinkles lining this face seem to suck up all the available shadows.

In the studio, Haggard is working on a series of gospel duets with Al Brumley Jr., son of the gospel songwriter who penned "I'll Fly Away" and a friend since he and Haggard worked together in Bakersfield, circa 1961. The pair is immersed in anecdotal repartee that shifts, just like the set list of a well-rounded country show, back and forth from hilarity to misery.  

The between-takes conversation twists from subject to subject, first to Dr. Gene Scott, the maverick Los Angeles televangelist (on whose Sunday-afternoon KDOC broadcasts Haggard and his band, The Strangers, appear every few months); for the past several years, Scott has been irritating fundamentalists with videotapes of his frolics with buxom, miniskirted, er, bodyguards. "I heard a rumor that he had to get rid of most of 'em," Haggard says. "Ol' Doc found out they were actually private investigators sent to spy on him, hired by the government or somebody . . ."

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.

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."

Both Haggard and Johnny Cash are currently auditing Sony, the bitter fruit of dealing with an international corporate beast. "Sony, Epic and CBS own the masters," says Haggard, "and Sony, who owned Epic, went and bought [Nashville song publishers] Tree, so they own all my copyrights. Well, you can't get an honest report out of any of 'em, 'cause their attorneys are scratchin' each other's backs, playin' footsie under the table. So I wanted out of it.

"And now they come to me and they want me to re-record 16 songs. I asked 'em, 'Why do you want me to redo "That's the Way Love Goes"? That was a Grammy performance.' And they said, 'We lost it.' They lost several masters in some legal deal -- in between themselves. I said, 'You mean it's easier to pay me and lease the recordings from me?' I said, 'You gave me a good idea -- I'm gonna make the 16 songs, but I'm gonna keep 'em for myself.'" (These became the cornerstone for Haggard's current For the Record release -- a project finished only after a deal was struck for an accompanying pay-per-view TV special, forcing him, in typical jumbled style, to return to Palo Cedro between road dates and record more than 30 songs in 72 hours.)

Ultimately, wayward business dealings have led Haggard to a shocking loss -- giving up a huge chunk of his song catalog. It's a veritable mother-lode-in-perpetuity of publishing and performance money (his "Today I Started Loving You Again," for instance, has been recorded by 400 artists), but by the early '90s, after four marriages' worth of settlements and alimony, on top of a large collection of antique automobiles, his short-lived Silverthorn resort and nightclub, and various properties and construction costs from Shasta to Bakersfield, Haggard was $5 million in debt. The catalog deal, with Sony Tree paying a very substantial up-front sum, was essentially a bankruptcy bailout (Haggard filed Chapter 11 in 1993).

He's not thrilled with the way it has all played out. "I've been very bitter, and there've been times I've been on the brink of closing down and walkin' away, disappearin' into the woods," he says. "But you can always quit. I'm 62, people still like my music, I've still got friends . . . and I've still got enemies, so I think we should continue to try and do something, because it's gonna be over before you know it anyway. And I'm writing good songs. I got a stack of stuff this high up at the house that'll probably never be recorded."

The prospect is at once tragic and intriguing. At his peak, every successive Haggard album seemed to take fresh new turns, and found him journeying into wild territory, while looking back to his predecessors; his Bob Wills tribute album and re-formation of Wills' surviving Texas Playboys (amazingly, this involved teaching himself to play the fiddle in six months) ã was one of the great homages in country history. He's worked overtime to keep the music of Jimmie Rodgers alive, and has displayed a tendency to co-write songs when his collaborator was most in need of a boost.  

Haggard has also made outsmarting others' expectations a major element in his life. At about the same time that Johnny Cash began to deliberately court the disaffected hippie-folk crowd, Haggard went the other direction with equal success. His biggest hit, "Okie From Muskogee," the flag-waving redneck anthem of 1969, was, of course, a gag, and he wanted to follow it up with "Irma Jackson," an interracial love story blasting intolerance. Capitol refused to release it.

THROUGH THE YEARS, HAGGARD'S psychology, along with the timbre of his voice, has significantly deepened. He began probing intensely personal zones with his 1979 Serving 190 Proof midlife-crisis album, and by the mid-'80s, many of his songs were fraught with an air of depression that reached dirgelike extremes. When 1990's Blue Jungle, his first Curb album, hit the bins, Haggard was clawing at the lock on his cage with venomous, self-castigating rage ("Sometimes I hate myself and wish I could scream . . . there's a curse on my heart . . . I'll never love again"). For all the broad scope of his art, he's also a man with a shocking record of strife involving those closest to him, invariably brought on by that relentless need for control. He brawled bare-knuckled with his late mentor, Lewis Tally, on streets from Bakersfield to Belfast; when he and singer Bonnie Owens decided to marry in 1965, Haggard telephoned guiding light Fuzzy Owen -- it was a ghastly sucker punch for the Bonnie-smitten Fuzzy ("How could you do this?" the distraught Owen cried. "You know I've loved her for years!").

As important (and forgiving) as Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Tally were in Haggard's life, it was another, Wynn Stewart, without whom he might never have gotten off the ground. Stewart gave Haggard not only his first professional job, but also his first hit, "Sing a Sad Song" in 1963.

"Wynn's sound was what influenced Buck and me both," Haggard says, "and in a strange twist of fate, his band was the heart of the old Frizzell band -- Roy Nichols was part of the Lefty band, and he went to Wynn Stewart and ran into Ralph Mooney, who played the steel, and they were the basis of the modern West Coast sound."

When Haggard first made his mark with Tally Records, it was during a turning point for country music. The hillbilly corn of the 1940s and '50s had little context in the jet age; Nashville reacted by pouring sweet string syrup over the same themes and messages. But there were a handful of renegade stylists actively mapping out new territory, and introducing subtle but deeply influential new approaches. The distinction of being a modern country artist is important to Haggard, and important when one attempts to begin to understand the man's complex inner workings. That modern upshift was easily the idiom's single greatest artistic leap, and Merle Haggard became the most creative and successful practitioner in its development. But it's equally important to remember that the nightclub culture that produced Haggard, Owens and Stewart was wide-open, as much pop and rock & roll as it was hillbilly -- a tradition reflected by Haggard's numerous inclusions of pop and show tunes on his albums ("It's All in the Game," "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"), and Owens frequently throwing "The Macarena" and "Play That Funky Music White Boy" into his current stage show.

Haggard, who has graced the cover of jazz bible Downbeat, seems weary of being labeled as anything at all. After all, he'd invented an artistic persona, a sort of hillbilly Frankenstein: "I thought, 'You know what I'll do? I'll take a little bit of Lefty, a little bit of Elvis, a little Wynn Stewart, a little bit of Ernest Tubb and the other influences I had -- Jimmie Rodgers, Chuck Berry, Grady Martin and Roy Nichols, Bob Wills -- and just be honest with it, try to make somethin' out of what I was. Well, it worked. It was a new pie.

"It really wasn't part of the Nashville sound. It came from Texas and all over the West. I thought, if I combine all that, maybe I can come up with something sustaining. And it started happening, even as early as when Wynn was kind enough to give me 'Sing a Sad Song' and it went into the charts. And from that day, from 1962 until 1991, we were never absent from Billboard, Cashbox, Record World -- we were never out of the charts for almost 30 years."

Those days are behind him now. Haggard settles deeper into a chair behind the studio board, tugs the brim of his ball cap down low: "The music is a way of takin' it out of them. You can cuss 'em out in the song, or you can just lump it and say nothin'. I've been fortunate enough to take out my political and personal convictions on the public in a song, and it's sure bound to release some tension. It's a great feeling, it's something wild, being a writer. It's a body of work, and you keep tryin' ã to kick that same height on the wall. Because you know where your best is at, more than any of the people around you, and you know how hard it was to get to that."  

It's been a remarkably circuitous route, marked by a tendency toward self-imposed burdens; by the early '80s, Haggard's band, the Strangers, was dazzling, a hillbilly jazz orchestra featuring not only Nichols, but former Texas Playboys Eldon Shamblin, Jimmy Belken and Tiny Moore, players who exuded an epic magic that no other country band since has been able to approach. But Haggard managed to screw even that up -- the angry departure of Nichols and the firing of Moore coincided roughly with an ugly, litigious falling-out between Haggard and his longtime friend and business associate Tex Whitson; Haggard even temporarily fired Bonnie Owens last year.

Haggard is an odd one, with his own unique sense of logic; once, a pair of young pickers recounted the troubles amphetamines had caused them, telling Haggard they were quitting for good. "Bullshit!" he snapped. "What if you had to drive to Alaska -- right now?" But he's sharp -- any particular date, any subject's age, Haggard's got the correct answer, which, in the road-weary, pill-happy upper echelons of country music, is a rare quality. None of this is downplayed; at a recent Southern California appearance, he playfully crooned, "Since I was a little kid/everything I did/I did on marijuana."

"I think the '90s is a modern, technical version of the '70s with the freedom extracted out of it," he says. Or, veering wildly, "They're reportin' high-altitude airplanes with contrails -- they're sprayin' us with somethin', and people are comin' down with these terrible respiratory problems. I seen 'em myself, and I'm thinking, 'Damn! Could it be that they're tryin' to exterminate us?' I've got an office in Arizona, and they're bringing into our National Guard people from the United Nations Guard -- they're comin' into Arizona by the thousands, and as to what they're expecting over there, I don't know. The most disturbing thing I've read is, when you sign on as a serviceman in the United States, the last thing you agree to do is gun down your own people if necessary. So there's some serious things happening . . ."

One moment he seems backed into a corner, the next he's perfectly at ease, and precisely where he wants to be. Haggard doesn't have to prove anything, yet he seems as desirous of recognition as ever. One reason he refuses to sign a long-term deal with any company is because he knows they won't provide the full-bore promo push an artist such as Haggard expects. "He wants to be able to walk into Kmart and see a bigger-than-life statue of himself alongside his latest album," Brumley says, "and that's exactly what should be happening."

IN THE STUDIO, CONVERSATION between Haggard, Brumley and engineer Lou Bradley always swings back, like a compass point, to a handful of subjects and country personalities. There's talk of Lefty, it flows to Wynn Stewart, and it ripples gleefully to ribald slap-bass renegade Fred Maddox. Haggard sends Bradley to dig up the tape of a recording Maddox made at Shadetree Manor one day. En route to sister Rose's home, Maddox had telephoned out of the blue: "Merle? You got a studio out there, don'tcha? I'm gonna come over and cut this song." Bradley cues the tape. It's "Give Me Back My Fifteen Cents (and I'll Go Home to Mommy)," a typically strange Maddox statement on love and marriage framed as a novelty romp. Maddox's nasal drawl floods the studio, singing about a pretty little girl, tying the fatal knot, playing the devil. Haggard is beaming, then roaring with laughter, clapping his hands, stomping his feet. Maddox's is a voice from beyond the grave.

Talk shifts to another key Haggard ally, the great songwriter Tommy Collins, who's been fighting emphysema. Haggard happily announces that when he recently telephoned Collins, "he sounded like a kid again -- got a new woman, says he's crazy about her." The temporal aspects of life suddenly loom; out of the blue, Haggard launches into "The Four Dogs," an unrecorded Collins song. Told from the viewpoint of a mountain hermit, it's part religious allegory, part secular introspection. The four dogs -- Love, Hope, Faith and Pure Hell -- lead their master on a surreal journey, leaping over a steep precipice and landing, unharmed, in Paradise, where, of course, things sour. Haggard bids engineer Bradley to dig out the demo Haggard made of it 15 years ago, delivered in a weird brogue. The four-minute recitation winds to a close -- it turns out that Love and Pure Hell are twins, and then the tape segues into a stunning Haggard original, "Love and Hell" (". . . are never far apart").  

Haggard is soaking it up, lost in the rich, haunted wordplay -- the essence, in effect, of his life and career. "Ain't that the truth, though?" Brumley muses. "They really are twins, and it can go either way in an instant -- it's just which choice you make."

"That's absolutely right," Haggard says. "That's it . . ."

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