When Merle Haggard and his nine-person band, the Strangers, travel across the country to sing and play their complex, loose-shackled, intensely durable brand of country music, they do so in two handsome, high-ceilinged, custom touring buses. The Strangers’ bus has three sets of triple-decker bunks, a living room and bathroom at its back, a sitting room in front, and such extras as a trash compactor, an automatic coffeemaker, a microwave oven, a refrigerator, a cassette player, a television set, and a VCR. Merle’s bus has a compact master bedroom, and bunk beds for Steve Van Stralen, Merle’s aidede-camp, and Dean Holloway, Merle’s boyhood buddy, who generally share driving duties. It has a larger kitchen than the Strangers’ bus has, an extra bathroom, a thicker carpet, and seventy-two episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show,” whose whistling theme is part of the bus’s ambient sound. Both vehicles have tinted front windows and silvery windowless sides. The sides of the Strangers’ bus are emblazoned with a Santa Fe Railway logo and the words “The Chief”; Merle’s bus, with the same logo, reads “Super Chief.”
Parked, the Chief is usually bustling, its door continually swung open and shut by a Stranger off to give a concert guest pass to a friend or an autograph to a fan, to check into or out of a motel room, to get a pack of cigarettes or a frozen burrito at a convenience store during a fuel stop, or just to stretch after yet another leg of the endless drive that is the most time-consuming and exhausting aspect of a modern itinerant musician’s life. Merle’s bus, on the other hand, is usually quiet, even forbidding—its door closed, its tinted windows like drawn blinds.
In Hampton, Virginia, at five o’clock one drizzly, cool January morning, Theresa Lane, Merle’s girlfriend (no one addresses Merle as Mr. Haggard, though his friends often refer to him as Hag), summoned me by phone to Merle’s bus. As I walked across the parking lot of the Coliseum Sheraton a half hour later, the Strangers’ bus was the silent, dark one. Merle’s emitted a dim golden glow and rumbled on high idle. Theresa, a tall, slim, attractive woman in her late twenties, with tousled blond hair and muscular arms and shoulders, met me at the door and escorted me through the living room and down the narrow hallway, past a framed photograph of Hank Williams and another of Dolly Parton, into the kitchen, where Merle sat on the floor, his eyes closed and his bare legs stretched straight out under a small table. Naked except for a plaid flannel shirt and après-ski boots, he greeted me with a slight nod. I took a seat at the table, summoning faith in what one of the Strangers had told me months earlier at a Merle Haggard-Willie Nelson concert in Las Vegas—“Don’t knock on his door if he don’t tell you to. Don’t not knock on his door if he does tell you to”—and Theresa stood behind Merle to knead his shoulders, now and again pulling his head up hard, until his neck was stretched taut.
“Goddam, my head feels like it oughta be lifted right outa my skull,” Merle said. He reached for a pack of unfiltered cigarettes and a lighter on the table, where several packs were scattered among cigarette papers, sheets and scraps of notebook paper, cassette tapes, and empty cassette cases. On the counter were a few dirty dishes, glasses, and some silverware.
I asked Merle how they were biting back at Lake Shasta, near his home in Northern California. He has a houseboat there, and has sponsored several bass-fishing tournaments in recent years.
“I’ve hardly fished this last year or so,” he said, in a deep, barely audible monotone. “I been spending my time teaching her”—he motioned toward Theresa—“songwriting.”
I asked about the fortunes of the band’s softball team.
“We hardly play one game a year. The insurance company says there’s a lot of talent out there ready to break a leg.”
I asked to see some of his poems, which he had read on a recent television special. He thought Bonnie Owens, his backup vocal, longtime singing partner, and ex-wife (he has three, and is currently married to Debora Parret, who was in California at the time), had them at her house, near Lake Tahoe.
I asked about the plot of his unfinished novel, “The Sins of John Tom Mullen.”
“It’s about a teenager falsely accused of rape. They find out the rich boy in town done it, and they trace him by his tire tracks. I haven’t touched it in maybe fifteen years.”
I asked if he wanted me to come back later.
He looked up, as if surprised, and his voice rose slightly. “No, no, ask away.” He turned to Theresa. “That’s a lot better, baby,” he said. “You want to make us some breakfast?”
Theresa nodded and took two short steps to the refrigerator. She was shoeless and wore a man’s long-sleeved white shirt and gartered black stockings. Merle folded his legs under him slowly, groaned, pushed himself to his feet like a stove-up yogi coming out of a trance, and walked down the hallway. He returned wearing gray sweatpants and slid into a narrow banquette behind the table. The room, snug as a ship’s cabin, grew hazy with smoke from frying potatoes and Merle’s cigarettes. The hum of an exhaust fan harmonized with the drone of the idling bus.
Merle coughed a deep, rasping cough—and looked at the cigarette in his hand. “I liked these things before I even started smoking,” he said. He speaks in a thick, nasal Southwestern drawl-twang, dropping most of his final “g”s, and turning “think” into “thank” and “thank” into “think.” The trip to put on his pants had seemed to wake him up. “But I believe myself and a lot of people will live to be a hundred years old. My blood pressure is one hundred eighteen over seventy-eight. I got the cholesterol of a twenty-one-year-old, and I can still run a hundred-yard dash and beat most people. I know that because last summer it was one hundred fifteen degrees, and I bought two ice creams and sprinted with ‘em back from the store to the grandkids. That was—oh, eighty, a hundred yards, and I didn’t even have to open my mouth to get air. My grandfather entered an old man’s race—you had to be a fifty or older to enter—and he waxed their ass. That’s when he was seventy-four.”
Merle began laughing at the thought. His laugh is a series of gravelly barks—HA HA HAAAA HA HA—at once aggressive, lascivious, demonic, and gleeful. It is also exaggerated and oddly phonetic, as if issuing from an extraterrestrial who had learned to laugh by reading a book about earthlings.
“Flat-out waxed their ass!” he repeated. “Now, as far as my body development, I’m two different people. My right side is more developed than my left side. That’s an occupational hazard. My chiropractor said to me, ‘You look like you had a hard life. Like you lifted lots.’ Well, no, but I have played the fiddle some. HA HAAA HA HA! Hell, if a fella could get good dope anymore, he’d learn to play the fiddle left-handed and build up the other one-half of his body.”
Despite Merle’s self-proclaimed robust health, he neither looks nor acts at all like a well man. Every time I spoke with him—over the course of nine months and many miles of highway (he plays from eighty to a hundred dates a year)—he allowed as how he was laboring under some kind of ailment, either chronic or acute. Often it was “just a cold” or “a damn cough.” In Atlanta, it was “near-pneumonia,” and “business agents and lawyers”; at home in Northern California, it was his back, a stuffed head, a cough, and swollen eyes. At a recording session in Nashville, he was racked by a thrashing, expectorant cough (perhaps not unusual in one who has smoked heavily for four decades), which tended to immobilize him between takes.
Merle’s body seems an uncomfortable one in which to live. He is smallframed—five feet nine and a hundred and sixty-five pounds—but he has a wide trunk, which he tends to draw up, like a cat fluffing for combat. His spine bells noticeably. His walk—which eats ground, to be sure—is eccentrically animated: he keeps his upper body stiff and backward-leaning, but it tends to roll, sailor fashion, and as he swings his arms and bends his legs the effect is of an almost fluid lurch, as if he were forever taking his first step off an escalator.
The last twenty years or so have not been kind to Merle’s face. As a young man, he was disturbingly, lock-up-your-daughters handsome, with high cheekbones, dusty-blue eyes, and a forest of wavy auburn hair, which he wore in a dramatic pompadour. In photographs, his mouth was usually twisted in mischievous and arrogant self-amusement. Even today, onstage, when the spotlights are red, blue, yellow, or orange, his face is a portrait of high-plains-drifter nobility. When the spots are white, though—or at dawn in Virginia—he tends toward the gaunt, the spectral. His hair—stiff and lustre-less but still auburn—has thinned considerably, and his forehead has rolled back to meld with a receding hairline. His face is a field of striations, less creased than canyoned. Deep lines run across his forehead and under his eyes. Two ledges run from his wide nose down his cheeks, where they intersect his reddish-gray beard and broaden his lower face. “Now, if you had a face like that,” his sister, Lillian Rea, reports Merle as saying, “you’d grow a beard to cover it up, wouldn’t you?” Lillian has suggested to Merle that he get a face-lift, a proposal she says he is considering. In the dim kitchen, his face hung limp and pale; his eyes were dull and heavily lidded, barely visible beneath thick, ridged brows. As we spoke, he roused himself, stood, and waved his arms, and his voice began bouncing with glee as he launched a story.
“Me and Willie Nelson was working at Harrah’s one time, and security called us from downstairs. We were up in that celebrity suite. They called and said, ‘There’s a guy here says he knows you guys. Says his name is So-and-So.’ I go, ‘What does he look like?’ They say, ‘He’s a scroungy-lookin’ son of a bitch.’ I said, ‘I know lots of scroungy-lookin’ sons of bitches.’ They say, ‘Well, he’s dressed like a cowboy, with a big goddam hat, and he seems pretty excited. He won’t stop talkin’, and he’s taken that hat on and off about sixty times in the last thirty seconds.’ ‘Well, hell,’ I say, ‘that has to be old So-and So.’ So he comes up and walks into the room and turns around about ten times, like this.” Merle stood up quickly and spun on his heels, like a child trying to make himself dizzy, his arms flailing. “He turns around and says, ‘Man, I been up for twenty-three days.’ And Willie says— Willie talks real slow, like this.” Merle’s voice got low and cracking-slow. “Willie goes, ‘Why?’ Well, that stopped the guy cold. ‘Man, I don’t know. Now that you ask me, I Just don’t know.’”
Merle began laughing with such alarming force that I was afraid he would choke. “’Why?’” he repeated. “‘I don’t know, man. I just don’t know.’”
He returned to his seat and slumped into stunned silence, staring at Theresa and beyond, as if the tale had never been told. Merle stares a lot; onstage, where he almost never talks between songs, he can seem oblivious of the audience. He will work the strings of his guitar with his eyes boring between the frets, or he will put his head back and bore into the ceiling. If you happen to be in direct line of sight, at close hand, a Merle Haggard stare can be one of excruciating ferocity.
That night, Merle and the Strangers had done a show in front of a sellout crowd at the Hampton Coliseum. It was the second show—the first had been in Savannah, Georgia, the night before—of a short road trip that had begun with a three-day drive from California. Before the show, a trio of burly young men from Morehead City, North Carolina (they referred to each other as Bubba), in their own words, “went out and drank ourselves some whiskey,” and returned intending to catch the last few numbers of Randy Travis, a lanky singer who had lately emerged as a country-music superstar, and with whom Merle was billed, before settling in for Merle’s show. The trouble was that Merle, the one they had come all that way to see, was already offstage, having opened for Travis, who was the headliner. Their howls of dismay were plaintive and unavoidable—especially if you happened to be sitting in the Strangers’ bus after the show, when one of the Bubbas barged in to express, briefly, his outrage, or in the Coliseum Sheraton’s bar, where all three continued to vent their fumy opinions until closing time.
I asked Merle if he agreed with the trio’s assessment that “no way in hell, on earth or anywheres else should Merle Haggard open for anyone.”
“Now, those boys you’re talking about,” Merle said, after a moment of deep frowning, “I ran into ‘em after the show, talked to ‘em some. First of all, sometimes, fans—It’s—They can expect too much. I mean, walkin’ right into a bus, or askin’ to walk in. Would you do it with someone’s home? That’s what these buses are, you know. It’s an unconscious deal, for the most part. It’s innocent. But it can get hard to take after all these years.
His tone took an abrupt turn toward the harsh. “I give ‘em my music, that’s what matters. Like my brother Lowell said once to some fans who thought I was bein’ unfriendly, ‘You buy your ticket to hear him talk or sing?’ Over that, I maybe owe them a smile and a thank-you. Not much more than that, but I do owe them that. It’s tough bein’, uh, accommodating.” (“Merle likes to play when people are dancing,” Norman Hamlet, the Strangers’ bandleader and steel-guitar player, told me. “When people are dancing, he figures, they’re listening to the music, not sittin’ there watching him. ‘What are they staring at?’ is what he says. He don’t want to talk, he wants his music to make the comments.”)
“I imagine I’m in a situation much like bein’ President of the United States,” Merle continued. “He’s got to do it whether he wants to or not. I’ve got to do it whether I want to or not. I realized that early in my life. That you’ve got to do that, or you won’t make it to the other end of the country and back. Now, sure, it is a compliment that they think I shouldn’t be opening for Randy Travis, but Savannah, and tonight, and tomorrow, and where else I don’t know down the line—these are Marlboro shows. They’re co-sponsoring ‘em, and it’s me and Randy Travis. I admire Randy. I know he idolizes me. When I was coming up in this business, I admired Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams and Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers. Down the line, someone’s gonna idolize Randy Travis. A lot already do. The other night, Randy give me a guitar I admired. Me and Randy get along fine. I go on up there and do my show, and then he does his. These goddam people that are around us—I’m not talking about the fans, see, but other people, people in the business, people that have a stake—they do this. They’ll throw Haggard in his face, and they’ll throw him in my face. ‘Look what Haggard done!’ they’ll say”—Merle’s voice got high and pinched and whiny—”‘Look what Travis done!’ Somewheres along the line, they’ve made a competitive sport—a Leonard-Hagler type deal—out of makin’ music. Way I deal with it—with a lot of things—is to pay no attention to it. Or on other deals, with record companies—or other things at home, personal stuff—I listen to both sides and forget it. I just kind of side in with whoever I’m with on things. Call it two-faced, or whatever, but if you show your true face every time, you’re in trouble, you know? People cause me to project a different personality, and the effect of their personality on me causes me to halter somewhat. I’ve tried to have a personality that goes along with the saying ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ You go down there to Rome and act like a gung-ho Texan, and some Italian might walk up and whip your ass.”
Theresa brought Merle a substantial breakfast—eggs over easy, hash browns with onions, toast, and coffee. Merle smoked as he talked and ate, and decided he needed some more toast.
At both Savannah and Hampton, Merle had not played “You Babe,” his then current chart single, despite several requests from the crowd. (Crowd requests are a bane of Merle’s stage existence. In Atlanta, while he was fiddling madly on the Western-swing tune “A Maiden’s Prayer,” a large, drunken fan standing inches from the stage shoved a guitar pick in Merle’s face and bellowed, “Sing ‘Okie,’ Merle! Sing ‘Okie!’”)
I mentioned reading a recent complaint by Hazel Smith, a chirpy, generally benevolent gossip columnist in Country Music, that Merle sang what he wanted to sing, instead of his hits.
“Where’s that at she’s talkin’ about? Which show?”
“Nashville, last October.”
“She’s got her opinion,” Merle said after a forkful of eggs and potatoes. “And she’s right. I play what I want. I own that goddam stage while I’m up there. But these last two shows—and I know that isn’t what she was talkin’ about, but, as an example—we were three musicians short: Clint Strong, the lead guitar, and Gary Church and Don Markham, my whole brass section. ‘You Babe’ needs horns. Man! We’re up there tonight, and I’m playin’ all the lead—all the goddam guitar. That’s some damn work. I turned around and asked Bonnie, ‘How long we been here?’ and she said, ‘Twenty-five minutes.’ I said, ‘Jeeesus Christ!’ I thought we’d been there about an eternity. You lay your career on the line almost every night. If you’re a fantastic success, the audience loves you. But say something happens, and the audience notices. Well, you don’t have to worry about calling ‘Entertainment Tonight’—they’re right there, believe me. Whooo! Whooo!”
He lit another cigarette. “One time, though, I did a bad show on purpose. Roy Nichols was playin’ lead then, and thought he was playin’ real bad. Like a little funny guy. So I started singin’ real bad. Like a little funny guy. And the worse I got, the worse Roy got. We finished the show and got an ovation. The crowd didn’t know the goddam difference. I won’t say where this show was, but it wasn’t a place that has crowds with the highest appreciation. I know my audiences in California wouldn’t stand for that. Anyway, I was really pissed off. After the show, Roy said, ‘Boy, Merle was really pissed off at ol’ Fuzzy, wasn’t he?’ He was talkin’ about Fuzzy Owen, my manager. Well, Norm Hamlet, my steel player, he said, ‘Roy, you ever consider Merle was mad at you!’ Roy thought about it for a while and came over to me and said, ‘You mad at me?’ I said, ‘Hell, yes!’ He asked why, and I told him, and he started laughing. ‘I thought you was mad at Fuzzy. I was trying to help you.’ HA HA HAAAA HA HA HA!”
Theresa put two slices of buttered toast in front of Merle. He asked her for some Karo syrup and poured a third of the bottle on the toast, which he began cutting up with a fork.
“Now, you got the same type deal with ‘Under the Bridge,’ which looks like it’s gonna be the title cut of the new album. We weren’t at full strength up there tonight, so we didn’t play it. With ‘Under the Bridge’—now, that’s about the homeless, a homeless man. I’ve made a big effort to try and capture some of the same, uh, meat that caused Jimmie Rodgers to be a success, with an up-tempo blues that gives the man who’s under the bridge, or the man who knows someone under the bridge, or who visualizes himself possibly going under the bridge, or is not too far away from their own reality, so that man could have some sort a … a … a …”
“An uplift?” Theresa said.
“Yeah, an uplift. You know, so he sees there’s someone out there who believes in him. That’s what Jimmie Rodgers did. People are the same basically now as they were then, during the Depression, when it comes to emotion and compassion and things of that nature.”
Merle had begun speaking rapidly, forcefully, his voice bopping. “I don’t know how this show sounded. My production manager makes a tape of each show for me, and I haven’t listened to this one yet. But I know that Savannah was more panicky. Panicky. But I don’t have to listen to know that the shows’ll keep getting less frantic as nights go on.” (The next day, Merle told Bobby Wayne, his rhythm guitarist, that he felt the Hampton show hade been a success: “I pretty much thought they enjoyed us, but I knew it for sure when they started throwin’ their newborn babies at us. That generally is a good sign.”)
He took a bead on my eyes with his laser stare. “I’ve never known of any singer with a quality voice to last past sixty years old. I’ll be fifty-two in April. I know it’s gotta be over before long. I’m enjoyin’ my last few years. Even a crooner like Crosby who I admired—You can tell the difference, is what I’m sayin’. I can already notice the difference in my singin’. It catches up with you. I used to be able to come in half lit, worryin’ about something else—where I’m goin’ after the show is over, something—and give it about twenty per cent of my concentration, and walk away with a standing ovation. I don’t—I cain’t—do one like that anymore. I gotta be careful of slip and fall.
“Here’s what I’m sayin’: the energy we put into the Savannah show wasn’t necessary. The show tonight came out better. I tell you one thing: by the fourth night out, we’ll get so goddam smooth that if I don’t fuck things up a little on purpose everyone in the audience’ll feel cheated, like they haven’t seen a live show.
“My band is a lot of individual artists. Some of those boys have been with me as long as I have. I picked every one of ‘em, and they’re each different as hell—like that pair of twins somewheres, one of ‘em’s identical, the other one don’t look like anyone at all. HA! Oh, I make ‘em work up there. See, I don’t know what I’m gonna sing beforehand. I’ll grab a song right up there onstage, right out of the air, and I’ll turn around and tell ‘em what we’re gonna do, and they gotta arrange that son of a bitch in about three seconds. And they’ll do great! Goddam! I’ve had reviews where they say, you know, ‘The only thing wrong with the Haggard show is that it’s too well rehearsed.’ HA! Well, this is the only ad-lib show in the goddam business. I’m real proud of my band. They’re tough, man. They’re tough! Like the Harlem Globetrotters. BAM! BAM! BAM!
“We have to be in shape to play. Musicians are just like athletes. You cannot do what we do if you are not in shape. I’ve been up there out of shape, and, boy, it’s a scary situation. You better damn well know what you are doing in the business there to pull it off at all. There are gung-ho genius listeners out there. You got to feel the song. That’s important. Everything would be an empty message if a person weren’t gifted with the ability to understand and feel what we’re talkin’ about. There is not really any word in the dictionary to describe this, except ‘musical communication.’ It’s some sort of invisible connection. It’s like someone plugs in everybody in the room, and they have all got the same headset on. It’s unanimous. It’s realism we’re talkin’ about—the chops to climb on the stage and hump down.”
Before the sweeping demographic shifts that followed the Second World War, country music was a popular phenomenon primarily in the Southeast and the Southwest—and, to some extent, in California, because of Depression-era migrations. Occasionally, a country song would leap those boundaries and find acceptance across America—“You Are My Sunshine,” which was first recorded in 1939; Bing Crosby’s version of Bob Wills’ “San Antonio Rose”—but, in general, country music had such a limited, regional audience that until 1944, when Billboard added a “Folk Songs” chart to its pages (the “Country and Western” chart didn’t appear in Billboard until 1949), country records were designated “Hillbilly” music and listed along with the records in another Billboard category, “Race” music.
Today, country music is thoroughly national; there are over two thousand country-music-only radio stations, scattered from Miami to Tacoma. Their listeners make up more than ten per cent of the nation's radio audience, and in 1988 country music accounted for roughly seven per cent of the six and a quarter billion dollars spent on records, tapes, and CDs in the United States. Prominence, however, has not come without basic changes in the sound—if not the rural, working-class substance—of much of country music. By the early nineteen-fifties, many of its traditional forms—Western swing, "cowboy" songs, string bands (a predecessor of bluegrass), gospel, and boogie—had begun to recede from the mainstream to rivulet status. Honky-tonk, a relatively new sort of sound, dominated the postwar country-music playlists, led by a handful of singers—Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Little Jimmy Dickens, and the towering Hank Williams—who competed with emerging crooner types, such as Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves. This low-running, hard-hitting, raw, electrified music, with its lyrics about lust, guilt, homesickness, and the uncontrollable urge to roam, found its perfect milieu in the bars and roadhouses that serve beer, straight-up whiskey, and loud jukebox music to a blue-collar clientele. Bill C. Malone, in his authoritative "Country Music, U.S.A.," suggests that the thematic backbone of a lot of prewar country music—as he puts it, "songs about 'Poor Old Mother at Home' and 'The Old Country Church'"—was not at all appropriate in the new, less innocent world of returned veterans, shifting morals, and rural populations uprooted to manufacturing centers in the Midwest, the Northeast, and California.
With the emergence of rock and roll came a mass defection of listeners, and Nashville, having established itself as a center of country–music songwriting, publishing, and recording, reacted by embracing a more accessible sound—referred to variously as "countrypolitan" music and "the politan" music and "the Nashville sound"—which deemphasized the fiddle and the steel guitar in favor of songs laced with lush orchestration and celestial-choir choruses. Countrypolitan took hold between 1957 and 1962, and mainstream country music has, for better or worse, never returned to anything approaching the twangy homeliness of its former self. Instead, it has flowed rather steadily toward an ever more regionless, accentless, slick amiability. Patrick Carr, in Country Music, has summarized Nashville's post-rock musical predilections as an "adherence to whatever style seemed to offer the maximum dollar return in the immediate short term."
Of late, the genre's publicists, both official and unofficial, have been making much of a collection of musicians they call "the new traditionalists" (without making clear exactly which tradition has been resurrected), such as Ricky Van Shelton, Randy Travis, George Strait, and Ricky Skaggs. These performers do indeed specialize in songs with pungent, forthright lyrics—one of Strait's hits is the wry "All My Ex's Live in Texas"—and a relatively unadorned instrumentation, stripped down to bass, lead, rhythm, and steel guitars, drums, fiddle, and perhaps a keyboard. But the trend of much country music today, new traditionalists aside, is toward lightness and increasingly upbeat rehashings by artists considered "country" of oncepopular songs that have little or nothing to do with the old beer-joint-and-working-class orientation. Recent hits on the country charts, for example, include a cover of the Beatles’ “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” by Johnny Cash’s daughter, Rosanne, and of the Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown," by Reba McEntire.
In 1962, when Merle was twenty-five and had spent a couple of years playing at a variety of clubs in California’s Central Valley, he cut two songs—“Singin’ My Heart Out” and “Skid Row”—for Tally Records, a tiny Bakersfield company run by Fuzzy Owen, who today is Merle’s personal manager, and Fuzzy’s cousin, Lewis Talley. The “A” side was a lachrymose thing overpowered by a female chorus; the “B” side was livelier, with sharp, twanged guitar breaks. Though both fitted well into the still viable honky-tonk tradition, neither one went anywhere. The next year, also for Tally, Merle recorded “Sing a Sad Song,” written by the late Wynn Stewart, a country artist whose hard-edged, loud, harsher-than-Nashville music was known as the California, or Bakersfield, sound. “Sad Song” reached Billboard country chart and stayed there for three weeks, peaking at No. 19. Merle finally entered Billboard’s country Top Ten in 1965, with the cynical “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” written by Liz Anderson and a year later he had his first No. 1 hit (again, according to the Billboard chart), with Liz and Casey Anderson’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” a song he still includes in many of his shows.
“Strangers,” his first album, appeared in 1965. Sixty-six feature albums have followed. If one adds to these the dozens of repackagings, reissues, compilations, and promotional albums (such as "Christmas Greetings from Nashville" and "The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music"), and the movie soundtracks ("Killers Three," "Bronco Billy," "Convoy," "The Legend of the Lone Ranger"), and albums on which he has played or sung duets (with country stars such as Willie Nelson, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Paycheck, Floyd Tillman, Bob Wills, and Ernest Tubb, and with singers and nonsingers as diverse as Ray Charles, Dean Martin, and Clint Eastwood), the number of albums rises to something over a hundred and twenty.
Merle has been on Billboard’s charts very nearly without interruption since 1963. He has had at least one Top Ten single each year for twenty-four years. He has released a total of five hundred and seventy-four songs, and thirty-eight of them have become No. 1. That is more No. 1 country songs than have been recorded by Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Dolly Parton, Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Anne Murray, Ronnie Milsap, Emmylou Harris, Mel Tillis, or Hank Williams Jr. It is more than Hank Williams, Sr., Johnny Cash, and Glen Campbell combined. It is more than Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker, and Barbara Mandrell combined. He has recorded, in fact, more No. 1 songs than any other country artist except (surprisingly) Conway Twitty, and more Top Ten songs than any other country artist except (less surprisingly) George Jones and Eddy Arnold. Two hundred and twenty-five of his released songs were written or co-written by him, and one of them—“Today I Started Loving You Again”—has been recorded by nearly four hundred other artists. He is also an accomplished instrumentalist, playing a to-be-reckoned-with lead guitar and an excellent, though not for the ages, fiddle. He is thus a relatively rare phenomenon in the country-music world, where, more often than not, singers don’t write well, writers don’t sing well, and singer-writers don’t play well. The average country singer is a stylist, whose strength is in interpreting the work of a stable of salaried songwriters, and whose guitar (strummed rather than picked) is little more than a prop, a place to put one’s hands while singing.
Many of Merle’s songs might well serve as definitions of booze-fuelled honky-tonk, though he is not a drinker and hasn’t been for some thirty years: “Swinging Doors” (“I’ve got swinging doors, a jukebox, and a barstool, And my new home has a flashing neon sign. Stop by and see me anytime you want to, ‘Cause I’m always here at home till closin’ time”); “I threw Away the Rose” (“I’m payin’ for the days of wine and roses, A victim of the drunken life I chose. Now all my social friends look down their noses, ‘Cause I kept the wine and threw away the rose”); “It’s been a Great Afternoon” (“Last night we had a hell-raisin’ time, Nippin’ on tequila and suckin’ on the vine”); and the blunt, self-mocking “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (“Hey, listen close and you can hear, That loud jukebox playin’ in my ear. Ain’t no woman gon’ change the way I think. Think I’ll just stay here and drink”).
Merle has edged away from what could have been a musical sinkhole to explore a wide topography of music. Besides scores of ballads and love songs, he has written overtly political songs, such as “Amber Waves of Grain,” “Jesus, Take a Hold,” “1929,” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (“If you don’t love it, leave it. Let this song that I’m singin’ be a warning. When you’re runnin’ down our country, hoss, You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me”); sociopolitical songs, such as “Irma Jackson” (about an interracial love affair), “I’m a White Boy,” “The Immigrant,” and the notorious “Okie from Muskogee”; songs that have endeared him to truck drivers and blue-collar workers in general, such as “White Line Fever,” “Movin’ On,” and “Workin’ Man Blues”; humorously upbeat songs, such as “Rainbow Stew” and the ribald “Old Man from the Mountain”; and autobiographical songs about life in post-Depression Bakersfield, life in prison, and, later, life as an about-to-be-divorced, remarried-and-happy, divorced-again (and again) entertainer.
He has recorded an album of Bob Wills’ Western swing, a double album of Jimmie Rodgers’ blues, a tribute to Elvis Presley, and a double album invoking Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. He has recorded gospel albums, an album of Dixieland blues, and one album devoted entirely to train songs. He has sung for Richard Nixon (in 1973, at the White House, on the occasion of Pat Nixon’s birthday) and for Ronald and Nancy Reagan (in 1982, at a barbecue near the Reagan ranch, outside Santa Barbara). He has performed at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, and approximately sixty thousand miles between here and the moon, courtesy of the astronaut Charles Duke, who took a tape aboard Apollo 16, in 1972.
Merle’s music is nothing if not eclectic—difficult to slot under “country,” the way the music of Van Morrison, say, is difficult to categorize as rock. “It’s real difficult to say, ‘This is country. This is pop. This is jazz,’” Mike Leech, who was then the Strangers’ bass guitarist, told me one day. “Country has more emphasis on the lyrics. It’s more narrative than pop. That’s Merle. In pop, the voice isn’t emphasized as a solo instrument so much as it’s a part of the larger sound. In country, the voice stands out. That’s Merle. Country is what you’d hear in a beer joint—what feels right there—rather than a cocktail lounge. The chord changes in country are simpler. But with Merle you go all over the place. Hell, I don’t know. What Merle does—he sets the standard. It’s Merle’s music. Others follow.” Jim Belken, who plays fiddle for the Strangers and earlier played with Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, and Ray Price, among others, including the Dallas Symphony (“I quit when I realized I didn’t want to find myself fifty years old and gettin’ cussed out by some Hungarian”), says that Merle plays good music, whatever it is. “Hell, we don’t label it,” he told me. “I mean, we don’t go into the studio and say, ‘Let’s do us a country tune, boys.’”
Merle’s music has brought him a considerable amount of creature comforts. He lives a few miles outside of Redding, a quarter of an hour’s fast drive south of Lake Shasta and about twenty-five hundred miles northwest of Nashville, in a sprawling, tile-roofed hacienda called Shade Tree Manor, with a commanding view of the Sacramento Valley to the south and, on a clear day, north and east to Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen. The house sits atop a wide knoll on seven hundred acres of pasture dotted with California oak and grazing cattle. There are man-made ponds stocked with catfish, bass, and sturgeon; a large swimming pool and an outsized cabaña; a small vineyard. There are other houses on the property; Biff Adam, Merle’s drummer, and his wife, Bette, live in one, and Dean Holloway lives in another. In a barn, gathering dust, sits a meticulously restored cream-colored 1956 Ford Thunderbird. Near the main house are one of Merle’s old touring buses, which has been converted into a mobile recording-and-video studio, and a pair of parking lots large enough to handle the dinner rush at a popular steak house.
Merle also has a recording studio attached to the house. Its entryway and hall are dominated by photographs of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Lefty Frizzell, and Lewis Talley, who was probably Merle’s closest friend, and who died of a heart attack in 1985. Framed album covers and records of platinum and gold line the walls. Between the control room and the studio proper is a double-paned sound buffer, and between the two panes of glass are a model train, a cigar butt in a yellow plastic cigar holder which Bob Wills left behind when he visited Merle several years ago, and an empty Smirnoff bottle with a ten-dollar bill attached to it by a rubber band. Lewis Talley had helped himself to the Smirnoff and left the empty and the payment the night he died. The control room, carpeted in gray, is dominated by an immaculate twenty-four-track console, on which is a plaque reading “YOUR BEER ON MY CONSOLE IS YOUR INVITATION TO LEAVE—HAG.” Another plaque, nearby on the wall reads, “WE SHALL OVER DUB—ST. GOSH 3:16.”
Accessible from the studio is Merle’s recreation room, which is dominated by a twenty-five-foot bar and, behind it, a window affording a panoramic view of the mountains to the east. The room is like an airy Western roadhouse, with a large aquarium mounted fish, and tables and chairs grouped around a Ping-Pong table and a pool table. Overhead, along the perimeter of the ceiling, runs an H.O.-gauge model train. Shade Tree Manor is a pleasant sort of masculine fantasyland, one that would seem to make dreaming easy and leaving difficult—but Merle spends half of each year on the road.
A few miles from Shade Tree Manor is a small suite of offices which serves as a mail drop and message center for Merle’s business organization. One day last spring, in the midst of the usual chaos there—stalled payments from a show in Florida; abrupt band-medical-insurance hikes; a new Cadillac for Merle that wasn’t what he thought he had ordered; a fight between Merle and Theresa; Billboard on the phone wanting information that no one had except Merle, who was holed up on his houseboat not answering the phone; both buses in the repair shop; liner notes needing Merle’s approval; a British television crew hanging fire for the third day while Merle decided whether he wanted to talk to them for a special on country music—Biff Adam got off the phone, leaned back in his chair, and looked across the room at his wife, who now and then helps run the office. Biff is a gray-haired, very large, extremely sturdy man; Merle once saw him coldcock a pesky two-hundred-pound ram on Merle’s land. (“Biff turned around and—whap!—with his bare hand. He just crossed that son of a bitch’s eyes!”) He has been a Stranger since 1970. In addition to playing the drums, he acts as a co-road manager with Norman Hamlet.
Bette Adam put out a cigarette and asked Biff if it was “those Limeys” on the phone. “Was it that woman of theirs, Biffer? Was she pushy? I think that’s awful pushy.” She breathed on one of her two 24k.-gold glue-on fingernails and polished it absentmindedly.
Gary Church, Merle’s trombone player, piped up from a corner of the room. “She isn’t a Limey, Bette. She’s from Northern Ireland. We might even be related. I got a cousin there who’s real important. He’s a tail gunner on a bread truck.” Biff laughed. Gary walked over to a skeleton that Merle had bought from his chiropractor, put a baseball cap on it, and stuck a cigarette between its teeth. “Tell ‘em to come on over and talk to this guy. ‘Here’s Merle, he’ s been feeling poorly lately.’”
“Yeah,” Biff said. “All those people want to talk about is honky-tonk. Honky-tonk, my ass. I ‘m getting goddam sick of that word. There’s more to it than that. What Merle play is country jazz that’s what it is.”
It is an unfortunate irony that Merle Haggard, probably the most musically diverse singer in country music should be inextricably linked with a casual ditty—a passably catchy tune—that shifted attention from his musicianship, which is highly articulate, to his politics, which are not.
In 1969, the story goes, Merle and the Strangers were travelling through Oklahoma when someone, seeing a highway sign, remarked, “I bet they don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” Twenty minutes later (the story continues), the boys—the actual writing credits are listed as Merle and Roy Edward Burris, the Strangers’ drummer at the time—had come up with the lyrics and melody of “Okie from Muskogee.” (In country-music annals, many, many songs are “written in twenty minutes.”) The song itself is a ballad that evokes a small-town America where “boots are still in style if a man needs footwear” and “beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen. Muskogee is a place where they “don’t make a party out of loving” and “even squares can have a ball.” Its population is defined in terms of counterculture styles and mores, and the tone is one of defensive and slightly belligerent beleaguerment:
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.
We don’t take our trips on LSD.
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street.
But we like livin’ right and bein’ free.
“Okie”‘s first public airing came at an N.C.O. Club at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to a tumultuous response. The song became a No. 1 Billboard hit, staying on the charts for four months. It was selected as the Single of the Year by both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. Merle’s price for a concert reportedly tripled—to about ten thousand dollars. (Currently, he gets a minimum of something under twenty thousand dollars.) The single sold over a quarter of a million copies, and the album it inspired sold nearly nine hundred thousand copies within a year. Audience after audience greeted Merle at his shows waving tiny American flags, and Merle found himself the center of a firestorm of political controversy, which did not abate for five or six years, and which tapped a vein of bullnecked chauvinism that is very much evident to this day.
Over the years, Merle’s explanation of the impulse behind “Okie” has varied, and his basic political orientation—an instinctive right-wing populism—has found expression as everything from stouthearted flag-waving to the maunderings of a day drinker down at the corner tavern. Merle doesn’t read much. Of reading, he said to me, “I find that it has lost its ability to keep up with the pace of knowledge that is gained by just keeping your eyes open. In this audiocommunicative world, if there is something you want to know about, there is a much quicker way of finding it out than reading it in the paper. There are a lot of books I haven’t read that I feel like I know what they are going to say before I read them better than if I did read them, by just bits and pieces I have been told by people that have read them. That is the way I have gained my knowledge.” He has also said that his heroes, in addition to his father, are Bob Wills, Joe Louis, Bing Crosby, and Franklin Roosevelt, and that “evolution is a laughing matter for anybody that’s got a rational mind.”
In 1970, Merle told a newspaper reporter that “Okie from Muskogee” started out as a joke. Later that year, he admitted that the song might have left “a bad taste” in the mouths of “a certain class of people,” and explained, “I’m thinking here of hippies—not hip-type people, but these barefooted bums walking around… But I didn’t put the record out to reprimand or anything. It’s just a song—like, y’know, I wrote something that I thought said something a lot of people would like to say…. What I don’t understand is where did they”—hippies and protesters—“all come from? … I don’t like their views on life, their filth, their visible self-disrespect, y’know? They don’t give a shit what they look like, or what they smell like.”
In 1971, he said that parts of “Okie” are “dead right,” and that he was proud to be an American and proud to be an Okie. (He is actually a native Californian, of Okie stock.) But in 1971 he also released “The Farmer’s Daughter,” a song about a man happy—because his daughter is happy—to see his daughter marrying a town boy with long hair. He also told Look that he didn’t understand why we were in Vietnam: “I think we got in for one reason and we’re stayin’ for another. I don’t agree with the war but I don’t agree with the way dissent is run either.” A couple of years later, when someone asked if it bothered him that people were by now smoking dope in Muskogee, too, he said, “No, and it didn’t bother me then, either.” (The Ann Arbor Sun, in 1974, printed an alleged Merle quote: “Son, the only place I don’t smoke it is Muskogee.”) In 1981, he told Quarter Notes magazine that “Okie” “made me appear to be a person who is a lot more narrow-minded, possibly, than I really am.”
In 1988, he seemed to throw up his hands. “It was just kind of a patriotic song that went to the top of the charts at a time when patriotism wasn’t really that popular,” he told the Birmingham Post-Herald. Later the same year, he explained, “I didn’t give a shit how long their hair was. But the fact that the ones with long hair were the ones burning the damn flag—I didn’t like it. I still don’t. See, I’ve got to go with this flag until they hang one up that’s better.” Last July, in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling that a Texas law forbidding flag-burning was unconstitutional, Merle wrote and recorded “Me and Crippled Soldiers,” a song that was unequivocally pro-Administration.
“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t written ‘Okie,’” he told me, somewhere in Florida. “Not that I’m ashamed of it. I’m not sure but what bothers me most is the people that identify with it. There is the extremity out there. I don’t know. It made people forget that I might be a much more musical artist than they give me credit for. I was indelibly stamped with this political image—this political, musical spokesman, or whatever. I had to play that song every night for eighteen years. And sometimes, out of a little bit of rebellious meanness, you know, I say I’m not going to do it. But very seldom. Your own songs become like living creatures. They are like children. They are individuals. You forgive them. God dang, you fall back in love with ‘em, you know?”
When Merle was coming up as a performer, he began to attract a following of youthful idealists, who saw him as a spokesman for the common man—a musician in the Woody Guthrie mold. This image of him was based in part on the lyrics of such quasi-autobiographical songs, as “Hungry Eyes,” “Tulare Dust,” “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” and “Workin’ Man Blues,” and in part on his blue-collar upbringing and his honest-to-God recidivist adolescence. (Johnny Cash, who many people believe spent a lot of time in prison, actually only spent a few nights behind bars—for public drunkenness and possession of some pills.) Merle has done little over the years to disavow his pinched-son-of-the-Dust-Bowl image. Lillian Rea, Merle’s sister, has a somewhat different recollection of things. She is a trim, gracious woman who lives in a small town on California’s central coast. Her version of Merle’s childhood is affectionate and matter-of-fact (she calls him her “ornery, undisciplined little brother”) and is only occasionally punctuated by a burst of frustration, disappointment, or anger.
“Merle was born in 1937,” she told me. “I was sixteen, and Lowell, my other brother, was fourteen. My parents, James and Flossie Haggard, were married in 1919 in Oklahoma, and the moved to Illinois in 1926. My father was a foreman for a steel company there. My mother became ill, and the doctors recommended a warmer, drier climate, so in 1929 we moved to California. That was in August, and the climate near Bakersfield was so hot we returned to Oklahoma two months later—eastern Oklahoma, near Checotah, and about twenty-five miles south of Muskogee—to farm, and my mother’s health improved radically. In fact, she lived to a ripe old age, and died in 1984. The farm did well, and we were hardly affected by the Dust Bowl business. In 1934, the year before we moved back to California, my father bought a brand-new Ford, with and opera window. He paid cash for it. That doesn’t sound too much like ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ does it? Oh, I get sick and tired of that stuff!”
In 1935, a fire, thought to be the work of an arsonist, burned the family’s barn to the ground, destroying the new Ford, a hay crop, and most of the farm’s equipment. James Haggard ran a service station for a few months and got the family back on its feet, but after he underwent an appendectomy he decided to try the next rebound in California. The Haggards settled in Oildale, just outside Bakersfield, not far from Flossie’s sister. James soon found work—first as the manager of a dairy, then as a carpenter for the Santa Fe Railway. Merle-inspired versions of those early days in California have Flossie milking cows to help feed the family. “Definitely not true,” Lillian said. “Then you get the born-in-a-boxcar business. A woman in Oildale had the idea of converting a boxcar into a house, and she asked Dad if he thought it was possible. He thought it was such a good idea that he built it and then bought it for us to live in until we could build a bigger house. What it was was a comfortable early-style mobile home.” The boxcar house still stands, behind the house that the family eventually built, in a clean, quiet, working-class neighborhood dominated by pickup trucks and children’s bicycles parked in front of small, well-tended lawns.
“My mother was—well, embarrassed when she found herself pregnant a year or so after getting to California. She thought that having another child when she already had two teen-age children was—that it was too far apart. She didn’t exactly think that Merle was a sign or a gift from God—my mother was a member of the Church of Christ, and very religious, even sternly so—but she firmly believed, after Merle was born, that God had answered her prayers during pregnancy. She had prayed for a child who would inherit the family talent for music. Merle’s grandpa was the best fiddler back in McIntosh County, Oklahoma, and Dad played fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, and his brothers and sisters all played at local dances, though after Mom and Dad got married the playing was restricted to socials at home. Mom didn’t mind music—she played the organ—but she did mind the drinking and fooling around that went with commercial music. Merle was a funny child. At six months, he’d be lying there in his bassinet, and when the Stuart Hamblen country show came on the radio he’d begin kicking his little feet in time to the music. We experimented with other music, but he’d just lie there until we put Stuart Hamblen back on. Mom used to say that his first words were ‘Stu Ham.’ She thought he was talking about food, not the music.”
Merle took violin lessons in the first grade, but they were unsuccessful. As Lillian tells it, Merle would eschew the required exercises and attempt, not unsuccessfully, “Turkey in the Straw” and other traditional fiddle tunes. “‘I don’t know, Sis,’ he’d tell me. ‘My fingers just do it.’ The teacher told my mother that she was wasting her money. I think he got his first guitar when he was around ten. He loved it.”
When Merle was nine, his father died of a stroke. The account of this event is the most affecting, and unaffected, section of “Sing Me Back Home,” Merle’s 1981 autobiography, co-written with Peggy Russell. Though the family’s financial situation became somewhat straitened, they were never impoverished. “Mom got a job as a bookkeeper, first for a department store, then for a meat wholesaler,” Lillian recalled. “She wasn’t a frivolous person with Merle, but Merle never lacked for Christmas presents.”
Merle’s life, however took a wide turn after his father’s death. “The change was due to a combination of things,” Lillian said. “Merle had what they called Valley fever—coccidioidomycosis, a respiratory disease—when he was seven or so, and the cure then was just like for tuberculosis, rest and quiet at home. Mom had her hands full, trying to keep a lively kid in a low-activity life style, and keeping his friends away. Merle hated being an only child. He hated it then, and he hates to be alone now. He used to give toys away to get neighbor kids to play with him. Sometimes I think he’s still doing that. Anyway, after a year of all this attention and a lot of rules, he was suddenly released. Of course, maybe it was just his artistic temperament finally coming out. And then Dad died, and Merle became a latchkey kid, unsupervised. Both Lowell—who’s much more of a disciplinarian than I am—and I were long out of the house by then. Merle needed what they call now ‘after-death counseling.’ He felt he was to blame for his dad’s death. He felt he was a burden to his mother. Plus, like I said, he was always ornery. ‘If Lillian can go out why can’t I?’ he’d say to Mom. Of course, he was ten, and I was twenty-six. There had never been any wild children in the family, no previous pattern of independent behavior, so the bull was out of the barn before anyone recognized it.”
Merle began running away. When he was ten, he and a pal named Billy Thorpe hopped a freight and got as far as Fresno, a hundred miles north, before being sent home by a railroad detective. At fourteen, he and another friend hitchhiked to Texas—a trip that was in part a pilgrimage to Lefty Frizzell’s home, in Big Spring. On the way back, the boys were arrested for carrying a pistol and a switchblade, and they spent five days in the Lincoln Heights jail, in Los Angeles.
Not long after the 1951-52 school year began, Merle ran away to Modesto to work haying. One night, he played guitar in a local club for five dollars and all the beer he wanted. He returned to school, but not for long, and he was thrown in juvenile hall as a truant. After spending Christmas there, he and two other boys escaped—the first of what Merle estimates were seventeen breakouts from various correctional institutions. He says that after one of these escapes—from the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys, in Whittier, where he spent much of his time in the disciplinary barracks—he was made to run around a courtyard in ill-fitting boots. By the time he finished his punishment (he was swatted with a rake whenever he stopped running), his feet were raw and bleeding. After another escape, in which, he says, he came close to being lynched as a suspected rapist, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a sort of maximum-security reformatory near Stockton; he managed to last there for six months before escaping, briefly, once again.
At sixteen—after serving time at Preston, working at a potato-packing house (the first of many short-lived jobs his brother Lowell landed him), and running away to Eugene, Oregon, to set up housekeeping for a month with a sixteen-year-old girl—Merle headed for Arkansas with Dean Holloway, to visit Holloway’s kin. They got as far as Arizona, where they were temporarily detained on charges of having violated the Mann Act; a third buddy’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend had come along for the ride. Merle eventually settled into a routine of beer-and-guitar parties on the outskirts of Bakersfield—he recalls in his autobiography being told by person after person that he sounded like Lefty Frizzell—interspersed with joyriding in stolen cars. Around this time, he and another former Preston inmate took part in what Merle considers “the sickest most degrading” crime of his life—beating the living hell out of a slow-witted boy and stealing his odd-job money.
Not long after that, Merle married the first of his four wives—Leona Hobbs, whom he had met on the way to a drive-in hamburger spot in Bakersfield. “They got Lowell to take them to Reno,” Lillian Rea told me. “This was one time when Merle listened to Mom—‘We don’t shack up,’ she said—and this was one time when he should have disobeyed her.” The marriage, which lasted nearly ten years, was, by Merle’s recollection, little more than one prolonged, ugly fight. If Leona (according to Merle) was cruel and disparaging, Merle, in return, was not much of a husband or father. He was in the Ventura County jail, serving a nine-month sentence for car theft, when his first child—a daughter, Dana—was born. Not long after getting out, he was again arrested for theft. Sentenced to ninety day in a road camp, he escaped after five days and went on the lam through several Western states before being picked up and returned to jail. “I got in trouble on purpose,” Merle told a television interviewer for Nashville Network. “I wanted to experience the things I had heard in Jimmie Rodgers’ songs, I wanted to be a Clyde Barrow. Jesses James was one of my idols.”
In December of 1957, after a brief career with a pair of professional burglars, Merle and a friend attempted to rob a highway restaurant. “We were out of work,” Merle recalls. “We believed we had justification to rob because there weren’t enough jobs around. We thought the place was closed; we were so drunk we thought it was 3 a.m. when it was only ten-thirty at night.” The proprietor met them at the back door, which they were prying open with a crowbar, and asked why if they wanted something to eat they didn’t just go around front, like everybody else. Merle was arrested almost immediately, escaped nearly as quickly (or was allowed to escape; he is vague about the event), and was re-arrested. After a few days in the Bakersfield jail and two months in a minimum-security prison, the twenty-year-old Merle was sentenced, for burglary and escape, to spend the next six months to fifteen years of his life in San Quentin. Leona had been with during the unsuccessful robbery, though she was not charged with being an accessory. She was pregnant at the time, and Merle’s second child, Marty, was born while Merle was in prison. (Leona had a third child, James, during her husband’s incarceration.)
Merle served two years and nine months in San Quentin before being paroled, in October of 1960, but not before taking part in a few last extra-legal activities, among them brewing homemade fruit beer. He nearly joined a pair of other convicts in an escape attempt but backed out at the last minute. The one convict who escaped, a friend of Merle’s named Jimmy Kendrick, killed a highway patrolman before being recaptured, and was sent to the gas chamber. Merle recalled the execution in a haunting song, also entitled “Sing Me Back Home”:
The warden led a pris’ner down a
a hallway to his doom,
And stood up to say goodbye like
all the rest,
And I heard him tell the warden,
just before he reached my cell,
Let my guitar-playing friend do my request.
Let him sing me back home
With a song I used to hear …
At one point while Merle was in San Quentin, he was caught drunk and spent a week in isolation, near death row, where, as he tells it, his only companion was a Bible, which he read by day and used for a pillow at night. (“Don’t let nobody tell you there’s just one way to get comfort from the Good Book.”) Whether it was the experience in isolation, the death of Jimmy Kendrick, or the influence of the Bible, Merle decided to go straight. He volunteered for the most onerous prison jobs, was selected to play in the prison band, and became a model prisoner. (He received a full pardon from Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, in March, 1972, after his musical reputation was well established.)
Lowell, who can be stern and opinionated on the subject of his brother’s life, is quoted in “Sing Me Back Home” as remembering Merle’s return to Bakersfield with uncharacteristic tenderness: “He stepped down off the bus carrying his guitar. He looked like a little whipped pup. … His clothes, which were bad enough to begin with, looked like he’d slept in them, which he probably had. I don’t think either of us knew what to say to each other. I asked him where he wanted me to take him, and he said he wanted to go to Mam’s house. He’d only been home a little while when he called Leon Copeland”—a family friend—“to come over. The two of them were sitting there singing songs and playing guitar when I left. I don’t know how long they kept at it. Any time Merle didn’t know what else to do, he turned to his music.”
After his return to Bakersfield, Merle worked for a time as a laborer for Lowell, who was an electrical contractor, but he soon began moonlighting, then working steadily, at local night clubs, playing electric bass and lead guitar and occasionally singing. Soon after he was paroled, Leona became pregnant again, and another daughter, Kelli, was born. Noel, their fourth child, was born in 1963. Not very long after Noel’s birth and a final, near-murderous battle, the two were divorced. In June of 1965, his career blossoming, he married Bonnie Owens, who had been divorced from the country singer Buck Owens in 1953. Bonnie had had several minor local hits, and she and Merle had already recorded a touching duet album called “Just Between the Two of Us.” The year they were married, Merle and Bonnie won an Academy of Country Music award for Best Vocal Group. Merle also won the Most Promising award, and Bonnie garnered Top Female Vocalist. They were named Best Vocal Group again in 1966 and 1967.
By 1974, Bonnie had had enough of the road and Merle’s womanizing, and she began spending more and more time in a huge house they had built on the outskirts of Bakersfield. In 1976, she filed for divorce, and it was granted in October of 1978. That month, Merle married Leona Williams, who was his opening act and had been singing harmony with him in Bonnie’s absence. His marriage to the second Leona lasted until an acrimonious divorce, in 1984. He married Debora Parret the following year.
Merle’s current marriage appears to be one of some kind of convenience. He and Debora do not seem to spend much time together, at home or on the road. At a show last year at the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio, Merle made an entrance in a red Corvette, with his arm around Theresa Lane, in full view of eight thousand people. He has admitted in print that his marriage to Debora was undertaken more in the spirit of friendship than of love. Friends suggest that Merle remains married so as not to be under an obligation to divorce and marry again. Whatever the situation, it is one that almost everyone close to Merle—with the possible exception of Debora, who is known to be testy and (understandably) possessive at times—has come to some sort of terms with. When I asked Merle about the propriety of mentioning his keeping company with Theresa, he said, “Go ahead. It’s all on the up-and-up.”
Bonnie Owens is a dark-haired, handsome, square-faced, and extremely modest woman. She is sixty years old and, arguably, the best poker player among the Strangers. She manages an easy camaraderie in the tight bus quarters with the male musicians. If one of the band members has a date on the road, the new friend is generally introduced to Bonnie as quickly as possible; if a can opener or aspirin or the paper towels are misplaced, Bonnie can generally locate them; if the bus needs a tidying up—and it does, every few days—Bonnie and Gary Church are usually the ones to take on the task.
“Merle called—I think it was June of 1987 or so—and said he wanted me to go on tour,” Bonnie told me at the Center Stage Theatre, in Atlanta, while we were waiting for Merle’s second show to begin. “I hadn’t worked with him since 1981. He said, ‘Bonnie, as long as I’m up there on a bandstand, I want you to be with me.’ So here I am. When I met Merle, I was working as a singing waitress in Bakersfield. He had started singing and booking out, and I’d had a few hits. But even after we started becoming popular I never really considered Nashville. It was too far away. I was—You know, seventy-five dollars a show, that’s fine. But Merle had bigger dreams. We sang together first, but it didn’t go further than that for a long time. He was married. His life was too complicated. I also thought he’d never settle down. His talent didn’t need help. He just needed discipline. He is aggressive. He has drive. He allows himself to get depressed and bored. I can always find something that needed to be done yesterday. Every year, we’d write our dreams down on New Year’s. In 1966, we wrote down (1) get a B.M.I. award, (2) have No. 1 song, and (3) write a classic. ‘Swinging doors’ did all three. I knew if he didn’t get bored and give up he’d be great. He was the best I ever heard.
“On the first thirty albums or so, I didn’t write any lines, but kept him from straying. I was sort of an editor. Before he wrote ‘Branded Man,’ in 1967, he hadn’t talked about prison to the public. He was thinking about doing it in a sort of indirect way. I said ‘Why not come right out and tell ‘em?’ He thought it would hurt his career, but he was also afraid he might be exposed as an ex-con by someone else before he owned up. So Fuzzy Owen and I said, ‘Put it out there.’ See, I was proud that he had outgrown prison. This is why ‘Branded Man’ is so direct. Me and Fuzzy, we forced the situation. We prodded him, you might say.
“Merle went down to Nashville with the second Leona and lived there for a couple of years—1976 and 1977, I believe. He hated it. Every time he went in for a recording session, there’d be fifteen songwriters there, waiting to meet him. He didn’t—for years—even want a fan club, because when he’s off work he wants to be off work. He’s a frustrated sideman—I really believe that. He’d love to play for others, walk in there and play without a big fuss. He enjoys the spotlight, but sometimes he doesn’t enjoy all the responsibility.
“After the show in Savannah last month, Merle said to me, ‘See, I told you I was a good openin’ act.’ He liked that show. He thrives on competition. The best shows are when he’s competing, like with Randy Travis. I remember when we got married, he said, ‘Bonnie, don’t ever satisfy me, or I’ll be gone.’ Lefty Frizzell was Merle’s biggest idol. Lefty, I believe, saw Merle as competition, as taking over his spot, and Lefty gave up. He began to drink right onstage. Merle felt badly. He doesn’t want to give up. Maybe he sees the changing of some kind of guard. So when he opens for Randy he gives it his all. He doesn’t give up, like Lefty did. He has more perseverance—when he wanted to learn the fiddle so’s he could play Bob Wills tunes, he’d practice that fiddle every day and drive us crazy. He’d walk up and down the bus—we only had one bus then, that was around 1970—for hours, playing the fiddle with total disregard for the rest of us sleepin’. He wanted someone to play rhythm for him. We’d pretend to be asleep, but—You ever heard anyone startin’ to learn the fiddle? Oh, Lord!”
A week or so after the Atlanta shows, Merle pitched a fit at a truck stop in Slidell, Louisiana, a half hour northeast of New Orleans. The blowup was caused by a combination of things: the state of American railroads, the lingering bad taste of Nashville musical politics, and the inability of a man of Merle’s high profile to get a little privacy. The band was en route from Texas, where it had played at the San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo, to Panama City Beach, Florida. Merle had decided that he and Theresa would ride the train from San Antonio to New Orleans and that Biff Adam would pick them up there in Merle’s bus and then hook up with the band bus at the truck stop in Slidell.
Merle is a train buff, as the Santa Fe Railway logos on his buses, and the model trains that run around the ceiling of his recreation room, attest. His album of train songs is entitled “My Love Affair with Trains.” Amtrak has sponsored some of his concerts. In 1985, he tried, but failed, to launch a nationwide Farm Aid benefit that would travel the country by rail.
“It’s important for Merle to get off this bus when he can,” Biff told me as we drove the Super Chief to Union Station in New Orleans to pick Merle up. “He’d like to fly everywhere, but that can get expensive, since he doesn’t like to fly commercial, because of the terrorist thing. He said a while back to my wife, ‘Anytime you can book me on a train, you go and do it,’ and this seemed like a good time to do it—to give Merle a different experience. Didn’t it, Fuzzy?”
Fuzzy Owen—a tall, long-faced, laconic man, who is responsible for negotiating Merle’s tour contracts and arranging and securing payments for every show date—nodded, but he appeared to have a few misgivings. “We always get real nervous when Merle gets around a train,” he said, in his slow deep-voiced way. “There’s no telling what might happen.”
What happened this time was that Merle had had a miserable trip. After he and Theresa were delivered in Slidell, both buses idled for nearly three hours while Merle fumed about not being able to get out and get something to eat the truck stop’s café. A small crowd—drivers, pump attendants, waitresses, clerks from the convenience store, and one very angry and bedraggled young man, who said that he was dying of cancer and needed to talk to Merle “as a friend to a friend”—had ringed the Super Chief, and Steve Van Stralen was kept busy handing out publicity photographs and explanations as to why Merle couldn’t come out and talk. Merle had Steve call various members of his entourage—Fuzzy, Biff, Norman Hamlet—and they shuffled back to his stateroom, from which his loud and angry and frustrated voice could be heard. At one point, Theresa emerged and asked Van Stralen if he’d go see if they sold thermometers at the truck-stop store.
“What’s Merle need a thermometer for?” Steve asked. “He got a fever?
“He’s got stress,” Theresa said.
“I accommodate every son of a bitch that gets to me,” Merle told me some time later. He spoke slowly, distinctly, sounding alternately exhausted and passionate. “If I stop and turn and take somebody’s eyes, so to speak—if we lock eyes—ninety per cent of the time throughout my career I accommodate him. The other day, I thought I would get off the bus awhile. So I got on the train, and everybody on that train, I think, knew me. Everybody. All the crew, everybody at the station. I shouldn’t have got on the train. And not just because I couldn’t be alone—me and Theresa couldn’t be alone, and we wanted to be—but for other reasons. Once before, I took the train and didn’t like it. I said to myself maybe I’d screwed up, let’s try it again. I hadn’t been mistaken. It’s sad, man, really goddam sad—paper cups, plastic spoons, dirty rest rooms.
“I remember the time when a black man in America would have been the most—been proud to be a redcap on the railroad. I mean, I think I could be right in saying that unless he’d’ve been Joe Louis there was no higher place for him to have gone for a number of years than to be on one of the nation’s beautiful trains that used to run through here. I wonder what the black that once rode the Sunset Limited of San Antonio for New Orleans about thirty years ago would have thought about that train that I rode on. He’d have puked. He’d have been a mad son of a bitch, because it’s a sad train that I rode on. He’d have puked. He’d have been a mad son of a bitch, because it’s a sad train. I mean, they used to spit shine. It looked like sterling silverware is the only way to describe the Santa Fe Super Chief that once ran across America in the forties and fifties. Sterling silver all the way, inside and out. They Bon Ami’d those sons of bitches every time they made a two-hundred-mile run. They came in, and they repainted and shined all the silver outside, and it looked like a new nickel goin’ down the road it was just unbelievable, how they used to have them. And now, hell, there’s more class on a Greyhound bus.
“I visioned that we would be alone—me and Theresa—and it didn’t happen that way. When I got off, there was a train station full of people, by the time I made it to the bus and we got to the truck stop there was five or six people who met me before I even made it to the front door. It gets pretty irritating. When you are at some crucial point in your life, be it business or our little lives … Her and I, we have a couple of little lives we share together. There are times when you kind of want to lay back into your own situation, and you would like to be able to lose yourself, and you make an effort, such as I did, to get on that train and do it, and you have it completely mess up on you. I ‘bout blew it there at the truck stop. I just thought, Man, is this really worth it?”
The Strangers were nearly all in a bad mood on the ride to Panama City Beach. One thing that had emerged from the coming and going and confusion and hysteria at Slidell was that their per-diem pay had been slashed. They told me that an earlier salary arrangement had been changed, evidently on the advice of one of Merle’s accountants, to a per-diem, per-concert rated of a hundred and fifty dollars for every nonplaying day on the road and three hundred and fifty dollars per show; now that had been halved—again, presumably, on the accountant’s advice. But for the most part they kept their financial anxieties to themselves, and made it clear—kindly—that I shouldn’t bother myself with their problems. I sat in with Bonnie, Bobby Wayne, Mike Leech, and Don Markham for a desultory poker game. Usually these are whip-lively and expensive. This one was just expensive. It broke up an hour or so down the road, and one by one the Strangers headed for their bunks to read or sleep. I stretched out on the couch behind the driver’s seat. Bonnie brought me a blanket and a pillow, and I was dead to the world until 5 a.m., when I woke to gaze on the low, dusty, mean Florida-panhandle landscape. We should have been in Panama City Beach hours earlier, and I wondered for a moment if there had been another uproar and we were headed west, back to California. Two of the Strangers had told me that it would not be out of the question. It turned out that Merle’s bus, which we were following had had a flat tire, and the tire’s steel belt had punctured one of the large air-suspension bags at the rear. There had been a long, slow, flappety haul to an all-night convenience store and a two-hour wait for the tire to be repaired. Now we were driving at less than forty miles an hour down the straight, empty highway. The Super Chief dragged itself along ahead of us, leaning far to the right, sparks jumping out from under its diesel-coated rump. It looked like a defective, elephantine slot car, more suitable for a struggling opening act than for a country-music legend.
One after another, the Strangers woke up and wandered from their bunks to peer blearily out at the road, ask where we were, get a cup of coffee, and retreat back to the bunks. During the last couple of hours that it took us to get to Panama City Beach, and the forty minutes or so that it took us to find the motel, most of the band sat down to grouse, and to reflect on the pay cut, Merle’s emotional state, and the general lay of the land as far as the Merle Haggard organization went. Despite the best efforts of Merle’s personal manager, his business managers, his two road managers, and his office managers, it appeared that Merle’s procrastination, self-contradictory style of decision-making and authority-delegation often meant that things took a long time to get managed, if they did at all.
“He can’t go in and get something to eat at Slidell, so he blames it on us wearing our tour jackets—he never thinks it’s because maybe there’s two giant buses in the parking lot.”
“The goddam accountant isn’t out there on the interstate helping to change a tire. The goddam accountant isn’t waiting around a truck stop while Merle takes a train to New Orleans instead of going straight to a job. The goddam accountant isn’t stopping for burgers in the middle of the night instead of heading for the job and getting decent sleep because someone decides they’re hungry.”
“It’s just bullshit. Cut our pay in the middle of a trip. It can’t be good for morale. It isn’t for mine.”
“I ain’t gonna take it, goddamit! This is too good a job to quit. This is the best music in the business—what are we supposed to do, go out and play for Eddie Rabbit? But where’s the money?”
“We took a pay cut in ’87—went off salary and onto per diem—because Merle decided he wasn’t going to tour as much. Then he decides to do more dates, and suddenly we’re making too much money.”
“It’s just one temporary crisis after another temporary crisis. But they aren’t short term. It’s been one concession from us after another, and I'm getting disillusioned.”
“All this time out here, and I don’t feel like I know him at all. He’s fearful of getting close to people, or something.”
“We used to have fun out here. Look back over the years, you can’t help but say things are different.”
“We’d go out to dinner in a gang after a show. Go to ballgames, be a family.”
“Merle used to be a lot more accessible. He’d come over on the bus here and play cards, shoot the shit, play the guitar. Not anymore. Half the time you say hello he won’t hello back. I know that’s his type of personality. I know he’s got things on his mind. But, goddammit, it hurts.”
“It’s like you own dad rejecting you.”
“He’s become introverted.”
“He’s always succumbed to accountants. They come driving up to meet us at a show in their goddam rent-a-Buicks and stay at the suites and then when they think a cut is needed—well, hell, let’s cut the band, those guys are getting too much.”
“He’s a very unhappy man. The divorce from Leona, his mom’s death, Lewis’s death. He’s afraid of getting old.”
“And he’s kept in the dark. Hell, who knows when he found out about the pay cuts? They don’t tell him nothing, or they don’t tell him the real reason for something, and then when he does hear it it’s all at once.”
“He’s too generous. People take advantage of him.”
“If Merle Haggard was a jerk, it’d be easy. The lines would be drawn, we’d be out of here. But he’s our friend. He’s our leader. He’s the best musician in the business. Merle doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Christ, the only time I see him happy anymore is ten, fifteen minutes after he gets onstage.”
“Listen to us. We love Merle. We’re worried about him. But if someone goes to him and says, ‘Merle, this isn’t right. Everyone’s unhappy,’ he’ll take it so personal, get so upset, he’ll just forget the whole thing, or get pissed off, or more likely just say, ‘Screw it!’ and cancel the whole tour.”
“He’s a sensitive guy.”
Merle rescinded the pay cut within a few days. In Orlando, he told me that there was another reason for his blowup in Slidell—some nasty money business between him and a producer from Nashville which eventually affected some of the studio musicians who had been working on the upcoming album and lost them jobs on a future project. Nashville’s country-music industry likes to present itself in public as one big happy family. It is not. It is riddled with strife and bitterness and ambition and appalling behind-the-scenes machinations comparable with the ugliest sort of city-hall political infighting. Merle declined to get specific about the trouble at hand, saying that “there’s too many people hurt already,” but he made plain his desire to continue to stay the hell out of Tennessee as much as possible.
“Merle never spent much time in Nashville,” Norman Hamlet told me. “If Merle had had to stay in Nashville, I think he’d be out of the business by now. I think it all has to do with his being in prison back then. He has a thing about authority. Merle has always bent rules, but in prison it’s simple—you cannot do what you want. There is no ‘over the line’ in prison. Merle met his authoritarian match. He doesn’t even like to go to Canada, for just that reason. Sometimes they just let you go by the border, other times they’ll hop on the bus and go through ever’thing with a fine-tooth comb. Authority … I think it explains his reaction to fans’ demands, and journalists’ demands, and all kinds of demands. It’s why he doesn’t spend much time in Nashville. There are simply too many people tell you what you should do.” (Another thing that bothers Merle about Nashville is the Grand Ole Opry—the weekly showcase of country music broadcast on WSM radio, in Nashville—and he has not joined it, although he has been asked to on several occasions. In “Sing Me Back Home” he calls the Opry “that sacred cow devoted to filling the pockets of a bunch of anonymous bastards who don’t know doodle-shit about country music or what it means to those of us who love it.” He goes on to say that it is not the idea of the Opry which offends him, or the caliber of its music, but the way it is being run, as a sort of haphazard collection of performers. Merle would like to see it set up in three parts: old, historically significant performers; new talent; and the top current acts. He also believes that the performers ought to be paid enough to appear regularly; the Opry is broadcast, live, on Saturday nights, and members must commit themselves to a certain number of appearances annually.)
Over the years, there have been plenty of example of Merle’s rebellion against constraints, a number of them garden-variety no-shows: in Denver and Salt Lake City in 1976, because he thought he was overbooked; in Rosenburg, Oregon, several years ago, because (according to newspaper reports) he and the second Leona were having difficulties; a pair of shows in Canada. Probably the most celebrated of these back outs came in 1970, when Merle, at the height of his notoriety/popularity because of “Okie from Muskogee,” was asked to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. It is not a story that Merle volunteers, and it is one that he tells with a mixture of mild regret and reluctant pride.
“I don’t mind recalling this, but you got to understand I don’t mean to demean the gay movement, or female impersonators, or transvestites, or guys with sex changes, but it was a circumstance that they had me doin’ some choreography, and I had told ‘em—It was me and Minnie Pearl and Jeannie C. Riley, singing some songs from “Oklahoma!” This was important, and my first national exposure, but I'm not a dancer. I just— I have never wanted to act like a pansy—you know, a tiptoed-through-the-tulips sort of guy—and that was what was happening. There was all these fruiters runnin’ around, and they had us doin’ figure eights and all sorts of stuff. We had six or so days of rehearsal, and they weren't listenin’ to me. I’m a hillbilly. I’ll sing Curly—I ‘preciate that music, and it was a challenge to sing—but I’m a singer, not a dancer. Anyway, I was flyin’ around the stage the day before the show, and I caught Fuzzy’s eye and told him I’d meet him in the bus next time around. I don’t what he thought—maybe that I wanted a break, needed a cigarette. So I came around and danced right off the stage, and we left in the bus. I saw Minnie Pearl years later, and you know what she told me? ‘That was when I became a fan of Merle Haggard, that night.’ They got Johnny Mathis, I believe to replace me, and they never sued, so they must have known they were wrong.”
The shows in Panama City Beach, one at five in the afternoon and another a few hours later, made everyone, with the possible exception of Merle, uncomfortable. The venue was the Ocean Opry, a metal-sided box across from a dismal shopping mall on the busy beachside highway. The sign out front read:
Sat. Feb 18, MERLE HAGGARD
AND AVA BARBER
SAT. FEB 25, FREE BAR B Q
and the small lobby was cluttered with stands for local shopping newspaper and oil paintings of seascapes offered (according to a hand-lettered sign) for seventy-five dollars apiece.
The impresario of the Ocean Opry, a hefty Ned Beatty look-alike and fundamentalist Christian named Wayne Rader, puts on regular shows that cater to a large elderly population in the area, and there were an inordinate number of vans from various senior citizen centers in the Opry parking lot. There were only two small dressing rooms, and smoking and drinking were prohibited on the premises. Rader was everywhere before the show, suspicious and worried. He asked me if the band had any women along, and began telling me about other acts and the prostitutes and underage women they brought with them—a tale that began in disgust and appeared to drift toward enthusiasm. Onstage, in the course of introducing Merle after the opening act—Ava Barber is country singer and an alumna of the Lawrence Welk Show—Rader announced that barbecue sandwiches were available in the lobby, reminded the audience of upcoming acts, and then launched into a plea for funds for a local charter-boat captain who had recently lost several limbs owing to an adverse reaction to medication in the hospital. There would be donation cans near all of the Ocean Opry’s exits after the show, Rader said.
Inexplicably, given the circumstances, Merle gave two knockout performances. His “Mama’s Prayers” was near-spiritual, and he broke hearts with “Today I Started Loving Again” all over again. His voice on “Always Late with Your Kisses” rolled along its cordillera of syllables like a fin-tuned sports car. At one point in the first show, he made a rare solicitation for requests: “We got songs goin’ back twenty-seven years. Isn’t this one of the finest bands? You get a treat, and I get a treat. The travellin’ gets old, but this just keeps getting’ better.” In the course of that show, he did an especially poignant job on Jimmie Rodgers’ “T.B. Blues,” making the death song—“Fightin’ like a lion, Looks like I’m gonna lose, ‘Cause there ain’t nobody ever whipped the T.B. blues”—all the more unsettling by a light-hearted introduction; “Back in the beginning, there was Jimmie Rodgers. The call us country because we sing music that makes a little sense. HA! He wanted to call it ‘Tuberculosis Blues,’ but he couldn’t say ‘tuberculosis’ and yodel at the same time, so he called it ‘T.B. Blues.’” Both shows went ten minutes over an hour, and Merle ended the second show with “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
The next morning, Bonnie Owens and I were eating breakfast in the motel’s coffee shop, making small talk—the weather, daytime television (she is addicted to certain soap operas), the possibilities of a trip to Disney World—when Merle appeared outside its large windows. He looked out of place in the sunshine—pale and frowning, a man with unwanted time on his hands.
“He’s probably thinkin’ of a new song,” Bonnie said. She waved him in to join us. He sat down and said nothing. Eventually, the young waitress took his order of eggs and coffee. Bonnie told him she thought the shows had gone real well the night before. Merle cocked his head and asked how far it was to Orlando.
“I think four hundred miles.”
Merle furrowed his brow. His mouth kicked to the side with a twitch. “In the old days, a singer operated like a preacher,” he said. “He just went on and on at a show as long as he wanted. Then, after, he’d have to go off and shake hands. Course, you have to realize that in them days—I’m talkin’ about the thirties—three hundred people was a big crowd. What’d we have last night?”
“One thousand according to the owner,” I answered.
“Singers used to work their asses off,” he went on. “They’d play and play at night, then they’d run back to their home base and do a morning radio show. Bob Wills, he once worked sixty day with no nights off.”
“You know, ‘Stardust,’ I understand is the only truly original melody of our time,” Merle said. He turned to Bonnie. “Jimmie Rodgers was supposed to have perfect pitch. I think he had even more of a distinctive voice than Bing Crosby. There was no hope for tuberculosis then, just like cancer right now. They say he once took sixteen curtain calls, none of them with a microphone, and by the last one he had blood runnin’ down from the corner of his mouth. He was just blisterin’ their ass, I swear.”
The waitress brought him his food. “Are you Merle Haggard?” she asked.
He looked up from his plate and stared at her. “No, I'm not,” he said.
I asked Merle when he had learned to play the fiddle.
“It was a while back there. Goddam, talk about work! I once played that thing for forty-eight straight hours to learn it. And there was no dope involved. I was straight as a string for that. Everybody else was eatin’ beans and uppers and all, and was wearin’ ‘em out.”
Bonnie nodded in agreement.
“HA! The boys were droppin’ like flies. I had to work hard. I told Fuzzy I wanted to learn the fiddle, and you know what he said to me? ‘You got about fifty thousand hours on it to go, so you better get started now.’ Playin’ a breakdown is like playin’ pool. There is nothing like it. No art on earth to compare it with … You know, I put my ear to the speaker five hundred times, listenin’ to Lefty sing ‘Always Late,’ wonderin’ if I could pick up a flaw. I never could. I once played it for some Indians when I was sixteen. I played it over and over again. It was a chant for them, a goddam Indian chant.”
“I don’t like the new version I’ve heard,” Bonnie said cheerfully.
Merle looked straight and hard at her, “I don’t like my version,” he said.
I remarked that the Ocean Opry seemed an odd place for a stellar performance, and that I would find it difficult to give it my all if I didn’t like the circumstances.
Merle narrowed his eyes. “I have a responsibility to take my talent to the fullest bloom. I feel, uh, intended, and when I allow myself to vary from that I get spanked, reprimanded in life. I’m thoroughly convinced I’m supposed to be doing this, or something like it. Yeah, it has its plusses and minuses. The plus of playin’ guitar, of satisfying the crowd in different ways. Now, last night you had a no-smoke, no-drink, Protestant-oriented religious guy runnin’ things. When he came out and raised his hands after the last song—UP! UP!—that spoiled the whole act. We never will know if we got ’em—a subdued, older group—got ‘em standin’ on their own. He shouldn’t be goin’ out there when I’m onstage and askin’ me if I’ll come back. I said, ‘Not right now.’”
Merle got up. He said he’d see us down the road.
“That’s Merle Haggard for you,” Bonnie said after a bit. “Here’s all this stuff, you know, about the pay cut, and the album, and some guy ruinin’ his show in his eyes, and he goes out there and does a great show—two great shows. He can change in two seconds. I don’t know what makes him change. There’s times you want to stay out of his way, but no one is afraid of him. He’s right out there in the open.
“He can’t relax. That’s why he left the table, most likely. I don’t know for sure, because I don’t know Merle that well these days. We’re friends, but I’m not close to him, like in the old days. I know he never really could relax when we were together. We’d take off from the road in the old days, and after a couple days at home he’d want to go to Reno or Tahoe. We’d stay at a hotel always. I asked him why he wanted to spend his time in these places, and he said, ‘I don’t know. I think it’s the idea that there’s people down there awake, to talk to, if I want to.’
“Merle can be real thoughtful. You know, on the duet album, ‘Just Between the Two of Us,’ I didn’t have the range to get to the highs we needed. So I dropped, and Merle had to go up. We’re doing a twenty-fifth-anniversary album. Our voices are richer, fuller, more experienced. It’ll show Merle’s soft side, doing an album with his ex-wife. It’s wonderful, this chance. The first one was so innocent. It’s like having cake two times.”
In Orlando, we checked into a second-rate hotel—frayed, wet carpets, a depressing coffee shop and bar, and throngs of exhausted, sunburned American, French, and Japanese tourists. The lodging arrangements had been made by the promoter of the Orlando show, which was to be taped at the Cheyenne Saloon & Opera House for broadcast on the Nashville Network. The Cheyenne Saloon was part of a shopping-and-eating complex of uncertain thematic flavor—its tenants also included Phineas Phogg’s Balloon Works, Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium, and Lili Marlene’s Aviator’s Pub & Restaurant—called the Church Street Station.
Two days after we arrived, I met Bonnie for breakfast again. She was accompanied by Bette Adam, who had closed Merle’s California office to join her husband on tour. Bette, Biff, and Fuzzy Owen had been to Epcot Center the day before, and were excited about the possibility of interesting Merle in staying at one of the park’s nearby hotels and touring the place the time they were in Orlando.
“Merle, he’d just love it,” Bette said. “I think they have a hotel right there, or one you can take a future train, or something, to and from, so Merle wouldn’t have to battle traffic or nothing.”
“He’d love it, for sure,” Bonnie said.
“And the best thing—nobody there would give a damn if it’s Merle Haggard or not. Hell, most of the people we saw—your Japanese, your French, your whatever—they can’t even speak English, let alone care about Merle Haggard.”
“It’s important that he can get away and be nobody,” Bonnie said.
“If he’s worried, he could wear some sunglasses and a damn hat,” Bette said. “Oh, he’d—He gets so excited about things. Bonnie, do you know, one time he calls me at one in the morning and says he needs a VCR? He was in Missouri, or Arkansas, and there he was, couldn’t sleep, and there was nothing on TV.”
“Did he want it right then?” I asked.
“Yes. But there was no place to buy one at one o’clock in the morning, and no planes leaving, even if I could have bought one. So I waited until the next day, and put it special on a plane, and the whole thing cost something like fifteen hundred dollars. Another time, he calls me at three in the morning, from somewheres out there, and says, ‘Bette, take down this number and order me three of ‘em.’ Then he gives me an 800 number and says, ‘You got to do it right now.’ And then he hangs up. Doesn’t even tell me what I’m ordering. I do it and go back to sleep, and the next morning I'm thinking better, so I call the 800 number again and ask what it was I ordered the night before. They tell me it’s one of those things that sucks all the air out from around food and then wraps it up in plastic so’s you can freeze it smaller. See, you buy bulk and then cut it up yourself. Well, Merle calls and asks me if I ordered ‘em, and I told him I did, and I asked him why he needed three. He said, ‘One for the bus, one for the houseboat, and one for home. I want to put up black-eyed peas.’”
To make sure I got at least some of Bette’s story straight, I repeated the part about Merle asking her to call the 800 number. She nodded.
“Why didn’t you tell him to call the number himself?” I asked.
“People tell me I should,” Bette said.
Later that day, I got a call in my room from Bonnie, who said that Merle was downstairs and wanted to talk to me. I found him in front of the hotel, folded up in the jump seat of a long white limousine. He was wearing a tank-top T-shirt, sweatpants, cowboy boots, and a Panama hat. (Merle’s preferred dress offstage has become a matter of some concern in recent years. The first time I saw him, for instance, during a sound check in Spokane, he was wearing a billed cap, a camouflage T-shirt, swimming trunks, and cowboy boots. “He even flies in those sweatclothes of his,” Bette Adam told me. “Can you imagine that? Merle Haggard, in first class, wearing sweatpants? He says, ‘Bette, I just don't give a shit anymore what people think.’ I think he got that way after his mother died. I think it’s weird.”)
We headed out in the limousine, on Merle’s orders to the driver, to find a place for Theresa, who was sitting near me on the back seat holding a camera, to take some sunset-over-water pictures.
Beginning a conversation with Merle—who was once again stone-faced, this time staring out the window—is a little like starting a car on a cold winter morning.
I asked him how he was enjoying Florida.
I asked him how he liked the countryside.
“It’s pretty flat.”
I asked him if he had got to the ocean.
“Do you much care for the ocean, Merle?”
“No, I don’t. Like Fuzzy says, ‘What you’re seein’ isn’t the half of it.’ HA!”
I asked him about the rumors he was going to build a movie studio on his property.
“There’s a lot of things to be done. I’m thinkin’ of growing pistachios. We’re gonna put in the first ten acres this spring, and then, in the lowland, put in a catfish farm, a linear type of construction. I’ve been thinkin’ of havin’ some acres for the band, so we could get together and jam when we wanted to, real quicklike, but … I was talking with my daughter a while back about a foster home, some sort of an orphanage, a refuge for orphan children, or a boys’ school—you know—or some sort of military school for troubled children, or something.”
“Something nicer than the places you were put in?”
“Something to keep them from winding up in those places,” Merle replied sharply. “A lot of them need discipline—need to understand why discipline is necessary. I think children are oftentimes unaware that they have to do certain things. They back-talk to their parents and really aren’t bad kids, they just kind of like never had any discipline—boys especially. I never was a girl, so I couldn’t say for sure, but I think it’s probably good for them to have a little supervision—responsibility and discipline, you know? My feeling is that I have … There’s no man on earth that—unless he intends to grow something or raise something, or start some kind of game refuge, which is one idea that is very high on the list up there—no man on earth can use as much land as I have. I would be wise to locate select people that might be interested in living there, and make some sort of long-term lease with them on ten acres, say, and have them build a home and have access to my full seven hundred. It’s like they would own seven hundred, too.”
We caught a glimpse of a freight train as we drove out of town, and Merle craned for a view of it.
“You know, on that train to New Orleans, one of the attendants was supposed to go on the train I was trying to get across the country for the Farm Aid deal. He told me that all the equipment and everything had been put together in Los Angeles and was all ready to go. He was telling me what the equipment looked like. I guess I really didn’t visualize what it looked like, because when the deal didn’t happen I sort of put it all out of my mind. Goddam! We came close. It cost me forty-five thousand dollars out of my pocket. The insurance is what messed us up. You had to get insurance from each individual railroad company, and we couldn’t even get Lloyd’s of London on the deal. It was the goddamnedest thing I ever undertook in my life. Even the President of the United States couldn’t help me. Of course, the amount of celebrities that was going to be on that train … Margaret Thatcher might be aboard for a while, we thought. What should have happened, one of those rich California farmers should have jumped up there and put up a cash bond for that son of a bitch. Merv Griffin could have put up a million-dollar bond, the bastard!”
Merle looked and sounded as if he was getting grumpy, and I changed the subject, perhaps unwisely, to politics. Merle mentioned playing for Nixon and Reagan, and meeting Jimmy Carter, and how he had been asked and had refused to play for George Wallace’s 1970 gubernatorial campaign. Then he talked about the 1988 Presidential election and told me he’d appreciate my keeping his preference quiet. “Merle, is your politics any of my business? I mean, what part of you is private and what part of you is public?” It was a question I had asked him three times before, and each time he had avoided answering.
“I try to keep some things private, and probably the things that I try to keep private would not interest even you. As to most anything that would disturb the Southern Baptists—I should keep the private, but it is something I would make sure leaks out.”
“Yeah, so as not to let anybody confuse me with being a Jimmy Swaggart type, a TV-evangelist type. If I hired a hooker so I could lay underneath her skirt and look up her dress the way Swaggart did—don't be surprised I might do that. You know what I mean?”
“It’s not anybody’s business but mine, but you would think that that would be the type of thing that most people would imagine I would want to keep quiet. But it’s just the opposite. People about half piss me off, gossipin’ and nailin’ each other to the goddam cross over things they are all guilty of. Judgin’ each other, and persecutin’ and prosecutin’ each other, and all of them standin’ in a crowd, pattin’ each other on the back, guilty of whatever they are hangin’ the man for. You know? Goddam that makes me mad! This is the type of person that when they happen to be at a self-righteous plane in their life, their human nature seems to be—Look off on that guy that has fallen into the ditch, and maybe they see something they have already cleaned up, or they have been able to conceal in the closet all these years, and the say, ‘Let’s just cut this sucker down over there and take the heat off ourselves.’ In my study and understanding of the Bible, there is nothing in there to indicate a badgering of sexual conduct in one’s private life. I can’t find that in there. I find the absolute opposite in the life of Christ. Christ with the prostitute is all that needs to be said. You know, he didn’t tell that woman to quit doin’ whatever the hell she was doin’. He didn’t even say that prostitution was her sin. We are all sinners in his eyes.”
“What was she doing at the time?” Theresa asked.
“Nobody knows,” Merle said. “This goes back to the Jimmy Swaggart thing. Mainstream Christianity, as I understand it, I believe Jimmy Swaggart misunderstood it. He, see, is preaching John 3:16 ‘Whosoever believeth in Him shall have everlasting life.’ O.K. That does away with his problem. He doesn’t have to jump up in there in front of the congregation on Channel 10 and tell everybody everythin’ he done. He has already been saved. That would be like a child stumbled, a year and a half old, and fell down, and his daddy jerked his ass up and threw him in a trash can. His life is over. Now, Jimmy Swaggart lookin’ up that girl’s dress had nothing to do with his ministry. You know, that Judgment Day when we are put in the Book of Life or Death may not be the same Judgment Day that has to do with our conduct. I am sure that the Lord is going to reprimand Hitler’s ass. His head and shoulders, too. Maybe not. I have never known—What is the unforgivable sin?” He turned to Theresa. “Is it blasphemy?”
“What about warping the mind of a young child? Causing that child to turn out to be a Charles Manson, or that guy that shot those kids up in Stockton. Whoever warps the mind of a child, to me, is guilty of some bad shit. Bad shit! The Bible says, ‘To all sinners that have broken the laws of God, the wrath of God is something to be taken seriously, but woe to those who harm the little children.’ What that means is, You think you are in trouble, buddy—you fuck with one of the kids, and you wish you had never been born!
“If Christ was nothing else, he was the greatest philosopher that ever lived. The way he answered his questions, you know? His disciples said, ‘What is it about wine, or the fruit of the vine? Is it all right to drink, Lord?’ He said if it lifts your spirits and makes your belly feel better. He said if it makes you feel better in reality, it might be all right. But he went on to say, ‘Don’t become drunk and stupid.’”
Merle sagged in his seat, and we drove on in silence for several miles until we pulled up near a small lake. The sun had all but set, and Theresa said she didn’t think it was worth it to try to take any pictures.
It was dark by the time we turned off the interstate and headed back to the hotel. Merle asked the driver if there was someplace nearby he could buy a portable cassette player, and in a few minutes we pulled up in front of a K mart. Theresa got out to go look for the cassette player, and Merle asked her to buy him an Orange Crush. He started looking through some old cassettes of his music, which were lying around on the floor, and put one in the limousine’s player. The driving “Ramblin’ Fever” came on. Merle started playing the bones, singing along with himself and slapping his knees in double time. He pulled the tape out after a while and looked for another.
“When we recorded ‘Miser and Gin,’ damn if they didn’t have a hundred musicians out there,” he said. “Two pianos, two steel guitars, forty-eight-something violins. We got her on the first take. I knew it. I looked out over this sea of players and said, ‘Hell, let’s do it one more time, just for the fun of it.’ HA!”
“For three or four days before I write a good song, I am like a woman with P.M.S. It’s ridiculous. You know—just do things you are totally ashamed of. Say things or hurt somebody’s feelings for no reason, and not even know why I do. Then I’ll write a song, maybe four or five songs, and the weight of the world is off my shoulders for six months or so. I can feel the pressure of people saying, ‘Write that song, Hag. Write us a song. Come on, give us one more.’ Sometimes people will go to the trouble to come up and tell me so in their own individual manner. And if there is one person that will go to that trouble, how many are out there that you never know about? The brain is incredible. How far that power extends is not certain. Those thoughts those people have—I feel the pressure of those people sometimes.”
He played most of the dreamy, lilting “The Way I Am,” and leaned back in the jump seat, his eyes closed, his head swaying in time. He looked lost in peace. Theresa came back and said K mart didn’t have the right kind of player but the driver could take us to another store, across the street.
“Did you get the Orange Crush?”
“No, but I bought you this sweatshirt,” Theresa said, holding up a gray sweatshirt with some lettering on it.
“Good! I’ll drink that!”
I sat in the car as Merle and Theresa went shopping at a large Montgomery Ward. The driver leaned against the limousine’s front fender, and a small crowd gathered. People cupped their hands and put their faces against the car’s darkened window until the driver shooed them away. Ten minutes later, Merle and Theresa, holding hands, emerged from the store with a box under Merle’s free arm, and we pulled out of the parking lot. Merle put another tape, a rambunctious medley of “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Always Late with Your Kisses,” and before long his great contraption of a band—guitars, piano, drums, horns—was wailing at top volume. “Listen to them boys!” he shouted, alternating his knee-slapping with a rapid tattoo on the limousine’s bar. “Tell me they ain’t up on their horses! Whoooo! Whoooo!”
The recording studio at Eleven-Eleven Sound Studio, in Nashville, where Merle reluctantly went between arrangements in order to record “5:01 Blues” and “A Better Love Next Time” for his new album, is a windowless, airtight room lit by track lights and scattered with music stands and upholstered, pillowlike sound baffles. Merle was not happy to be there. He felt that the two songs he was there to record had been forced on him by nonmusical outsiders; namely, Roy Wunsch’s artists-and-repertory man, Bob Montgomery.
“We had something like twenty, twenty-five songs we’d done over the last couple years, ready to put on the album,” Merle told me a week or so before the session, “and we’d decided what we was gonna make the album of, and what to call it— ‘Under the Bridge.’ Then these ‘xecutives came on out to the house in Redding to talk to me about it and play some songs for me—which just happened to be Tree Publishing songs, which CBS Records owns—and I said, ‘O.K., I’ll put a couple of songs you want on the album, songs that you like, but I get to call it ‘Under the Bridge,’ and you boys have got to give me great, dynamic-type promotion.’” (One of the suggested songs—“5:01 Blues”—eventually became the album’s title cut.) “That’s the trade I made. ‘Your expertise is in the line of marketing,’ I told ‘em, ‘and now you’re gettin’ into creative work.’ They maybe spot-listened to two, three songs for the album, and they come up with their own opinion on matters. They always seem to get the upper hand somehow. Someone is young when he starts out, O.K.—the company has got the goddam education and know-how. I was lucky that way—both Fuzzy Owen and Ken Nelsen, who produced me, let me have more or less a free hand. But, in general, you, as an artist, are insecure and—you know—vulnerable. I'm not young. I was supposed to be gone from this scene a long time ago, and yet here I am. Sometimes I think it would be a lot easier for the to just drop me, and quit worryin’ about three hundred thousand albums I’m gonna sell, or the gold I’m gonna jump up there and get. I’m a problem. Well, I don’t care. I don’t care if they drop me. I’ll just go to the goddam sky. I’ll just hire me the goddam sky-time on television and that son of a bitch. ‘Dial 800 HAG-TAPE,’ you know? HA HA HAAAA HA! If those companies don’t tie up the sky rights, they’re gonna lose everything. It’s plain marketing sense. You can advertise even an unknown or forgotten artist that way. There’s three or four that have done it—Roger Whittaker, Boxcar Willie, Cristy Lane. CBS offered ‘ol Boxcar Willie a contract. You know what he told ‘em? ‘You gotta be shittin’ me! You gonna pay me two dollars an album? I make nine where I’m at right now!’ I can make as much out of fifty thousand sales in the sky as I can with three hundred thousand at CBS.
“Most of the old gentlemen at CBS I grew up with are gone. Now, CBS let Johnny Cash go a while ago. Just like that! I couldn’t stand it. I said, ‘You know you let the son of a bitch go who paid for the seats you’re sittin’ in?’ They aren’t old enough to understand what I’m talkin’ about. They don’t even understand the value of preserving the talent. What they’re interested in is a fast record sale, and promotions, and getting’ the wives to the Virgin Islands.”
As the recording session, which began around 5 p.m., dragged on into the night, a crowd gathered in the control room, arriving in twos and threes. Mike Leech had rounded up some studio musicians for the session, including Johnny Christopher and Bobby Wood, the co-writers of “A Better Love Next Time.” At least four other songwriters were also present: Red Lane, who is an old friend and collaborator of Merle’s; Jeff Tweel, who had co-written “5:01 Blues”; and two younger men, who had come to see if they could pitch songs to Merle. In addition to the songwriters, the group in the control room included Dottie West, a veteran country singer with a mane of teased strawberry hair, who was wearing a red blouse and fringed, red, knee-high boots and had fingernails the length of fingers and earrings the size of minor planets; Frank Mull, who was described to me by one of the Strangers as “Merle’s Nashville liaison man, whatever the hell that means”; a booking agent named Bill Deaton; a white-haired goateed fellow in a buckskin jacket who looked like Buffalo Bill; and a silent couple in T-shirts (he gaunt, she plump), who stood against a far wall sucking slowly but constantly on beer for six hours. At one point, a couple of drunks wandered in from the street and hung around for about fifteen minutes before John Abbot, the session’s recording engineer, realized that they had no business there and asked them to leave.
After each run-through, Merle and the other musicians would come into the control room to listen to their efforts. All eyes were on Merle as he sat on the console, smoking. He greeted the onlookers collectively, in a slightly distracted way, and seemed to take little notice of their reactions to his own comments on how things were going.
“Well, we’re getting’ there. That sounded pretty good,” Merle would say, looking toward Abbot, who was making notations on a time sheet.
“Yeah, Merle, I think we’re pretty close,” Johnny Christopher or Bobby Wood would say.
Dottie West would smile and say, “That’s just a beautiful song, Merle. I could listen to it all night.”
The two hipsters would take another sip of beer and not and mumble in agreement between themselves.
Billy Deaton would nod and say, “Pschew, boy! That’s something, Brother Merle.”
Buffalo Bill would nod and say, sotto voce, “Pschew, boy!”
Now and then, Merle, after remarking on how close a taping was to what he wanted, would say on the order of “But we gotta do it again. It feels a little a busy there.” There followed so much studious “Of course, but it’s still good, that’s what I meant” nodding.
“I don’t know, Merle, it sounds just perfect to me,” Dottie West would say. (A little after midnight, she mentioned how hungry she was. “But if it comes to choosing between listening to Merle Haggard sing and my eating, I’d listen to Merle anytime,” She told me, just before leaving to get something to eat.)
The hipsters would nod, a shade more tentatively than they had before.
Billy Deaton would say, “Pschew, boy! You know best, Brother Merle.”
Buffalo Bill would wait a second and say, “Pschew, boy!”
Johnny Christopher would say, “Well, it’s possibly just a bit too fat.”
Then the musicians would follow Merle down the steps into the recording room to set up for another run-through, and the consensus among the crowd was that Merle knew exactly what he wanted and wouldn’t quit until he got it.
At one point in the evening, Merle invited a few of the musicians to his bus, in the studio parking lot, to drink what he called Master Cleaner, a potent mixture of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, maple syrup, water, and cayenne pepper. “I got the recipe from Willie,” he told them as he moved around the bus kitchen. “It picks you up good. They claim they talk about this in the Bible—that Christ talked about using it when fasting. I’ve never found it in there, though.” He poured an inch or so of the concoction into each of the glasses. “I tell you what, boys, I’m leavin’ the seeds in there. You can swallow ‘em or take ‘em out, it don’t make any difference—but, whichever, here’s the best way to do it.” He drained his glass in a quick gulp. “Just turn it up and get after it. HA!”
Back in the studio a few minutes later, Merle was feeling spry. At the microphone, he extemporized some lyrics: “Soon as I am strong, I’ll be movin’ on. To a better love next time” became “Soon as I get stoned, I’ll be movin’ on. Get better drugs next time.” The musicians, the songwriters, the hipsters, Dottie West, Billy Deaton, Frank Mull, and Buffalo Bill laughed along with Merle.
“Course, you understand, boys, all that’s far behind us now, isn’t it?” Merle said, and his voice became stentorian bass. “Satan has turned a covey—a covey, brothers and sisters—a covey of false preachers loose on this country. Preachers, men of the Word, but the don’t even know their own sex, let alone their own God! HA HA HAAAA HA!” Returning to his normal, gravelly baritone: “Hope I can keep goin’ here, boys. I got me a bad cold. Not a good one. Kristofferson was playin’ with Willie one night, and he said to Willie, ‘Damn, but I think I'm losin’ my voice,’ and Willie looks at him and says, ‘Kris, how can you tell?’” After the laughter had subsided, Merle repeated himself. “‘How can you tell?’ That’s how I feel tonight. But sometimes you can sing right through it.”
Another run-through. Another listening session in the control room. Another run-through.
At one-thirty in the morning, nine hours after Merle had strolled into the studio, he snuffed a cigarette out in John Abbott’s ashtray near the wide control board and walked down the steps to stand behind the microphone and run through, once again, “A Better Love Next Time,” the plaintive ballad (“They say the darkest hour is just before dawn, So I’ll just hold my head up and try to sing my song”) he had been working on much of the night. He wanted to lay down another voice track. Weeks later, after ten or twenty or a hundred reviews of the evening’s tapes, and many consultations with Mark Yeary, Merle’s keyboard man and the record’s co-producer, and unofficial consultations with other members of the Strangers, he would decide which of the dozen or so of that night’s takes he liked best. He could also have Abbot patch parts of various tracks together before a final master tape was sent on to be pressed.
He was, at last, alone the recording room, and nearly alone in the building—a small, short-trunked, stooped, pale, aging man in frayed denim pants, a denim jacket, a terrycloth long-sleeved shirt, cowboy boots, and a baseball cap. All that remained of the crowd that had earlier swelled to almost twenty people were Norman Hamlet, who was asleep on a long couch in front of the control console, Yeary, Leech, Abbott, and myself.
The joking and the gossip and the musician talk had ended. Merle missed his first cue and asked Abbott to begin again. Abbott gave him a hand signal, and Merle began doing what he has always done best in his sidelong journey through life: making music. He seemed—as he had each time he got behind the microphone all that long afternoon and night—rapt, oblivious. His eyes closed, and his voice began to run not just through the lyrics but over and under and around them. His voice cracked artfully, then rose and dropped and splashed and bubbled, like a high mountain stream. Then it would break and emerge to bob and swirl in a multisyllabic eddy. His voice would arch—“for” became “fooooooor”—then soar. It toppled end over end through the air, only to submerge once again in the music. It would open up on the low notes and squeeze itself on the high notes. Merle knew the words by now, and only rarely would he look at the handwritten lyrics sheet, which was in front of him on a small stand. His head, like that of a practiced golfer or a great baseball hitter, remained still, as the rest of him twisted and turned and jerked: he was, for a moment, a bodybuilder, with his hands clenched, fingers locked to palms, at the tip of his breastbone, while he hefted his diaphragm and lifted his shoulders. Occasionally, he would emphasize a phrase, opening his hands in front of him, pleading like a weekend singer in an empty Ramada Inn lounge. His eyes would open in surprise, as if he had been pinched, then close quickly. His mouth would twitch sidewise into a grimace that was cousin to a wry smile. He would hitch his elbows, put his fingers to his chin. Sometimes he wrung his wrists; sometimes he tucked his chin so deep that flesh oozed like batter from his neck. He bent at the waist; he dodged like a shadowboxer; he bent his knees, he clasped his hands over his breast, emoting like a heroine in a melodrama. He arched backward; he dipped first his right shoulder, then his left, in quick, almost spastic movements.
I was watching and listening from a sitting room separated by a large picture window from the recording area. I hadn’t slept for nearly twenty-four hours. I hadn’t eaten for nearly twelve, and the studio’s harsh coffee whipsawed across my empty stomach. But for a few minutes I was neither stoned with exhaustion nor sick with hunger. I was no longer angry at Merle for the half-dozen interviews he had skipped out on. I no longer cared about his naïve, contradictory politics and his often wayward opinions on human nature and social evolution. His tortured marital history, his confused business affairs dropped away, and all that mattered was his evocations of the heart. I was back in a bar near my home, in Montana, in 1974. My ancient crate of a Ford, which almost always started, was parked in the rutted lot in a clod night rain, and I was dancing, damn drunk, with a damn-drunk girlfriend, our arms draped across each other as we shuffled around in the small space next to the pool table. The song we danced to was “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 falling snow. If we make it through December, Got plans to be in a warmer town come summertime, Maybe even California. If we make it through December, we’ll be fine.”) The sad notes, the hopeful words filled the bar, and my partner began crying on my shoulder. I thought for a moment that she had finally fallen in love with me, but by the time the song ended I realized that she had fallen in love with Merle. Or Merle’s song. Or a lost love. Or the idea of the next love. I drove her home. We hardly saw each other after that, and we never danced again, but I’ve been listening to Merle ever since.
I looked up, back in the little room off the studio, and Merle had finished singing. He took his earphones off, and went to stand beside John Abbott, in the control room.
“Let’s save that one, just in case it’s good,” he said.
Bryan Di Salvatore is the author of A Clever Base-Ballist, a biography of 19th-century union leader and baseball star John Montgomery Ward. Other New Yorker pieces include "Large Cars" (long-distance truckers) and "Vehement Fire" (dynamite). He has recently finished a novel, Lefty. He lives in Missoula, Montana and is married to novelist Deirdre McNamer.