Master of the Universe

From presidents to pop stars, Merle Haggard has a song for everyone

Given that complex people are often best described with a few short words, "universal appeal" seems the most fitting tag for Merle Haggard. Over the years, Haggard's fans have included everyone from Richard Nixon, who once told Haggard that singing tunes such as "Working Man Blues" was a good way to "get some of these people off of their asses," to Houston blues diva Trudy Lynn, who transforms Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again" into one of the most powerful songs in her considerable repertoire. The Grateful Dead, Matthew Sweet, Dean Martin: the list of Haggard devotees goes on and on.

In last year's crowded field of tribute CDs, a rare standout was the Haggard homage, Tulare Dust. Far from the usual collection of covers, Tulare features Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely and a host of other worthy songwriters -- all of whom managed to pay heartfelt and honest compliments to Bakersfield's lyric master. It was Tulare Dust that brought singer/songwriter Iris DeMent to Haggard's attention. Her rendition of "Big City" caught the song's author by surprise: DeMent's conviction and depth, Haggard found himself telling people, went far beyond what he was ever able to muster on the song. Curiosity aroused, Haggard caught up with DeMent, and as a result, his most recent release, 1996, features DeMent's painful "No Time to Cry" -- a brutally honest tale of a musician's guilt over being too busy to mourn a father's death -- along with nine tunes written or co-written by Haggard, many of which rank with the masterpieces from his '60s and '70s reign over the country charts.

1996 contains drinking songs, truck-driving songs and even a powerful plea for environmental awareness ("Winds of Change") that speaks graphically of mountain streams turned factory brown and of mystic conversations with eagles. 1996 is Haggard's third CD on the Curb label, and it follows 1994 in a one-two creative punch that showcases Haggard's continuing mastery of the classic country-songwriter format, while demolishing concerns raised by the unevenness of his career after he left Capitol in 1977. Although his work for Epic and MCA had moments of brilliance -- including the raucous Rainbow Stew live release and numerous duets with Willie Nelson and George Jones -- that era also contributed instances of undeniable floundering, such as 1977's terminally bizarre My Farewell to Elvis.

In addition to his creative dry spell, Haggard was beset with the sort of financial problems that seem a prerequisite for a country superstar's resume, and he was forced to sell his publishing company. By the end of the '80s, the entertainment industry, always willing to rubberneck and cluck sympathetically at the sight of a wreck, was ready to put Haggard out to pasture. But Haggard had other plans, and as 1994 and 1996 attest, they've borne fruit

"We're getting a lot of good reviews these days," says Haggard, calling from his California ranch following a swing through Australia. "We've got the best band we've ever had in my life. Best crew, too."

The occasional reversal of fortune is nothing new for Haggard. His parents were poverty-stricken Okies who fled the Dust Bowl for California and lived in an abandoned boxcar when they first arrived in Bakersfield. Haggard was nine when his father died, and that tragedy shaped the next decade and a half of his life. While Haggard worked the construction and agricultural jobs that would later give verisimilitude to his laborer's anthems, his personal demons led to ever-escalating scrapes with the law. Haggard was already a husband and a father, and not yet 21, when he graduated from municipal lockups to the penitentiary at San Quentin with a 15-year sentence for burglary. A week in solitary and prison performances by Johnny Cash brought a focus to Haggard's outlook. (Legend has it that years later Haggard complimented Cash on a San Quentin show. Cash, confused, responded he didn't recall Haggard's being on the bill. Haggard's response, of course, was, "I was in the audience, not the band.")

Determined to change his life, Haggard became a model prisoner and was paroled after serving three years. Although he returned to digging ditches to feed his family, his prison-shaped goals were purely musical. He had idolized Jimmie Rodgers as a child, and had sat in with Lefty Frizzell when he was still a teenager. The recordings of Frizzell, Hank Williams and Bob Wills had provided the only bright moments of his troubled youth; Haggard pursued that brightness like a trapped miner clawing toward the light. The income from ditch digging was soon replaced -- and surpassed -- by gigs at Bakersfield honky-tonks. Buoyed by his success, Haggard headed for Las Vegas and made the acquaintance of country legend Wynn Stewart. Impressed with Haggard's voice, guitar playing and fervent loyalty to traditional country music, Stewart offered him a job on bass for the impressive (in 1963) wage of $250 a week; the offer inspired Haggard to begin learning the instrument as quickly as possible.

The time Haggard spent backing Stewart was critical to his career. Working alongside renowned sidemen such as fiddler Gordon Terry and steel guitar player Ralph Mooney (who Haggard says now had "just the greatest tone. I don't know of anyone who on their very best day could have ever played any better than Ralph") taught Haggard how a band should work; watching Stewart every night taught him how a band leader should act. These were lessons Haggard soon put to good use. Stewart allowed his protege to record "Sing a Sad Song," which created a surprise sensation on Billboard's country charts at a time when traditional country music and unknown artists went generally unnoticed. Before long, Haggard was introduced to songwriter Liz Anderson, who had written a tune titled "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers." That song became Haggard's first top ten hit, the source of a name for his band, the Strangers, and the beginning of a dozen years and 38 albums with Capitol Records.

The Capitol years ensured Haggard's place in the pantheon of country performers. His days of digging ditches and bucking hay bales became "Workin' Man Blues" and "The Roots of My Raising"; his marriages and divorces became "I Threw Away the Roses" and "Today I Started Loving You Again"; the sides he chose in the politically polarized 1960s became "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fighting Side of Me" (no one, after all, would expect an ex-con who had received a pardon from California governor Ronald Reagan to be a liberal). Many of Haggard's most poignant songs dealt with memories of prison and a life of crime, from "Branded Man" and "Mama Tried" to the wrenching "Sing Me Back Home," which later became the title of his autobiography. That story of a death-row convict walking the last mile as his friends sing gospel songs has long been taken as factual, although Haggard explains that it is at least partially idealized.

"There's a couple of different characters that molded their way into that song," Haggard says. "One was Carol Chessman, the so-called Red Light Bandit that they put to death while I was [at San Quentin]. And then there was a guy that escaped from San Quentin while I was there, who knew me and I could have went with him. While he was on the lam from the joint, he killed a guy. And when he came back, they executed him. We were his people at the joint before he escaped. And we would see him as he walked back and forth from his attorney meetings, across the main yard in the traditional condemned manner, which was a guard in the front and a guard in the back. [The song] wasn't a situation that actually occurred, but it could have and would have if it had been more Disney-like than reality."

As his reputation grew, Haggard found himself in a position to work with the country artists who had always been his heroes. The most poignant of these sessions, regrettably long unavailable, is a double LP entitled Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys -- For the Last Time Around. The Western Swing legend had suffered several strokes, and Haggard agreed to join the Playboys for what everyone knew would be Wills' last recording. The instrumental tracks were laid down, with Wills' trademark interjection, "ah-haa," scattered throughout. A few hours before Haggard arrived to sing the vocals, Wills suffered a massive, and final, stroke.

"I just went ahead and did what I thought he would want me to do." Haggard remembers. "I did a song called 'I Wonder If You Feel the Way I Do.' He was already incoherent, and I wondered what he'd like me to do, so I said I'll do this little ballad. A year or so after that record was made, I read somewhere or I heard an old interview; somebody asked him, 'What's your favorite song you've recorded?' and he said 'Wonder If You Feel the Way I Do.' I didn't know that when I recorded [it], and it kinda put goose bumps on me."

So what's next on the agenda for the 58-year-old Haggard? He's been to prison and he's been to the White House; he's sung his own songs, those of his heroes and the songs of kids who are as unknown as he once was. Haggard's been rich and he's been poor; he's been married and divorced, and there's an unabashed father's pride in his voice as he plugs son Marty Haggard's new CD, Amnesia -- even though he hasn't had a chance to hear it yet. His life is a story fit for the movies -- and that's where it's headed. Sing Me Back Home has been picked up by United Artists. "We're not talking television; we're talking about a major motion picture," says Haggard, with unrepentant Okie pride.

Rich, famous and in the movies. But what still matters most to Haggard is what made it all possible: the pain and the joy, the boozing and the jailing, the honesty and the poetry, the loving and the heartache -- the stuff of music and legends.

Merle Haggard performs at 7:30 and 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, March 5 and 6, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $25, $45 and $55. For info, call 869-8427.

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