‘Merle Haggard’ was such a perfect name for an old country singer-songwriter that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a stage name. But Merle Haggard actually was the birth name of the country music legend who died earlier this week, on his seventy-ninth birthday. Just ponder that for a moment: there once was a baby named Merle Haggard.
To understand Merle Haggard’s origins, The Grapes of Wrath is a good place to start. Jim and Flossie Haggard left Dust Bowl Oklahoma in 1935, after their barn burned down. The Haggards piled their children (there were two at the time) and all their belongings into a 1926 Chevrolet and a homemade trailer and, like the Joads, followed Route 66 all the way to California. They settled in Oildale, across the Kern River from Bakersfield. Jim got a job with the railroad and converted a refrigerated boxcar into a home for his family. There, in 1937, was born the baby they named Merle. That’s right: Merle Haggard was born in a boxcar.
Thanks to Jim’s railroad job, the Haggards weren’t as impoverished as many of the Okies who made their way to California, but Jim died when Merle was nine, and Flossie (again, like Ma Joad) struggled to keep the family together. Merle soon proved to be more than his single mother could handle. He was constantly in trouble for one petty crime or another and was constantly in and out of reformatories and juvenile halls, from which he repeatedly escaped. He later claimed to have escaped from detention seventeen times. At the age of fourteen, Merle Haggard and a friend hitchhiked and hopped trains all the way to Texas. Upon their return they were arrested for a robbery they didn’t commit, which led to another trip to juvenile hall and another escape for Merle. One writer described Merle Haggard’s youth as “Huck Finn meets Harry Houdini.” Meets the Artful Dodger, I would add.
Young Merle Haggard was a pretty bad criminal. By that I don’t mean he was a hardened criminal, but that he was bad at being a criminal. When he was nineteen or twenty, he and two friends decided to burgle a roadhouse after closing time. But in the run-up to the burglary, they got drunk and lost track of time. They were surprised when the owner opened the back door they were trying to break into. It wasn’t 3 am as they thought, but 10:30 pm, and the roadhouse wasn’t even closed yet.
That escapade landed Merle Haggard in San Quentin prison. Things got worse before they got better in San Quentin: Merle Haggard got fired from various prison jobs, ran a gambling racket and a brewery from his prison cell, planned an escape (which he didn’t carry out), and ended up in solitary, where a celebrity death-row inmate named Caryl Chessman talked some sense into him.
Merle Haggard was in the audience at San Quentin when Johnny Cash performed the first of his many prison concerts. Cash made a big impression on the young musician, who had actually begun playing small clubs before he went to prison. As Merle Haggard remembered later,
He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.
Inspired by Johnny Cash (and, perhaps more significantly, by two prison friends who were executed by the state of California), after prison Merle Haggard worked hard to pursue a musical career rather than a criminal career. As we all know, he succeeded.
This week of Merle Haggard’s death, there have been any number of articles assessing the significance of his music–his contribution to the Bakersfield sound, his challenge to the over-produced, excessively-slick Nashville sound, the way his songs gave a voice to America’s working class.
I don’t have a lot to add to those excellent assessments, but I do have an old joke to tell: Two theatergoers are coming out of a performance of Hamlet, and one says to the other, “Well? What did you think?” The other one says, “I would have liked it a lot if it weren’t for all the cliches.”
From where we sit, Merle Haggard’s music can seem cliche-ridden. Drinking. Prison. Mama. He hits all the hot buttons. Consider the chorus of my favorite Merle Haggard song, “Mama Tried”:
I turned twenty-one in prison
Doing life without parole.
No one could steer me right,
But Mama tried, Mama tried.
Mama tried to raise me better,
But her pleading I denied.
That leaves only me to blame,
Cause Mama tried.
Does that sound overly sentimental and manipulative? Maybe. Except that Merle Haggard did turn twenty-one in prison, and his fundamentalist Christian mother did try really hard to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Or consider one of my less-favorite Merle Haggard mama songs, “Hungry Eyes”:
A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labor camp
Stand out in this memory I revived;
Cause my daddy raised a family there, with two hard working hands
And tried to feed my mama’s hungry eyes.
He dreamed of something better, and my mama’s faith was strong
And us kids were just too young to realize
That another class of people put us somewhere just below;
One more reason for my mama’s hungry eyes.
To me, that one always seemed just too on-the-nose and manipulative. A labor camp? Really? Somebody’s been reading too much Grapes of Wrath. But I recently learned that young Merle Haggard did have relatives who lived in a canvas-covered cabin in a crowded labor camp: he wrote about that scene from first-hand experience.
If Merle Haggard’s songs are full of cliches, they’re full of cliches the way Hamlet is. Merle Haggard was one of those artists who invented the cliches.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.