New York Times bestselling author Marc Eliot knew about the subject of his last published biography, “The Hag: The Life, Times, and Music of Merle Haggard,” for 25 years before his death in 2016.
The writer’s exposure to music, however, runs deeper than “Okie From Muskogee.” He is a self-proclaimed baby boomer who was a friend of Phil Ochs and others on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. He remembers listening to Haggard in his youth, a time when music “n was not just background noise, but rather a way of life”.
“I’ve always been drawn to underdogs,” he said. “So it’s compelling to write about people who have overcome both the American Dream and the American Nightmare to achieve success.”
Eliot has written about Bruce Springsteen and The Eagles, as well as movie stars like Clint Eastwood. But Haggard may fit Eliot’s description of the ideal subject.
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It was Ochs who introduced Eliot to the country anthem released in 1968, which gave Haggard his nickname. “[Phil told me]listen, ‘Okie from Muskogee’ [represents] great writing, and I’m going to start playing the song in my concerts. Once he did, it created so much excitement.”
While writing the 400+ page book, the author had nearly 100 conversations with artists about Haggard. His subjects included Country Music Hall of Fame members Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam, several members of Merle’s band “The Strangers”, as well as Merle’s best friend and legendary steel guitarist Fuzzy Owen, who discovered Merle and was the first to record it.
Through this rare level of access, the depth and influence of Haggard is uncovered. For example, Dwight Yoakam – another Bakersfield sound enthusiast and friend of the legend, sheds light on Haggard’s creative and personal motivations.
“The best part of Merle’s story was his struggle to escape, not just from the prisons, which he was good at, but from the emotional prison he had no control over,” Yoakam said. “The rest of his story is a somewhat mundane show biz saga – he wrote this, he sang that, he did that show, he won that award, etc. The real drama happened offstage , outside of the physical world, where a battle for self-reconciliation has been fought.”
Such insight allows Eliot to dig deeper into Haggard’s roots to discern how the singer’s life of 38 No. 1 country singles impacted his style and sound. Haggard grew up the son of a religious mother. His father was a musician who died of a stroke aged 39, when Haggard was nine. For Haggard, the death created a tension that inspired much of his career.
“Because he thought his father’s death was his fault, it haunted him,” Eliot says. “He acted out his frustrations by becoming a delinquent and ending up [California’s] Saint Quentin [State Prison] at the age of 19. Moreover, he took up the guitar because it brought him closer to his father. However, the anger, rage and fear associated with his father’s death stayed with him for the rest of his life.”
“Merle wrote the story of his life in his songs, and those songs, while specific to him, are also universal to everyone,” Eliot continues of the genius that separated Haggard from other singer-songwriters. of his generation and others.
Like fellow Nashville California transplant Buck Owens, Haggard drew inspiration from those who came before him – but his sound was all his own. Together, Haggard and Owens achieved success as progenitors of a style later called the “Bakersfield sound”.
Haggard, notes Eliot, thought Nashville’s vision of country music was inspired by the church. The Bakersfield sound, Haggard said, “came out of the bars”.
Haggard’s works like 1966’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” and 1968’s “Mama Tried” were about the relativity of blue-collar workers who wanted to let off steam.
“That atmosphere made its way into the music,” Eliot said. “The songs had an upbeat, rhythmic pop-crossover style with electric guitars, but lyrics that appealed to tough guys and drunk guys. It’s not romance and love with girls, it’s about feminization with women. It’s not Coca-Cola [they’re drinking]; it’s hard whiskey. They don’t drive around in Cadillacs; they travel in Volkswagen buses. It created a formula that artists still use today.”
“Haggard reminds me of a poet like Robert Frost or John Donne,” Eliot continued. “Take a song like [1974-released] “If we make it through December.” They were all obsessed with the balance between humanity and the frankness of catastrophic or fatalistic images. The uneasiness of the meter of their poetry as writers reflects the honesty of our everyday conversations being turned into art.”
Ultimately, Eliot takes the subject of his book to a higher level as a man and a creator after writing his last reading. Plus, he discovered the secret to Haggard’s lasting legacy.
“Merle was singular. He did something no one had ever done before. Haggard made anti-romantic country music that was as pragmatic as it was autobiographical. In his writing, he was both timely and timeless. [Merle’s] roots.”