Scott B. Bomar

Following his death, Merle Haggard's hometown newspaper, The Bakersfield Californian, put together a special tribute section that went on to win first place in the "best writing" category from the prestigious California Newspaper Publishers Association. Scott contributed the articles "Haggard's 20 Essential Songs" and "The Roots of his Raising: The Men Who Shaped Haggard's Artistry." Both can be found via the above links, or in text-only form below. The Californian articles are followed by Scott's obituary of Haggard that appeared on Bear Family Records' website.

Haggard's 20 Essential Songs
The Bakersfield Californian
April 6, 2016

Reducing Merle Haggard’s recorded output to any sort of manageable list is nearly impossible.

The celebrated Country Music Hall of Famer and “poet of the common man,” who died Wednesday at age 79, reached the Top 10 on the Billboard Country Singles chart more than 70 times between 1966 and 1989. Nearly 40 of those songs climbed all the way to the No. 1 spot.

Beyond the hits, Haggard released 54 studio albums as a solo act, 10 collaborative albums with other artists, 11 live releases and five additional studio albums spotlighting his legendary band, the Strangers.

Though he is regarded as one of the greatest American songwriters of all time, Haggard often recorded material by others. Several of his No. 1 hits are memorable interpretations of songs such as “The Roots of My Raising” by fellow Bakersfield Sound legend Tommy Collins and “You Take Me For Granted” by Leona Williams, who was married to Haggard from 1978 to 1983.

Perhaps one of his best performances is “That’s the Way Love Goes,” a tune penned by Whitey Shafer with Merle’s childhood hero, Lefty Frizzell. To best understand Merle Haggard, however, there’s no better starting point than the songs that came from his own pen. Here are a handful of the essentials:

1. “Mama Tried” (1968) — No. 1 single
From the "Mama Tried" album (Capitol Records)

He might not have been doing life without parole as the lyrics claim, but Haggard did turn 21 in prison, thanks largely to a wandering spirit that ended in a few too many brushes with the law. The song isn’t strictly autobiographical, but it’s pretty darn close.

Most of the elements of Merle’s real life are here: respect for mama, the restlessness that comes from losing a father at a young age, stubborn individuality, the importance of personal responsibility and even the romance of a lonesome train whistle that would call out to Haggard’s sense of adventure his entire life.

Breezy and melodic, but wrapped in Telecaster twang, “Mama Tried” captures the essence of an artist just hitting his stride as a bona fide country star. In 1999 this career-defining single was recognized by the prestigious Grammy Hall of Fame, which honors recordings of “lasting qualitative or historical significance.”

2. “Big City” (1981) — No. 1 single
From the “Big City” album (Epic Records)

When Haggard’s tour bus driver and longtime friend Dean Holloway commented that he was “tired of this dirty old city” during a trip to a Los Angeles recording studio, Merle heard a great opening line. Legend has it that he wrote the song on the spot, returned to the studio minutes later and recorded it with his band in just one take.

The twin fiddles harken back to the sound of Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, who was one of Haggard’s greatest influences. Lyrically, it exemplifies two of Haggard’s most commonly recurring themes: a longing for freedom and the plight of the hard-working everyman who just can’t seem to get ahead.

The album was Haggard’s first for the Epic label, and he sounds reinvigorated to be starting fresh once again. The fans agreed, and “Big City” became Haggard’s first studio album to be certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

3. “Branded Man” (1967) — No. 1 single
From the “Branded Man / I Threw Away the Rose” album (Capitol Records)

Though Haggard spent nearly three years in San Quentin State Prison, he wrote relatively few autobiographical songs about the experience. “Branded Man,” however, is a poignant snapshot of an ex-con who has served his time but must live with the mark of shame placed on him by a society that stigmatizes former prisoners.

With themes of personal pride, quiet defiance and a struggle to overcome obstacles beyond one’s own control, this is a classic Haggard lyric perfectly punctuated by the sparse but biting fretwork of longtime lead guitarist Roy Nichols.

Though Haggard hit the top of the charts earlier that year with Liz Anderson’s “The Fugitive,” this was his first self-penned No. 1 hit. The LP later appeared on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

4. “Silver Wings” (1969) — non-single
From the “A Portrait of Merle Haggard” album (Capitol Records)

Though it appeared on the B-side of “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Silver Wings” was not released as a single. It remained a staple of Haggard’s live performances, and stands as a testament to his unparalleled skill for capturing genuine emotion in powerfully few words.

The entire song includes only eight lines of lyrics, and that’s all it takes to make you feel the stabbing pain of the heartbroken lover who’s been left behind. The gorgeous string arrangement is a reminder that Haggard was as much a master of buttery smoothness as he was tough honky-tonk grit.

5. “Ramblin’ Fever” (1977) — No. 2 single
From the “Ramblin’ Fever” album (MCA Records)

After more than a decade with Capitol Records, Haggard switched to MCA for 1977’s “Ramblin’ Fever” LP. He wrote only two of the songs on the album, but the title track is a perfectly stated testament to the restlessness Haggard could never shake.

The “lonesome whistle” that appears in many of his best compositions is back and, as always, it’s calling him to leave his responsibilities behind so he can roam freely. It’s an echo of the rambling spirit of Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman” who was another of Haggard’s childhood musical heroes.

Though Haggard most often recorded with his own band, “Ramblin’ Fever” was cut in Nashville with top-notch studio musicians who give the single a somewhat slicker sheen than the organic sound fans had grown accustomed to. The line “I want to die along the highway” rings especially bittersweet, considering the Hag did his best to stay on the road playing gigs as long as possible.

“It’s what keeps me alive and it’s what f**ks up my life,” Merle said of touring in a 2016 interview with Matt Hendrickson.

6. “I Started Loving You Again” (1968) — non-single
From “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” album (Capitol Records)

Though it appeared on the B-side of the “Bonnie and Clyde” single, the song that later came to be known as “Today I Started Loving You Again” was surprisingly never a major success for Haggard as an artist.

Sammi Smith had a Top 10 country hit with it in 1975, but it’s also been a charting single for everyone from schmaltzy pop crooner Al Martino to R&B legend Bobby “Blue” Bland. By some estimates, it’s the Haggard song that’s been recorded by more artists than any other.

The achingly beautiful ballad was both inspired by and co-credited to Bonnie Owens, who was Haggard’s second wife, harmony singer and musical right hand. He often recognized the former wife of fellow Bakersfield pioneer Buck Owens as the spark that really got his career started in the 1960s.

7. “If We Make it Through December” (1973) — No. 1
From the “If We Make it Through December” album (Capitol Records)

Though it’s come to be thought of as a Christmas song, the familiar Haggard theme of an honest blue-collar working man who’s barely hanging on doesn’t exactly ring with holiday cheer. The tale of a father whose “little girl don’t understand why daddy can’t afford no Christmas gift” was not only a country hit but became Haggard’s highest charter on the pop rankings when it reached No. 28.

Despite the bleak narrative, the lyric isn’t without hope. Haggard could masterfully convey heartbreak and defeat in his lyrics, but his characters are rarely entirely broken. Instead, they’re usually in search of a way forward, even as they face seemingly insurmountable challenges.

8. “Kern River” (1985) — No. 10 single
From the “Kern River” album (Epic Records)

My previous comments about the kernels of hope in Haggard’s lyrics aside, “Kern River” is both an understated and crushingly sad ballad about a man whose love was swept away and killed by the deceptively dangerous waters of the Kern River. It’s a fine example of how Haggard could draw on real-life people and places to construct fictional narratives packed with emotional power.

9. “Footlights” (1979) — non-single

From the “Serving 190 Proof” album (MCA Records)

Another recurring theme in Haggard’s work is the process of coming to grips with the passage of time. “Footlights” is the opening track for one of Haggard’s best albums, and is a deeply personal meditation on aging from the perspective of the then-41-year-old Haggard.

Though the audience expects him to be an energetic and rebellious performer, he’s losing his youthful fire. The tricky part is that he doesn’t know what else to do and he’s “got no place to go when it’s over.”

Haggard struggled with the demands of fame and, like fellow songwriting legend Bob Dylan, resented being pigeonholed, directed or having the unrealistic expectations of others placed on him. Nevertheless, making music was what he loved and what he knew how to do. It was his calling.

What would happen, he wondered in his early 40s, as he continued to age in a business that prized the contributions of the young? We now know it worked out just fine, but at the time it was a legitimate fear for the newly middle-aged Haggard as he faced the dawning of a new decade. Such lyrical vulnerability is almost unimaginable for a chart-topping country hit maker today.

10. “Okie From Muskogee” (1969) — No. 1 single
An alternate version appeared on the “Okie From Muskogee” live album (Capitol Records)

Though Haggard was already a country star, it was this politically charged anti-hippie anthem that catapulted him onto the national stage and made him a polarizing figure in the early days of the so-called culture wars. Nixon’s “silent majority” embraced it as an anthem, while the counterculture that previously celebrated Haggard as a poet of the common man was repulsed.

Muddying the waters, Haggard wasn’t always consistent in his explanation of the meaning behind the song that won the single of the year honor at both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards. At times he defended the lyrics by disparaging anti-war activists, while at other times he claimed the whole thing was actually a big joke.

Either way, Haggard ultimately came to resent the fact that he was expected to be a poster boy for anyone’s political agenda. Haggard’s own views — like those of most Americans — were evolving in that turbulent era.

“The hippies didn’t believe in the war,” Haggard explained years later to author Deke Dickerson, “and it irritated me. . . . They were doing things that I thought were un-American. Well, it wasn’t un-American, they were smarter than me!

”Kids are always smarter than the old folks. They see through our bigotry and our hypocrisy.”

Haggard remained both opinionated and fiercely independent for the rest of his life. His views are perhaps best understood in the lyrics of a song called “Somewhere in Between” that he recorded in 1971, but did not release: “I stand looking at the left wing, and I turn toward the right / And either side don’t look too good examined under light / That’s just freedom of opinion, and their legal right to choose / That’s one right I hope we never lose.”

11. “Tulare Dust” (1971) — non-single
From the “Someday We’ll Look Back” album (Capitol Records)

Like many before them, Haggard’s parents migrated from Oklahoma to California in search of new economic opportunities. Those migrants helped shape the Bakersfield country music community that would eventually create an artistic environment that allowed Haggard to come into his own as a singer, songwriter and musician.

He frequently sang about labor camps, field workers and the migrant experience. One of the best examples is this ode to the farming community 60 miles north of Bakersfield: “Tulare dust in a farm boy’s nose,” he sings, “wonderin’ where the freight train goes.

“And I miss Oklahoma, but I’ll stay if I must. And help make a livin’ in the Tulare dust.”

12. “Workin’ Man Blues” (1969) — No. 1 single
From the “A Portrait of Merle Haggard” album (Capitol Records)

The familiar themes of personal freedom and wanderlust are present once again in this late 1960s classic, but this time they’re mere fantasies. As Haggard sings, “Sometimes I think about leaving / Do a little bummin’ around / I wanna throw my bills out the window / Catch a train to another town / But I go back working…”

While the character in the song might long to escape, he knows he can’t. He has responsibilities and commitments to others. It’s a reminder of the sense of loyalty that was a hallmark of Haggard’s own career.

Local Bakersfield music legends such as Lewis Talley, Fuzzy Owen, Bonnie Owens and Norm Hamlet, who supported his career back in the 1960s, remained a part of Haggard’s organization for decades. There were ups and downs, but those who worked for Haggard often felt they were part of a family.

3. “Irma Jackson” (1972) — non-single
From the “Let Me Tell You About a Song album” (Capitol Records)

Though it wasn’t released until 1972, Haggard recorded this interracial love story in November of 1969, about a week before “Okie From Muskogee” hit No. 1 on the country chart. Early in his career Haggard had recorded a version of Tommy Collins’ “Piedras Negras (Go Home),” which tells of an ill-fated love affair with a woman who has “dark skin and dark eyes and dark wavy hair.”

As with “Irma Jackson,” that song ends with the lovers separated by the intense pressures of societal prejudice. Nobody seemed to notice that mid-1960s statement, but things were different for Haggard by the end of the decade. Haggard was quickly becoming a hero to the political right, thanks to “Okie From Muskogee.”

Consequently, his record label discouraged him from releasing a song about an African-American lover with lines such as “If my lovin’ Irma Jackson is a sin / Then I don’t understand this crazy world we’re livin’ in.” Haggard knew “Irma Jackson” was a disarming counterbalance to the persona he was establishing with “Okie,” which was likely part of his motivation for wanting to release it.

Remember, one of the forces Haggard most strongly resisted was being pigeonholed. Nevertheless, he capitulated to the label’s wishes and instead saved “Irma Jackson” for the “Let Me Tell You About a Song” LP. It became the CMA’s Album of the Year for 1972.

“Of all the songs I’ve written,” Haggard explained in the spoken introduction, “this might be my favorite, because it tells it like it is.”

14. “Wishing All These Things Were New” (2000) — non-single
From the “If I Could Only Fly” album (Anti-Records)

After a disappointing stint on Curb Records in the 1990s, Haggard began the new millennium with a fresh perspective. He had gotten control of the substance abuse problems that had once plagued him; he was several happy years into his fifth (and final) marriage; he had two young children to whom he was determined to be a better father than he’d been with his now-adult children from his first marriage; and he had already been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, establishing his status as a living legend.

Haggard had nothing to prove and no desire to keep chasing elusive country radio hits in a rapidly changing marketplace. Instead, he signed with Anti- Records, a division of Epitaph, which is best known as a punk rock label. The stripped-down “If I Could Only Fly” album found the grizzled poet reflecting on his mortality to near-universal critical acclaim.

Though Haggard readily admitted that he was a man who’d made mistakes, he didn’t believe in living with regret.

“If I could start all over, guess I’d still do what I do,” he sings in “Wishing All These Things Were New.” It was a theme he would revisit regularly in his later work. Haggard, like most of us, had done things he wished he hadn’t, but he learned to make peace with the past and live with self-acceptance.

15. “You Don’t Have Far to Go” (1964) — non-single
From the B-side of the “Sam Hill” single (Tally Records)

Haggard’s recording career began under the direction of Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owen for their Bakersfield-based Tally label. One of those early tracks he recorded was “You Don’t Have Far to Go,” a song originally conceived by fellow Bakersfield Sound pioneer Red Simpson.

Simpson got the idea for the song while running late to his job in Johnny Barnett’s house band at the Lucky Spot nightclub on Edison Highway. He and Haggard, who was playing bass in the same group and did not yet have a recording contract, finished the song later.

After debuting on Haggard’s third Tally single, it cropped up again on his first Capitol LP, “Strangers.” A newly recorded version appeared as “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” on the “Branded Man / I Threw Away the Rose” LP in 1967. Then Merle recorded it yet again for his “Big City” album in the early 1980s.

It’s one of Haggard’s great heartbreak songs and a reminder that if he believed in something he would see it through. Haggard once told Simpson, “I’m gonna keep cuttin’ it until it’s a hit!”

16. “Swinging Doors” (1966) — No. 5 single
From the “Swinging Doors” album (Capitol Records)

The first national charting single written by Haggard was “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can,” which only reached the No. 42 position. His second self-penned charter was “Swinging Doors,” which climbed all the way to No. 5, making Haggard both a hit-making artist and songwriter.

Confessional songs about restlessness and the pursuit of personal freedom were one of Haggard’s strengths, but he was just as skilled at the grand tradition of country drinkin’ songs. An example of such classics is the No. 1 single “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” from 1980’s “Back to the Barrooms” album, but one of the best is “Swinging Doors.”

The story of a hopeless man who gave up his love and has taken up residence in a bar where he’s now “always here at home ‘til closing time” will have you crying in your beers as fast as you can drink ‘em down.

17. “Pretty When It’s New” (2010) — non-single
From the “I Am What I Am” album (Vanguard Records)

Haggard was always vocal about the influence that Country Music Hall of Famers Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell had on him as an artist, but he also held a deep appreciation for Tin Pan Alley pop standards and the crooning sound of vocalists such as Bing Crosby. There’s a touch of melancholy in Haggard’s jazz-tinged “Pretty When It’s New,” which declares “Love is always pretty when it’s new / Hey, there’s nothing bad about it ‘til your lover says ‘we’re through’.”

Nevertheless, it’s essentially a breezy and bouncy celebration of new love that sounds like a forgotten tune from the Great American Songbook. Haggard was characterized as a hardcore country outlaw, but he also had a sweet romantic center that was at the heart of his entire career and remained on full display in his underrated later work.

18. “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star” (1987) — No. 1 single
From the “Chill Factor” album (Epic Records)

Haggard appeared on the cover of Downbeat magazine in 1980, which dubbed him a “country jazz messiah.” The controversial decision to celebrate a country musician in the pages of the hallowed jazz publication resulted in some heated letters to the editor, most famously by bandleader Stan Kenton.

Whether the jazz establishment approved or not, however, that music was part of Haggard’s diverse artistic DNA. Some of those strains, along with pop and doo-wop influences, can be heard in Haggard’s final No. 1 hit, “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star.” Written with Freddy Powers, it’s a record that reminds listeners that Haggard wasn’t afraid to use horns, strings or any other “non-country” instrument to get his musical ideas across.

19. “Sometimes I Dream” (1990) — non-single
From the “Blue Jungle” album (Curb Records)

Though his 1990s recordings for the Curb label were some of his least commercially successful, there are quite a few gems from that era that shouldn’t be overlooked.

One is the understated “Sometimes I Dream,” which Haggard later re-recorded for his “Working in Tennessee” album in 2011. It’s sung from the perspective of a man whose heart has broken: “Seldom I laugh and seldom I ever cry / But there’s times when I drink too much and times when I lie.”

It’s a recognition that we humans have a tendency to deal with our feelings in self-destructive ways. It was a path Haggard knew from his own experience, but he had enough perspective to effectively channel those tendencies into brilliant songwriting.

20. “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)” (1981) — No. 2 single
From the “Big City” album (Epic Records)

Beginning in the early 1980s, Haggard’s lyrics frequently turned to nostalgia-oriented themes. One of the best-known examples is this ACM song of the year winner, which longs for a simpler time “before Nixon lied to us all on TV.”

The lyrics are about the loss of innocence that came with the advent of Vietnam, the proliferation of illegal drugs, the decline of quality manufacturing standards, the technological innovations that distanced us from the tactile experience of personal productivity, and even changes in gender politics. In other words, it covers a lot of ground as it laments the passing of an American Dream that perhaps never really existed to begin with.

Rather than being heavy-handed, Haggard constructs the song as a series of questions for the listener to ponder. “Is the best of the free life behind us now? Are the good times really over for good?” By the end of the song we find that familiar kernel of hope as he answers his own question, “The best of the free life is still yet to come. The good times ain’t over for good.”

It’s that final twist at the end that raises another question: Was Haggard a man who looked toward the past or toward the future? The answer is yes.


The Roots of his Raising: The Men Who Shaped Haggard's Artistry
The Bakersfield Californian
April 8, 2016

On June 16, 1995, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens staged a joint concert at the Kern County Fairgrounds. It was the first time the twin pillars of the Bakersfield music scene had shared a stage in nearly three decades, and the event attracted national media attention. The Nashville Network sent a correspondent to interview the two country legends on Merle’s bus before the show. When asked for a definition of the “Bakersfield Sound,” Buck responded, “It’s what Merle and I do.” Merle nodded, adding, “Good answer.” Neither man elaborated.

It was likely as good an answer as any. No doubt Buck and Merle had been asked to define the Bakersfield Sound thousands of times by thousands of interviewers over the years. They were probably sick of it. It’s likely, however, that the only reason anyone ever felt the need to come up with the term to begin with was simply an attempt to make sense of the fact that the biggest country star of the 1960s and the biggest country star of the 1970s both happened to emerge from the seemingly random (to outsiders, anyway) city of Bakersfield, more than 2,000 miles from the country music mecca of Nashville.

While both Buck and Merle apprenticed in legendary Bakersfield nightspots such as the Blackboard and the Lucky Spot, their respective sounds aren’t particularly similar. The Telecaster guitars and the aggressive pedal steel guitar work of Ralph Mooney that adorned both men’s early recordings are the hallmarks of what most casual fans imagine when they hear the term Bakersfield Sound. But no one would ever mistake a Buck Owens record for a Merle Haggard record, or vice versa. Both artists explored musical ground beyond popular notions of the Bakersfield Sound and perhaps even the majority of Haggard’s recorded output eschewed the so-called “hard-edged” character that supposedly marked Bakersfield’s musical identity.

Perhaps the Bakersfield Sound was actually just the Wynn Stewart sound filtered through Buck Owens. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it was really an era in the city’s musical history more than a prescribed set of instruments or musical characteristics. Maybe the whole thing was a myth. At a minimum, the term is an oversimplification.

No other artist ever shined a spotlight on the limits of the label to the degree that Merle Haggard did. Simultaneously contributing to and defying notions of a Bakersfield Sound, Haggard was a complex musical creature who incorporated a variety of disparate elements — folk, honky-tonk, Western swing, blues, popular songs, jazz, and more — into a fresh stew of American music that included many ingredients but always bore the inimitable flavor of Haggard’s unique identity.

Although he started out as a Lefty Frizzell imitator, Merle developed his own sound by incorporating a handful of musical influences into his repertoire. He explained the process to Jonny Whiteside in a 1999 interview for L.A. Weekly: “I thought, ‘You know what I'll do? I'll take a little bit of Lefty, a little bit of Elvis, a little Wynn Stewart, a little bit of Ernest Tubb and the other influences I had — Jimmie Rodgers, Chuck Berry, Grady Martin and Roy Nichols, Bob Wills — and just be honest with it, try to make somethin' out of what I was.’ Well, it worked.”

Of course a musical genius and singular artist like Merle Haggard is much more than simply the sum of his influences, but understanding Haggard’s artistry begins with recognizing the importance of his musical heroes. It’s something the man himself wanted us to understand. “Eliminate all his albums and songs intended to express gratitude and admiration for other artists,” author David Cantwell pointed out in his 2013 book “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind,” “and you’d very nearly halve his catalogue.”

Some of the most influential of those artists were:

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

The Texas-born “King of Western Swing” began recording with his band in the mid-1930s. He found major success with hits such as “New San Antonio Rose” in 1940 and, following a short stint in the Army, relocated to the Los Angeles area in 1943 where he began reorganizing the Texas Playboys. Laborers from all over the country were migrating to industrial jobs on the West Coast during the war years, and many Southern and Southwestern transplants flocked to the dance halls to hear Wills and his band. They became at least as popular — if not more so — than big bands fronted by Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.

Wills and his band moved to Fresno in 1945, and toured relentlessly up and down the coast. For more than a year, they played a weekly gig at Bakersfield’s Beardsley Ballroom. At least once per month the show was broadcast live on the radio. One of the most dedicated young listeners was Merle Haggard. “Bob Wills’ band,” Merle claimed in his second autobiography My House of Memories, “was the best in the history of live radio.”

But it was more than the stellar musicianship that Merle came to appreciate. “Our people were often looked down on by the natives as being dumb and ignorant Okies,” Haggard noted. “We needed a hero, and Bob was certainly that and more.”

In 1968 Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A stroke the following year left him partially paralyzed. Reflecting on his hero’s contributions to the music he loved, Haggard mastered the fiddle in a few short months and started work on recording the awkwardly titled “A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills).” Released in 1970, the songs were near note-perfect imitations of Wills’ records. In addition to his regular band, the Strangers, Merle recruited several of Wills’ Texas Playboys for the session, including Eldon Shamblin, Tiny Moore, Johnny Gimble, Johnnie Lee Wills, Joe Holley, and Alex Brashear.

“You know what I learned from Bob Wills?” Haggard asked during a 2010 interview. “Everything!”

Tommy Duncan

While Bob Wills taught Haggard about being an effective band leader, it was the Texas Playboys vocalist, Tommy Duncan, who was one of Merle’s greatest influences as a frontman. “I think the first to impress me with his good singing voice was Tommy Duncan,” Haggard revealed in his 1981 autobiography, “Sing Me Back Home.”

Duncan and Wills began working together in 1932 after Tommy auditioned with dozens of other singers for a spot in Wills’ Light Crust Doughboys. The pair formed the Texas Playboys the following year. Tommy sang lead on most of the Playboys’ hits until his boss’s drinking created tension between the bandleader and singer. Duncan was fired in 1948, though he and Wills would work together again in the future.

In his early days as a Bakersfield picker, Haggard was called to play guitar in a one-off band that was assembled to back Duncan at a show in Hanford. “There wasn’t nobody in the band that I recognized and it was an awful band,” Merle recalled in 2009. “Tommy got onstage and did ‘Deep Water,’ and when he got through with it he walked over to me. . . . He said, ‘Would you mind helping me keep these songs going?’ And I just turned red all over, you know. But it took him one song to identify that out of the thirteen people, there was one guy onstage that might be able to play. Boy, that was the thrill of my life to get to play with Tommy.”

Lefty Frizzell

Like Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan, Frizzell was a Texan. He burst onto the national scene in 1950 with the double-sided hit “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” and “I Love You a Thousand Ways.”

Frizzell relocated to the West Coast in 1953, where he joined the cast of the televised country music show “Town Hall Party” in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton. Lefty enjoyed 15 Top 10 singles on the Billboard country charts in the 1950s, including the No. 1 hits “I Want to Be with You Always,” “Always Late (With Your Kisses),” and “Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses).”

Haggard loved the Lefty Frizzell songs he heard on the radio. “I found myself trying to sound like him,” Merle confessed in “Sing Me Back Home,” “sometimes without even realizing it. Lefty gave me the courage to dream.”

The Los Angeles-based hitmaker appeared frequently in Bakersfield, including a 1953 show at the Rainbow Gardens dance hall. A 16-year-old Haggard managed to get backstage where his friend goaded Merle into letting Lefty hear how closely he could imitate his singing style. Frizzell was impressed and insisted Haggard take the stage to kick off the next set with a couple of songs. Billy Mize, who was hosting the performance, took note of the teen’s performance and later invited Merle on his locally televised “Billy Mize Show” to sing Lefty’s “King Without a Queen.” It was the first time Haggard appeared on TV.

More than 30 years after first getting on stage to sing like Lefty, Merle won a Grammy Award for best country vocal performance for “That’s the Way Love Goes,” a song co-written by Frizzell.

“I believe,” Merle noted of Lefty in 1981, “the impact he made on country music, and on me, at that time was not even measurable.”

Jimmie Rodgers

Lefty Frizzell’s 1951 debut album on Columbia Records was called “Songs of Jimmie Rodgers.” When Haggard heard one of the tunes on the radio, he loved it. “I said, ‘Mother, listen to Lefty’s new record,’” Merle remembered in a 1999 interview with Bill De Young. “And she said, ‘No, no, that’s a Jimmie Rodgers song.’ I said, ‘Who’s Jimmie Rodgers?’”

Known as “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers hailed from Mississippi. Like Haggard, he was chronically restless and began wandering from home at an early age. During a stint as a radio performer in Asheville, N.C., in 1927, Rodgers traveled to Bristol, Tenn., to audition for Victor Records’ Ralph Peer.

Rodgers’ professional recording career began soon after with his first major hit, “Blue Yodel,” also known as “T for Texas.” Tuberculosis cut his life short in 1933, but today he is considered the father of country music.

Haggard recorded Rodgers’ “Rough and Rowdy Ways” on his “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” album in 1967 and included his version of “California Blues” on the “Pride in What I Am” album in early 1969. Soon after, he released an entire double album in tribute to the legendary country rambler called “Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimmie Rodgers.”

Bing Crosby

“There was this hillbilly show that came from Nashville on Saturday night,” Merle said of the Grand Ole Opry while reflecting on his earliest influences during a 1999 interview. “But I didn’t hear any singers on there that I wanted to sing like. Bing Crosby had probably the best voice at the time of anybody I’d heard.”

Even though Crosby’s smooth, crooning style might, on the surface, seem like an unlikely inspiration for a country singer, there are clear dots that can be connected between Merle’s various influences. “A shorthand description of [Tommy] Duncan’s vocal approach,” David Cantwell wrote in 2013, “would be to say it was a cross between Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby.” Crosby and Duncan were friends who stabled their horses together, and Crosby even found success with a pop take on The Texas Playboys’ “New San Antonio Rose” in 1941.

As the bestselling recording artist of the 20th century, there are few from Haggard’s or Duncan’s generation who were not somehow impacted by Crosby’s smooth vocal style. Because his rise to fame coincided with improvements in recording technology, Crosby was able to pioneer a dynamic vocal approach in the studio that captured subtle nuances in ways that were not previously possible.

One of the songs most associated with Crosby is “White Christmas,” which Merle recorded on his 1973 album “Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present.” In 2004 he recorded “Pennies From Heaven” and several other Crosby-related titles on the “Unforgettable” album.

The Maddox Brothers and Rose (and Roy Nichols)

The first time Haggard attended a live show was when his older brother took him to see the Maddox Brothers and Rose perform in Bakersfield when Merle was 12.

Known as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band,” the Maddoxes were a sharecropping family who made their way from Boaz, Ala., to the West Coast in the early 1930s by thumbing rides and riding the rails. They worked as farm laborers up and down the coast before settling in Modesto. They scored their own radio show in 1937 and landed a recording contract with the 4 Star label in 1946, followed by a stint on Columbia in the early 1950s.

The Maddox boys and their younger sister combined honky-tonk, cowboy songs, Western swing, boogie-woogie and proto-rockabilly into a revved up and rollicking stage show that influenced virtually every would-be country musician in California.

As taken as he was with the sibling performers, Merle was also mesmerized by guitarist Roy Nichols, who performed with the Maddoxes while still a teen in 1949. Roy would go on to play in Lefty Frizzell’s band before joining the cast of “Cousin Herb Henson’s Trading Post” TV show in Bakersfield. In later years, Nichols joined Haggard’s band, The Strangers. “Roy became the architect of my instrumental sound on my early hits,” Haggard explained in his autobiographical “My House of Memories.”

Nichols can be heard bending the strings on both the Maddoxes’ 1949 recording of “Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down” as well as Merle and then-wife Leona Williams’ take on the song from their 1983 album “Heart to Heart.”

Haggard once declared, “Roy Nichols was and still is my idol.”

Elvis Presley

While there are few overt rock influences present in Merle Haggard’s music, Elvis Presley, like Bing Crosby, was a powerful social force who impacted virtually every would-be singer of Haggard’s generation.

Perhaps because California embraced Western Swing and dance music, the advent of Elvis Presley’s brand of rock ’n’ roll was not as shocking to Bakersfield’s country music community as it might have been in more refined country circles. In a 1957 interview with the Tulsa Tribune, Bob Wills mused, “Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928. . . . It's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time.”

Merle’s “My Farewell to Elvis” album was released in 1977 and went to No. 6 on the country albums chart, thanks in large part to the Top 5 single, “From Graceland to the Promised Land.”

“Before his death, I’d been working on a tribute album to him,” Merle revealed in his 1981 autobiography. “When he died, I didn’t think I could finish it. I didn’t want to be accused of hopping on the funeral bandwagon for profit. Then, after a while, I didn’t care what people thought. . . . It was for Elvis because, like everybody else, I loved him.”

Johnny Cash

“I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool fan of many people,” Merle declared at the height of his fame, “but I’m a true Cash fan.”

While Haggard and Cash didn’t share a close friendship, the Man in Black influenced Haggard at a few key moments in his development. The first was when Cash played a show at San Quentin prison on New Year’s Day, 1959, when Merle was an inmate there. “He had the right attitude,” Merle recalled. “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.” It was that show that inspired Merle to dedicate his efforts to a singing career upon his release.

The second great influence Cash had on Haggard was encouraging him to be honest with the public about his prison record. “I was bull-headed about my career,” Merle admitted. “I didn’t want to talk about being in prison, but Cash said I should talk about it. That way the tabloids wouldn’t be able to. I said I didn’t want to do that and he said, ‘It’s just owning up to it.'” Merle, of course, ultimately took the advice.

In a 1984 interview with Music City News, Haggard revealed he was working on a Johnny Cash tribute album. Though the project never materialized, Haggard’s original song “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” was included on his 2015 duet album with Willie Nelson, “Django and Jimmie.”

Tommy Collins

Born Leonard Sipes in Bethany, Okla., Collins came to Bakersfield in the early 1950s on a family trip with his girlfriend, future rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. After surveying the local music scene, he decided to stick around.

Tommy found work with Ferlin Husky, who was living in Bakersfield and performing under the name Terry Preston at the Rainbow Gardens dance hall. It was Husky who helped land Collins a recording contract with Capitol Records, where he scored a handful of Top 10 hits in the mid-1950s, including “You Better Not Do That,” “Whatcha Gonna Do Now,” and “It Tickles.”

While successful as an artist, Collins also established a strong reputation as a songwriter. His “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’)” was a hit for Faron Young in 1955, and again for George Strait in 1988. Buck Owens did an entire album of Tommy Collins songs, and Red Simpson had a hit with his “Roll, Truck, Roll.”

A few years older than Haggard, Tommy became a friend and mentor to Merle just as the younger singer’s career was beginning to take off. The two would often drive around Bakersfield analyzing the songs they heard on the radio. “Tommy Collins was a great songwriter,” Merle reflected in 2010. “We’d discuss how songs were written – what subjects mean something and what didn’t. What worked, and all kinds of things like that.”

Merle fell just shy of the national Top 40 with Tommy’s “Sam Hill” in 1964. He went on to record several songs from the Collins catalog, including “High On a Hilltop,” “I Made the Prison Band,” and the #1 hits “Carolyn” and “The Roots of My Raising.” In 1981 Haggard scored a Top 10 hit with “Leonard,” a song he wrote in tribute to his old friend.

“He was,” Merle mused in later years, “an enormous influence on me.”

Wynn Stewart

Missouri native Wynn Stewart moved to California in 1948. He signed with the Intro label in 1954 before moving on to stints with Capitol, Jackpot, and then back to Capitol, where he experienced his greatest success. With Top 5 hits such as “Wishful Thinking” and “It’s Such a Pretty World Today,” Stewart was one of the most influential artists on the West Coast.

In the early 1960s he performed regularly at the Nashville Nevada nightclub in Las Vegas, with a band that included Roy Nichols. "Wynn's sound was what influenced Buck and me both," Haggard told Jonny Whiteside in 1999, "and in a strange twist of fate, his band was the heart of the old Frizzell band -- Roy Nichols was part of the Lefty band, and he went to Wynn Stewart and ran into Ralph Mooney, who played the steel, and they were the basis of the modern West Coast sound."

During a trip to Las Vegas in the early 1960s Merle stopped at the Nashville Nevada club. Wynn wasn’t on stage, but Nichols invited Merle up to play guitar and sing. Before Haggard finished, Stewart appeared in front of the bandstand. Impressed, he offered Merle a job to replace his departing bassist, Bobby Austin. Haggard accepted and apprenticed in Stewart’s band for several months.

It was a Wynn Stewart tune, “Sing a Sad Song,” that would become Merle’s first charting single in 1963. Haggard recognized the song’s potential when he heard it and asked Stewart to let him record it. His instincts were right. The song made it into the Top 20 on the Billboard country chart and Haggard, a devoted student who had absorbed the lessons of his mentors and heroes, began his own journey to becoming an American musical icon.


Sing a Sad Song: Saying Goodbye to Merle Haggard
Bear Family Records Site
April, 2016

Merle Haggard, an icon of American music, died at his home in California on Wednesday, April 6, 2016. It was the singer, songwriter, and musician’s 79th birthday. In 2008 he battled lung cancer, and was hospitalized in December 2015 with double pneumonia. Haggard returned to the stage soon after, but was sidelined again in February due to continuing health concerns. “A week ago Dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday,” Merle’s son and lead guitarist, Ben, revealed the day his father died, “and he wasn’t wrong.”

Merle Ronald Haggard was born April 6, 1937 in Bakersfield, California. Following his father’s death in 1945, Merle grew restless and rebellious. Several brushes with the law ultimately landed him in San Quentin prison in 1958. Following his release in 1960, Merle returned to Bakersfield, where he worked at manual labor jobs during the day. In the evenings he paid his dues in the same local honky tonks that sculpted the early career of fellow Bakersfield Sound pioneer Buck Owens.

Merle eventually signed with Bakersfield’s tiny Tally label, releasing a handful of singles before signing with Capitol Records in 1965. During his decade-long stint with Capitol, Haggard scored more than two dozen #1 country hits, including “Branded Man,” “Mama Tried,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “If We Make it Through December,” and “The Roots of My Raising.” Subsequent stints with the MCA and Epic labels yielded additional #1 hits, including “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “My Favorite Memory,” “Big City,” and “Going Where the Lonely Go.” He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, and continued to record for various labels, releasing his final studio album, Working in Tennessee, in 2011.

The celebrated “poet of the common man” frequently explored themes of restlessness, determination, stubborn individuality, responsibility, hard work, and a longing for personal freedom. His gift for capturing the spirit and struggles of the working class earned him a reputation as one of the great American songwriters in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Beyond his mastery of lyrics and melody, Haggard was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and nuanced vocalist who set a new bar in country music for both twangy barn-burners and tender jazz-tinged ballads. “He wasn’t just a country singer,” son Ben added. “He was the best country singer that ever lived.”

Haggard reached the Top 10 on the Billboard Country Singles chart more than 70 times between 1966 and 1989. Nearly 40 of those songs climbed all the way to the #1 spot. Beyond the hits, Haggard released 54 studio albums as a solo act, 10 collaborative albums with other artists, 11 live releases, and 5 additional studio albums spotlighting his legendary band, the Strangers. He won more than two dozen awards from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, as well as three Grammy awards. Haggard was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and, in 2010, was honored by the prestigious Kennedy Center for “outstanding contribution to American culture.”

“I want to die along the highway” Haggard sang in his 1977 hit “Ramblin’ Fever.” The legendary road warrior almost pulled it off. “It’s what keeps me alive and it’s what fucks up my life,” Merle said of touring in a 2016 interview with Matt Hendrickson. Although he had little interest in the trappings of celebrity, Haggard loved to sing and play. Bringing his music to his fans fueled him to the very end. His passing marks not only the end of a remarkable career, but the death of an icon who ranks with Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, and John Lennon as a musical force who forever changed the face of music.