Writing a book, on such an iconic figure in the music industry as Merle Haggard, is not something anyone would undertake lightly. This is a man who, alongside Buck Owens, came to define the Bakersfield sound and helped to make it a commercial success from the late 1960s, through the ‘70s, and even into the early ’80s. He has written some of the most popular and enduring songs in country music and his name is up there alongside the other big hitters of the genre – names like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, and his own contemporaries, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, both of which were close, personal friends.
It takes a special kind of author to write a biography of Merle Haggard, and Marc Eliot would seem to be exactly the writer for such a significant task. Eliot is a best-selling author, with more than a dozen books on popular culture to his credit. Significantly, he seems adept at taking on the stories of legendary figures in their respective fields and his books have included “Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen”, “To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles”, and “American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood”. He’s clearly not a man to shy away from the big challenges!
In many ways, taking on Haggard’s life story may be one of the toughest challenges so far, but Eliot treads carefully as he unfolds his tale of a country troubadour who is also a wayward genius, plagued by self-doubt but outwardly ready to take on the world, an accomplished musician from a relatively young age and a man who had the looks, voice and ready wit to rise almost effortlessly to the top, but who regularly undermined his own success by his ability to find trouble in the quietest places, and create his own problems almost out of thin air.
This book is such a good read and carefully scrapes away at the facts and fictions built around The Hag to reveal a complex and troubled man, who succeeded almost in spite of himself. The book breaks down into four sections – Part 1: Rebel Child, Part 2: Ramblin’ Man, Part 3: White Line Fever and Part 4: Before I Die. This is a clever division of the great man’s story because it helps you to see clearly the way in which Haggard built and, to some extent, tore down his own career, going from a distracted boy who can’t seem to avoid finding trouble, to a focused musician determined to make his mark in country music, to the road weary warrior still battling to stay relevant in a changing music landscape, finally ending as an icon of the industry, much revered and admired by his fellow artists but broken by ill health and increasingly unable to relate to newer influences on his beloved country music. It’s a great story, well told. Along the way we get to hear tales of Haggard’s musical and personal relationships, many of which did so much to shape his life and career. Particularly important are his relationships with his Mother, Flossie Mae Haggard, and with his second wife, Bonnie Owens, both of whom played significant roles in his life. His father, James Frances Haggard, is also a significant figure, but more because of his loss while Merle himself is still relatively young, one of the (many) things Merle Haggard blamed for his wayward youth, as documented in one of his most famous songs, ‘Mama Tried’ – “Poor old Daddy, rest his soul, left my Mom a heavy load, She tried so very hard to fill his shoes. Workin’ hours without rest, wanted me to have the best. She tried to raise me right but I refused” (There’s some poetic licence with aspects of the song but it is, largely, autobiographical, like so much of his work).
One thing that author Marc Eliot says, in his introduction to the book, is particularly telling – “As I worked on putting together the story of Merle’s life, to understand who he was and why he did the things he did, good and bad, I was constantly reminded of how Shakespearean the drama of his life was, how his early years echoed those of a young Hamlet, who suffers the premature death of the father he keeps alive in his dreams, dreams that produced an unshakable rage that warps the love he has for his mother and drives him to commit self-destructive acts. Merle’s later years resemble King Lear’s, who was at once both mature and immature, alone in a crowd and crowded by loneliness in an emotional prison that isolated him from those he loved most”. With this book, Eliot has been able to portray the full tragedy of Merle Haggard’s life, certainly Shakespearean in its way, while still celebrating his triumphs and successful legacy as a talented musician and a man of his time. We clearly see the flaws of the musician and songwriter who was so often his own worse enemy, but we also see why he was so successful and so admired and loved by many of the people in his life, and by the audiences that were always so important to him. It’s a path to tread with care and Eliot has negotiated it very successfully.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this book. Love him or loathe him, and Haggard was an artist who often divided opinion with his music and attitude, he is a towering figure in American roots music and anyone who is interested in Americana would gain valuable insight into one of the genre’s most important figures from reading Marc Eliot’s fine biography. Shakespearean indeed.