The Hag: The Life, Times, And Music of Merle Haggard by Marc Eliot (Hachette Books)
In what will surely become the definitive biography of the complicated country legend Merle Haggard, journalist Marc Eliot takes an almost academic look at the highly influential musician’s life from troubled kid to San Quentin prisoner to national country music hero.
Over the course of his five decades-long career, Haggard put out 63 albums – 38 of which made it on to Billboard’s Country Top Ten. He also had close to 40 Number 1 singles. But as Eliot lays out here in great detail, the Californian-born Haggard’s life did not get off to an auspicious start with his family fleeing Oklahoma in the Great Depression and his dad settling into a series of low paying jobs just outside of Bakersfield, CA. On the upside Bakersfield had such a vibrant music scene that it’s sound would influences musicians across the country for the next couple of generations and certainly had a fortuitous affect om the younger Haggard’s future. Losing his father at nine years old, Haggard found he loved playing guitar and singing and hated school. Countless truancies, attempts at running away via train hoping and crime eventually landed him in San Quentin where he famously was in the audience for one of Johnny Cash’s legendary shows.
Eliot does a solid job parsing out reality with Haggard’s own seemingly inflated and at times contradictory claims in his own memoires about not only his time in prison but his career as a musician. Despite a slew of references and his explanation of his motivation behind one of his biggest singles, “Okie From Muskogee,” it’s still not clear if the anti-Hippie classic was meant to be taken at face value or was pure satire. Though singing the lyric “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD” night after night obviously lost some of its punch once Haggard became a long-time pot smoker and cocaine user in the ‘80s.
Impressively, the author manages to give the musician his due as a highly influential songwriter, singer, guitar player and all-around entertainer without sugar coating his personality flaws and the chip on his shoulder that seemed to grow larger each year up until his death; and his less than stellar role as a husband throughout his five marriages. Family problems aside, he certainly was seen as a good friend to many and some of the most entertaining and heartening stories here revolve around his friendships with folks like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. In particular, the anecdotes around the recording of the classic Nelson/Haggard album Poncho And Lefty in the early 1980s makes for compelling reading.
The Hag is an impressive feat of solid music journalism, centered around great writing, impressive research and a truly compelling subject.