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The Songwriters | Merle Haggard

Hard times, truth and inspiration

Merle Haggard's string of country classics captures the common man with uncommon grace.

June 20, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Redding — Merle Haggard, the country music star who really did turn 21 in prison, just like it says in one of his songs, figures it cost the IRS nearly $100,000 the day an agent came to his ranch near here to try to figure out what goes into writing a hit.

Haggard's tax return was apparently kicked out by the computer for too many business deductions and the agent wanted the songwriter to show him how the 200-acre spread in the mountains helped him do his work.

During a walk around the grounds, Haggard explained how a creek inspired one song, a flower bed led to another and a bulldog jump-started a third.

"Finally, this fellow looks at me and says, 'Why, Mr. Haggard, everything you do is a write-off,' and he started pointing out other things I should have declared," the songwriter says, laughing so hard his whole body shakes.

"What he saw was that writing for me is an impulse. I don't sit down with a pencil and paper and try to come up with songs. I look for songs in the world around me."

That world runs through Haggard's songs.

Listen to his "White Line Fever" and you can picture being on the bus with him night after night, watching the highway lines roll by, or listen to "Tulare Dust" and you can relive with him the longing a boy in the San Joaquin Valley had for the glamour of the big city. Then listen to the gritty "Big City" and you understand why he retreated to the calm countryside.

In his early album cover photos, Haggard had the rugged good looks and charisma of a young Johnny Cash. Now he's 67, and lines cross his face like stretches of barbed wire, and there is a story behind each of them. Restlessness and home, lust and devotion, heartache and good times, protest and patriotism -- all have etched his life, and his songs.

Country music tends to be so sentimental and homespun it's easy to stumble into self-parody, but Haggard has brought a freshness to the themes that places him alongside Hank Williams and Willie Nelson as one of the greatest country music writers.

"There are lots of people who have written hits, but most songs don't stick with us because you know and I know and the songwriter knows he's just telling us about something that never really happened. But then you listen to Hank Williams' 'I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You),' and everybody knows this ol' boy had his heart stepped on more than a few times. That's what I've always wanted people to feel when they hear my songs."

Haggard estimates he has written 10,000 songs, but finds only a fraction of them worth recording. Most of the great ones didn't start flowing until he got a tip from one of his musical heroes, Johnny Cash.

He first saw Cash when the Man in Black played San Quentin prison in the late '50s while Haggard was a prisoner there. Years later, when Haggard started turning out country hits himself, he met Cash and mentioned he had seen him at San Quentin.

"John looked at me and said, 'That's funny, Merle, because I don't remember you being on the show,' " Haggard says with a grin.

"So, I told him, 'I wasn't on the show. I was in the audience.' "

They had a good laugh, but Haggard says Cash gave him advice that changed his life.

The young singer told Cash his greatest fear was that some tabloid would reveal his prison background and kill his career. Write a song about those days yourself, Cash told him, and fans will love your honesty.

That led to "Mama Tried," which spent four weeks at No. 1 on the country charts in 1968 and remains a signature song. It's a salute to his mother and a lament about how he, as a restless teenager, refused to follow her advice.

Like so many Haggard songs, it tells its story so simply that it's hard to see the craft involved.


And I turned 21 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.


Every line in the song is true except "life without parole."

"I guess I was just trying to make it all a bit more dramatic," Haggard says over a late lunch of black-eyed peas with his wife and two children.

"But there was a bit of truth to it. When they sent me to prison, they sent me to maximum security. On my papers, they wrote 'incorrigible.' I didn't know if I would ever get out. That's a feeling you never forget, so it came to me when I was writing the song."

When young songwriters today ask for advice, Haggard passes along Cash's suggestion to write from experience.

"The most important thing in a song is simplicity," Haggard tells them. "You've got to remember songs are meant to be sung. You are not writing poetry. The best songs feel like they've always been here."

Lyrical grist

Haggard didn't come into this world with many advantages, but his background gave him a head start when it came to writing country songs. He knew what it was like to struggle.

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