Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fresh Air Remembers Country Music Legend Merle Haggard


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Country music songwriter and singer Merle Haggard died Wednesday on his 79th birthday. We’re going to listen back to my 1995 interview with him. In today’s New York Times, Jon Caramanica described Haggard as, quote, “the country music titan who most resists easy categorization. He was a wildly versatile singer, songwriter and performer with an affinity for a variety of styles – outlaw country, ballads, the Bakersfield sound, western swing, jazz and more,” un-quote. But when Haggard was young, he hardly seemed destined for success, spending time in and out of reform school and in prison. Haggard's best-known songs include "Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskogee," "Today I Started Loving You Again” and "The Bottle Let Me Down."


MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) Each night I leave the bar room when it's over, not feeling any pain at closing time. But tonight your memory found me much too sober, couldn't drink enough to keep you off my mind. Tonight, the bottle let me down and let your memory come around. The one true friend I thought I'd found, tonight, the bottle let me down.

GROSS: Merle Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. I spoke with him the following year, the week before he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. He told me how he started hopping trains as a kid.


HAGGARD: I lived in an oil community called Oildale and there was a daily train that went into the oil fields, and it was a steam train back in those days. And I actually grew up every evening, you know, kind of looking forward to seeing that old train pull out of there with about 40 or 50 oil tankers, back during the war, you know?

And my dad worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. I was 9 when he passed away. But I think probably the first time I ever jumped on that old oil tanker was probably - I was about 5 years old. My mother would've died if she had known I'd been up there. We used to put pennies on the track, you know, and we'd hop that old train, ride a block or two, and jump off. So it was something we learned to do young. And we'd watch the brakemen and the trainmen do it. You know, it wasn't really all that hard.

GROSS: What's the worst or the most surprising experience that you had on a freight train?

HAGGARD: The worst? There was a lot of bad experiences. I got on a freight in Oregon one time and it was, believe it or not, at Eugene, and it went up into the Cascades and into a snowstorm. And I was traveling in the ice compartment. And it - me and two other hobos was in there, and it got rather cold in that metal. I remember they stopped up in the mountains and then I climbed up out of that ice compartment and I'm shaking so bad that I dropped my suitcase off the top of the freight and I had to get off for a while and gather up my clothes (laughter).

GROSS: It just sounds awful. Did you have frostbite?

HAGGARD: Somehow, somebody watched out for me. I didn't get anything like that.

GROSS: Now, there's a new CD collection that brings together your recordings from 1963 to 1977. It's called "The Lonesome Fugitive." And, why don't I play one of the songs featured on there that you wrote? This was first recorded by you in 1968. It's "Mama Tried."


HAGGARD: (Singing) The first thing I remember knowing was a lonesome whistle blowing and a young’un's dream of growing up to ride on a freight train leaving town, not knowing where I'm bound, and no one could change my mind, but Mama tried. One and only rebel child from a family meek and mild, my mama seemed to know what lay in store.

Despite all my Sunday learning, towards the bad I kept on turning till Mama couldn't hold me anymore. 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.

GROSS: Merle Haggard, is this song autobiographical?

HAGGARD: Well, it really is very close, at least. There's some things we fudged on slightly to make it rhyme, but the majority of it, I'd say 97 percent of it's pretty accurate, I guess.

GROSS: Your father died when you were 9, is that right?

HAGGARD: Nine, right.

GROSS: So your mother had to raise you alone after that.

HAGGARD: She - yeah and I was, to say the least, probably the most incorrigible child you could think of. I was just - I was already on the way to prison before I realized it, actually. I was just - I was really a kind of a screw-up. But – and I really don't know why. I think it was mostly just out of boredom and lack of a father's attention, I think.

GROSS: I think you were 14 when your mother put you in a juvenile home.

HAGGARD: No, she didn't put me in a juvenile home. The authorities put me in there for truancy for not going to school. And they gave me six months in, like, a road camp situation. And I ran off from there and stole a car. So then the next time I went back it was for something serious. And then I spent the next seven years running off from places. I think I escaped 17 times.

GROSS: How would you escape from reform school and youth institutions?

HAGGARD: Well, there was different institutions and different methods. There was - some of them were minimum security, some were maximum security, and some of them were kid joints and some of them were adult jailhouses. I just didn't stay nowhere. I was just - I think Willie Sutton was my idol - you know him. At the time, I was in the middle of becoming an outlaw. And escaping from jail and escaping from places that they had me locked up in was part of the thing that I wanted to do.

GROSS: So what was your most ingenious escape?

HAGGARD: Probably the one that was the most ingenious was one that I didn't actually go on. I was - San Quentin, I was all set to go with the only completely successful escape out of San Quentin, I think, in 21 years. But the people that gave me the chance to go were the same people that talked me out of it because they felt like that I was just doing it for the sport of it, and then it was a very serious thing to the other fellow that was going, and they had a big judge's chamber sort of desk that they were building at the furniture factory in San Quentin.

And I had a friend who was building a place for two guys to be transported out. That was before they had X-rays and things of that nature. And I could've gone, but I didn't go. And the guy that I went with wound up being executed in the gas chamber. He went out and held court in the street and killed a highway patrolman. And so it was really good that I didn't go.

GROSS: Was that a real sobering experience for you?

HAGGARD: Yeah. I've had a lot of those things in my life. And, you know, those are the sort of things that a guy, unknowingly, like myself - I guess I was gathering up meat for songs, you know. I don't know what I was doing. I really kind of was crazy as a kid, and then all of a sudden, you know, while I was in San Quentin, I just - I one day understood - I saw the light. I just didn't want to do that no more and I realized what a mess I’d made out of my life, and I got out of there and stayed out of there - never did go back.

Went and apologized to all of the people I’d wronged and tried to pay back the people that I'd taken money from, borrowed money from or whatever. I think when I was 31 years old, I paid everybody back that I'd ever taken anything from, including my mother.

GROSS: What’d you say your mother when you changed your life around?

HAGGARD: It was just obvious. I mean, there was no - I don't think there was ever any time that anybody in my family was worried about me staying with this. It was just the way that - you know, some people grow up in the Army and, you know, it's hard to be 18 years old. And, you know, they send 18-year-old boys to war because they don't know what to do with them. And I was one - I wound up going to prison rather than war. Instead of growing up in the middle of a battlefield with bullets flying around me, I grew up on the isolation ward of death row. And that's where the song "Mama Tried" gets close to being autobiographical there.

GROSS: You were on death row?

HAGGARD: Yeah, I was - I got caught for making beer. (Laughter). Making some beer up there and I got too much of my own beer and got drunk in the yard and got arrested. And it's hard to get arrested in San Quentin, but I did. And they sent me to what was known as the shelf, and the shelf is a part of the north block, which you share with the inmates on death row. That was the - as you put it, sobering experience for me. I wound up with nothing to lay on except a Bible and an old concrete slab, and woke up from that drunk that I'd been on that day, and I could hear some prisoners talking in the area next to me.

In other words, there was a alleyway between the back of the cells, and I could hear people talking over there and I recognized a guy as being Caryl Chessman, a guy that they were fixing to execute. I don't know, there was just something about the whole situation that I knew that if I ever got out of there, (laughter), if I was lucky enough to get out, I made up my mind while I still had that hangover that I was all finished.

GROSS: How were you lucky enough to get out?

HAGGARD: Well, I went back down on the yard and went down and asked for the roughest job in the penitentiary, which was a textile mill, and went down and just started building my reputation, you know? Just started running in reverse from what I'd been doing and started trying to build up a long line of good things to be proud of. And that's what I've been doing since then.

GROSS: Did your musical ability have anything to do with people noticing you in prison and thinking that you could make it when you got out? I mean, did that help you at all, in the warden's eyes?

HAGGARD: Yeah, that was the basic reason, I think, that these friends of mine talked me out of going on that escape. I mean, they felt that I had talent and they felt that I was just an ornery kid and could probably make something out of my life. And, you know, believe it or not, in the penitentiary, there's some pretty nice people and very unfortunate people. And they love to let somebody, so to speak, get up on their shoulders. You know, they like to boost somebody over the wall if they can. If they can't make it themselves, they, I think, sincerely love to see someone else make it.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1995 interview with Merle Haggard. He died Wednesday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1995 interview with Merle Haggard. He died Wednesday on his 79th birthday.


GROSS: When you started writing songs, did you realize that you could write autobiographical songs from your own life, or did you think you had to copy other people's songs?

HAGGARD: Well, I really didn't realize what method to take at first. I must’ve wrote maybe 1,500 songs that weren't any good - or at least I, you know, I never kept them. And finally with a lot of help and a lot of people who had written hit songs who I'd become friends with, such as Fuzzy Owen - who became my personal manager - he was a songwriter, and he helped me. He taught me how to write songs. And finally, I wrote one that was worth keeping, and I think I've written about 300 keepers or so, maybe 400.

GROSS: Do you remember the first one that you felt, this is worth keeping?

HAGGARD: Yeah. It was a sort of rock ‘n’ roll song, a Elvis-type rock ‘n’ roll thing. It was called "If You Want To Be My Woman." Glen Campbell opened his shows with it for years, and I still do the song. And I wrote it when I was about 14. But I didn't keep very many. That was probably one out of that 1,500 that got kept.

GROSS: Could you sing a couple of bars of it?

HAGGARD: (Singing) You like riding in the country in my Cadillac. And you keep - I don't know. I keep pushing.

(Singing) You keep pushing me back.

Something about – (singing) on the money that I earned, but you refuse to give me something equal in return. Don't look at me like maybe you don't understand. If you want to be my woman, you know you got to let me be your man.

GROSS: And how old were you when you wrote it?

HAGGARD: Something like that.

GROSS: How old were you?

HAGGARD: Fourteen.

GROSS: Wow. (Laughter). So this is just about the time that you started that whole round of reform schools.

HAGGARD: Yeah. I might’ve been as much as 15 or 16 when I wrote that song. It was between 14 and 17. I'm not sure.

GROSS: Now, during all the years that you were in and out of prisons and reform schools, did you ever think, I can make a living with music?

HAGGARD: No, I - very best, I counted on extra money, as I was saying, like, you know, like maybe a hobby. I figured I was going to have to have some other means of employment, you know, or support.

GROSS: So what made you think, well, I can make a living out of this?

HAGGARD: Well, when I came out of the penitentiary, I went to work for my brother, digging ditches and wiring houses. He had an electrical company, Hagg Electric. And he was paying me $80 a week. This was 1960, and I was working eight hours a day there. And I got me a little gig playing guitar four nights a week for 10 bucks a night. There was a little radio show that we had broadcast from this little nightclub called High Pockets. It just all started from that. Some people that was local stars around heard me on this radio program, and came down and offered me a better job in town and it wasn’t just a matter of weeks until I was part of the main clique in Bakersfield.

And it was hard to get in that clique. There was a lot of people like Buck Owens, and there was some people that were really good and proved how good they were later on with their success. And Bakersfield was some sort of a - I don't know, it was like country music artists found their way to Bakersfield and then had this success out of there. I don't understand why, actually. It may be because of the migration that took place in the '30s or whatever. There was a lot of people that came out there from Oklahoma and Arkansas and Texas that had a lot of soul. And this thing we call country music kind of came out of those honky-tonks, you know, and some of the same area that a lot of other things came out of.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to adjust to success and stardom, having come from poverty and, you know, having lived in prison off and on for so many years? I think it's hard for a lot of people to adjust to that.

HAGGARD: Well, you know, a lot of people may or may not understand how hard it is for a person coming out of an institution, you know - whether it be a prison or whether it be some sort of a mental institution, whether it be the Army or whatever. There's a thing that happens, like, when you leave the penitentiary. When you've been there for three years, you have friends and you have a way of life and you have a routine and a whole way of life that you just give up all of a sudden. One day you're there and you’re - next day, you're not there.

And you don't have any more friends from the outside ‘cause things went on when you left, and you can't find anybody there. And the people you left behind in prison are really your only friends. And there's a period of adjustment that took me about 120 days, I don't know - about four months. A couple times, I really wanted to go back. And it's really a weird sensation. It's the loneliest feeling in the world about the second night out of the penitentiary.

GROSS: Merle Haggard, recorded in 1995. He died Wednesday on his 79th birthday. After we take a short break, the new American Historian Laureate Eric Foner will talk about his latest book, “Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad.” It’s based in part on a record of fugitive slaves that was kept by a key Underground Railroad operative. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.