“It sounds like something from a Woody Guthrie song, but it’s true; I was raised in a freight car.” — Merle Haggard


It’s his birthday today.

“There were so many things I loved about the thirties. I could find many reasons for wanting to live back there. Such as trains was the main method of travel, the glamour of trains always appealed to me. And America was at the dawn of an industrial age. Coming out of a Depression into a war. Then again the music was young. So many things were being done in music, it was wide open back then, electronics had not yet been involved, and basically it was REAL. Sure, I’d have liked to have visited those days and at least seen it happen. For musicians of that generations such as Eldon Shamblin and Joe Venuti it was an unbelievable period to live in, they saw it all.”
— Merle Haggard

In this great Rolling Stone interview, Merle Haggard describes being in prison in San Quentin in the 50s when Cash came to play there. Very emotional:

“I heard [Johnny Cash] when he first came out in ’55. I heard them all. I was two years younger than Elvis, and I was in a lot of trouble then. I was going to jail a lot. I went to jail and did a year, ’54 to ’55, and Elvis came out. Elvis got my attention first and I liked Jerry Lee Lewis a lot and Carl Perkins. I was a fan of all of those Memphis guys. I worked in the nightclubs quite a while before I got lucky with records and I did all of their songs and identified a lot closer with them than Hank Williams or somebody. They were more my age and it was a little more modern. And it was rockabilly. That’s sort of what I was. Both Elvis and Johnny were widely accepted by people in jail. They were both rebellious against the system, and we read that clearly. That’s what they saw in Cash, that he didn’t like the system and he didn’t like the people in charge and didn’t like being told what to do.”

Excerpt from the chapter on Merle Haggard in Peter Guralnick’s wonderful book Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians:

His whole career has been founded upon … paradox. As a young man barely out of prison, he crooned love songs, sounding very much like Marty Robbins, who was hot at the time. It was not even his own compositions that few drew upon the prison experience for him; instead he virtually stumbled upon the song, ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.’ “Liz Anderson [the writer] came to a show we were doing in Sacramento. She said she had some songs, but I wouldn’t have listened if it hadn’t been for my brother Lowell. It turned out she had six hits in her pocket. Well, that kind of opened up a whole trend of songs, such as ‘Branded Man’ and ‘Sing Me Back Home.’ It gave me thought for writing. It gave me a direction for writing. You see, what it was, with that song I was really and finally some way or another come together – musically and image-wise. I mean, it was a true song. I wasn’t trying to shit nobody, because long ago I had made the decision not to try to hide my past, but then I found out it was one of the most interesting things about me.”

Nonetheless, when it looked as if the prison songs were becoming a trap, Merle neatly sidestepped that issue by embarking upon the first in his series of historical albums. And when ‘Okie from Muskogee’ hit in 1969, bringing undreamt-of fame and presidential invitations, Merle’s first inclination (thwarted by his record company) was to release ‘Irma Jackson,’ a tale of interracial love, as the follow-up. His whole career in fact can be looked upon as a series of deliberate avoidances (walking out on the Ed Sullivan show, quitting a network production of Oklahoma), instinctive retreats from the obvious, and restatements of his central role as an outsider (remaining in Bakersfield, rather than moving to Nashville, was one very key element of his alienation; even his blues singing, a major component of his music, stresses over and over that ‘I’m a White Boy,’ a ‘White Man Singin’ the Blues’).

Perhaps this is what has enabled him to create the astonishing body of work that represents the ‘career’ of Merle Haggard. There is no one in contemporary popular music who has created a more impressive legacy, or one that spans a wider variety of styles. In a genre that has always relied upon filler to round out the album coming off a country hit, Merle has written the vast preponderance of his material (“Without writing, you have nothing,” says Merle, meaning both the royalties and the satisfaction) and has used each album as a vehicle for personal expression, sometimes not even leaving the room to include the hit. He has written blues and folk songs, social commentary and classic love songs, protest and anti-protest, gospels and ballads, prison and train songs, drinking songs, and updates of Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels. He has written just about every kind of song there is, in fact, except a convincing rock number, and while such prolificness is not without its price (some of the rhymes are less than fresh, some of the metaphors could have been worked out a little more fully, and sometimes you wish an idea had been left to simmer rather than having been incorporated immediately into a song), taken as a whole the body of work that he has created is absolutely staggering.

Here’s Eric Church: “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.”

“I sometimes feel like I’m standing up for the people that don’t have the nerve to stand up for themselves. I just enjoyed winning for the loser. I’d never been around anything except losers my whole life.”
Merle Haggard

He also was … how you say … not hard to look at.

Haggard pays tribute to Elvis in “From Graceland to the Promised Land.”

Haggard said to Peter Guralnick in the 70s:

[Elvis was] a prisoner of success. I’m positive he was. I didn’t know Elvis well, but I met him and I knew a lot of people who were close to him. Elvis, I believe, was just plain simply tired of it. He didn’t want to live any longer. I don’t know how you feel about these things, but the celestial life – if such a thing exists – I think that was what he was seeking. I think it released him. Either that or he didn’t die at all. Had a face-lift and a fingerprint job – if you think about it, it isn’t that far-fetched. A lot of people who were there swear it wasn’t him in the coffin.

He died on his birthday in 2016.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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6 Responses to “It sounds like something from a Woody Guthrie song, but it’s true; I was raised in a freight car.” — Merle Haggard

  1. Kate F. says:

    Wow Sheila – only you! My husband, with an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history, is horrified to know I had a Merle Haggard phase. I feel vindicated. And, once more, I needed your help to articulate why. Thank you yet again.

    • sheila says:

      All credit to Peter Guralnick, really! His chapter on Merle Haggard in Lost Highway is so great.

      Haggard is awesome. Such a lived-in voice, but sooooo smoooooth.

  2. Sheila, I don’t know if you’ve heard about David Cantwell’s new book on Haggard but if not I can’t recommend it more highly (I reviewed it here a few months back:


    But whether you read the review or not, believe me the book is worth seeking out. It deepens and broadens Guralnick’s worthy perspective considerably.)

    • sheila says:

      Thank you so much! What an interesting life he has led.

      I keep meaning to see him whenever he comes my way – I really should. The man’s not getting any younger.

  3. Joseph Clark says:

    I missed out on seeing Elvis in concert by about a year. I did not make that mistake with Haggard (in 2013). He was tired but wonderful. I was in the third row. Although he didn’t sing my favorite song (Today I Started Loving You Again), it was a terrific show. I took a lot of photos and think of that night often. I knew I’d never see him again.

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