Merle Haggard: Learning to Live with Myself, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews
Merle Haggard: Learning to Live with Myself, BBC Four
Riveting documentary of country music legend
I interviewed Merle Haggard once and he’s a slippery old snake: dry, reserved and fiercely intelligent, with an ornery pride and an oft-used gift for riling people. I’m not sure we got to know him all that much better after Gandulf Hennig’s superb documentary last night, but it was a hell of a ride none the less. A man with hidden depths buried inside his hidden depths, Haggard said towards the end of the film that he had struggled his whole life to achieve his aim of being “self-contained, totally”. He wasn't about to go all therapy-speak on our asses now.
Filmed over three years, Hennig’s extensive portrait of The Hag was an admirably erudite affair, unrolling at an even pace and as spare and unshowy as the subject’s songs. Like so many driven artists, Haggard lost a parent early on. His family were dustbowl refugees from Oklahoma who had moved to California in the 1930s; aged nine he watched his father die in hospital and – in the days before grief counselling - he cut loose and ran. A childhood friend described him as “Huckleberry Finn”. His sister looked wearily amused at the romance of that description, preferring to call him a “constant problem”.
His second wife Bonnie was bridesmaid at his wedding to his third wife, which is proper country
Haggard turned to a life of vagrancy and crime, dropping down through the dregs of the penal system, from the brutalisation of correctional school to a fully paid up place at San Quentin prison by the time he was 19. He was imprisoned for “trying to break into a place that wasn’t even closed”. It was a rare shaft of humour in this sombre portrayal. Hennig made no attempt to glamorise this wayward, lonely life, and neither did Haggard. His stark, haunted memory of the rapes that took place in the prison yard was truly chilling and, although he was astute enough to realise that his image as a felon has done his career no harm, he has rarely played on it. He has, however, sung about it poignantly in death row songs like "Sing me Back Home".
Haggard travelled the traditional route to country enlightenment – Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzel – but it was watching Johnny Cash play a 1958 prison show at San Quentin while he was an inmate that “turned a light on”. Paroled in 1960, along with Buck Owens he became instrumental in honing the Bakersfield Sound, a west coast antidote to the mawkish excesses of Nashville. Hard-edged, bluesy, hotter and “leaner”, in the words of interviewee Keith Richards, it had an immediacy that leapt from the speakers.
His dad “could sound like Jimmie Rodgers”, but Haggard’s wonderfully uncomplicated voice sounded like polished stone. He began to succeed on a national scale, putting together his band The Strangers (even his stage cohorts were branded by his feelings of alienation) and recording classics like "Mama’s Hungry Eyes", "Working Man Blues" and "Mama Tried". Pure, clean, forceful; above all, true. These were songs born from necessity, hewn from a life of “self-punishment and shame”.
Hag's hot streak from 1966 to 1972 is virtually peerless. Handsome as Warren Beatty (see above right), his refusal to go down the cinematic route – unlike contemporaries like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson – probably cost him a larger profile and a few million bucks. He wasn’t interested. A shy, internalised man, his stern, mournful face told its own story. Like Nelson, he has sought refuge in endless touring, in the shrunken down safety of the bus (“my shark cage”) and the stage.
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