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New biography, 'The Hag,' examines the life of country music icon Merle Haggard


MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) Sing me a song of sadness, and sing it...


The late Merle Haggard sang about breakups, working, loving, fighting, American flags, getting drunk and working some more.


HAGGARD: (Singing) Well, hey, hey, the working man, the working man like me. I ain't never been on welfare, and that's one place I won't be.

INSKEEP: He sang all the country music stereotypes, but is it really a stereotype if you helped to write the stereotype and before that, it was your life? A new biography examines the story of Merle Haggard, who spent his early years going from family tragedy to odd jobs to broken marriages to petty crime to prison. Before his death in 2016, Merle Haggard came on this program and talked of his youthful love for jumping onto freight trains, including one that went over the mountains.


HAGGARD: And it was in the wintertime. And there was snow, and there was ice. And two other hobos and me crammed down in the ice compartment of an old refrigerator car.

INSKEEP: What did you learn from that?

HAGGARD: Oh, take enough money to ride a bus.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

That sort of life left an imprint on Merle Haggard. His biographer, Marc Eliot, met Haggard when he was a country music star showing both talent and charm. But also...

MARC ELIOT: I could feel a sense of turmoil. I always think about writing biography as a mystery, like a Raymond Chandler mystery.

INSKEEP: Eliot set out to find the source of that turmoil, and the story took him back to Haggard's birth in the 1930s.

ELIOT: Well, his father was an Okie from Oklahoma. You know, Okie was a pejorative term, something that Californians called what they considered immigrants. They were just not welcomed.

INSKEEP: These are economic refugees, so to speak, in the Great Depression, fleeing the Dust Bowl. Is that right?

ELIOT: That's correct. Merle's father decided to move to California and start a new life. And "Okie From Muskogee," which is a song that's about pride - it was about his father's pride and being from Oklahoma.


HAGGARD: (Singing) And I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, a place where even squares can have a ball. We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse, and white lightning's still the biggest thrill of all.

ELIOT: Merle loved his father so much. They were practically inseparable. And every night after dinner, they would listen to country music on the radio. And that's when Merle first heard Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, all these legends. They had a profound influence on him.

And then, at the age of 9, Merle's father suddenly died. And like a lot of children, Merle blamed himself for that. And his life suddenly became one of acting out rage with a lot of robberies, car theft, put into reform schools, local prisons. The only thing he had going for him was playing the guitar.


HAGGARD: (Singing) 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.

INSKEEP: What was the crime that finally put him in San Quentin, the big prison in Northern California?

ELIOT: Well, he and his friend decided to rob a restaurant. They had a lot to drink. And as they were breaking in, the owner of the restaurant came by and said - he heard some noise back there - and said, why don't you fellows use the front? We're open.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ELIOT: And both of the boys were arrested. Merle went before the same judge every time that he was arrested. And finally, this judge was fed up with him. And to teach Merle a lesson, he sentenced him to an indeterminate term of 15 years. He was only 19 years old when this happened. And that really burned even deeper into this sense of aloneness and not really trusting anybody.


HAGGARD: (Singing) I paid the debt I owed them, but they're still not satisfied. Now I'm a branded man out in the cold.

INSKEEP: Haggard emerged after three years and sang his way to fame, but never lost that inner turmoil. He sang openly about past failures, yet apparently made up parts of his memoirs. His lyrics reflected classic country music politics - pro-flag, anti-protest - yet he celebrated the election of the first Black president. His biographer says this white singer related to people of color. Life as an Okie and in prison made him feel for the underdog.

ELIOT: He idealized his own pain. You know, he turned it into something that he could express. And what's great about his writing is there are virtually no metaphors. It's almost journalistic. "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" (ph), for an example. It's a song where you don't need an image. You see what it is.


HAGGARD: (Singing) I've always had a bottle I could turn to, and lately I've been turning every day. And I'm hurting in an old, familiar way.

ELIOT: When you listen to Merle Haggard, it is not country music in the way that, say, Willie Nelson's music is country music - you know, bright, sparkly, fun. It's a little bit darker. But his music - because of his playing, which got better and better and better - his writing and his incredible vocals made him unique. I think if he were played on the same radio stations that, say, play Frank Sinatra or that era, he'd be just as accepted. I think he was that good.

INSKEEP: Marc Eliot is the author of "The Hag: The Life, Times And Music Of Merle Haggard." Thank you so much.

ELIOT: Thank you.


HAGGARD: (Singing) I'll drink my beer in a tavern. Sing a little bit of these working man blues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.