Friday, October 2, 2009

Merle Haggard’s haunted microphones

Old school country legend toughs through rocky upbringing, crappy CenterArts techs

David Giarrizzo, Humboldt Sentinel

"They just don't make music like they used to," according to this legend of America's vibrant tradition of country music, and boy did he show them how on Sunday in Arcata.

Listening to Merle Haggard is like listening to the ghosts of the Dust Bowl rising forth to take vengeance on the watered-down, issue-free, emotionless pop that has watered down what's called 'country' into a morass of drivel. Thankfully for contemporary audiences, he still remembers his roots.

Merle Haggard was born to James and Flossie Haggard on April 6, 1937. His parents moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression, converting an old boxcar into a home. Before their marriage, James played fiddle in local honky tonk bars. Flossie was a member of the Church of Christ, which led to her forcing her husband to stop playing the honky tonks. James died from a brain tumor when Merle was nine years old.

After his father's death, Merle became rebellious. In an attempt to straighten her son out, his mother put him in several juvenile detention centers, but it had little effect on Merle's behavior. As a teenager, he fell in love with country music, particularly Bob Willis, Lefty Frizzel, and Hank Williams. When he was 12 years old, Haggard was given his first guitar by his older brother; Merle taught himself how to play by listening to records that were lying around the house.

Even though he had begun to pursue music, Haggard continued to rebel, running away with his friend Bob Teague to Texas when he was 14 years old. A few months later, the pair returned to California, where they were arrested as robbery suspects. After the real thieves were caught, Haggard was sent back to juvenile hall, but he and Teague took off to Modesto, CA. For a brief time, he did manual labor, was a short-order cook, drove a truck, and committed a series of small crimes. Soon after he moved to Modesto, Haggard made his performing debut with Teague at a bar named the Fun Center; the two were paid five dollars and given all the beer that they could drink.

By the end of 1951, Haggard had returned home and he was again arrested for truancy, as well as petty larceny. In the beginning of 1952, he was sent to Fred C. Nelles School for Boys in Whittier, CA; again, he ran away. This time, the courts decided he was incorrigible and sent him to the high-security Preston School of Industry; he was released after 15 months. Shortly after his release, he and a boy he met at PSI beat up a local boy during an attempted robbery, and Haggard was sent back to PSI.

After getting out of PSI for the second time, Haggard had the first major event in his musical career. He went with Teague to see Lefty Frizzle in concert in Bakersfield. Before the show, he went backstage with several friends and he sang a couple songs for Frizzle. Lefty was so impressed he refused to go on-stage until Haggard was allowed to sing a song. Merle went out and sang a few songs to an enthusiastic response from the audience. Yet, even with the acceptance of his idol, Merle continued the path of self destruction .

While he was working during the day in oil fields and farms, he performed at local Bakersfield clubs. His performances led to a spot on a local television show, Chuck Wagon. In 1956, he married Leona Hobbs; the couple moved into his family's old converted boxcar. Throughout 1957, Haggard was plagued by financial problems, which made him turn to robbery. At the end of the year, he attempted to rob a restaurant along with two other burglars; the three were drunk at the time. Believing it was three o'clock in the morning, the trio tried to open up the back door of the restaurant. However, it was 10:30 and the establishment was still open. Although the trio fled the scene, Haggard was arrested that day. The following day, he escaped from prison in order to make peace with his wife and family; later that day, he was recaptured. Haggard was sentenced to a 15-year term and sent to San Quentin prison.

Nearly two years into his sentence, Haggard discovered that his wife was pregnant with another man's child. The news sent Haggard over the edge. Soon, he and his cellmate began a gambling racket and brewing beer in their cell. Before long, Haggard was caught drunk and was placed in isolation for a week. During his time in isolation, he had several conversations with Caryl Chessman, an author and a member of death row. The conversations and the time in isolation convinced Haggard to turn his life around.

After he left isolation, he began working in the prison's textile plant and took some high school equivalency courses; he was also allowed to play in the prison's country band. At his second parole hearing in 1960, Haggard was given a five-year sentence -- two years and nine months in jail, two years and three months on parole; he left prison 90 days later.

Flash forward. After almost fifty years of playing hit songs in the finest halls, for two US Presidents, receiving 18 awards from the ACM, including male vocalist of the year, and to top that off, had requests for songs on the Apollo 16 mission. He is revered by Rock stars and Country stars alike. His genuine style of singing from the soul reaches out to you. The man is a legend, and he was gracing us with his family and friends for an intimate evening of perhaps the most genuine American music alive, "Old School Country."

The John Van Duzen Theater is a moderate theater, seating a few hundred people. It was built about the same time Merle was gaining popularity amongst the severely commercialized hippy era. (They even got Tricky Dick to say "Sock it to me?," on Laugh In). I remember the sixties because I was a pre-teen and the underground psychedelia was surfacing more and more on television, in the clothing stores, and on the binders of my classmates who, for some un-godly reason, thought Daisies and Smiley faces were cool. This small, drafty theater with no lighting booth (just spot lights mounted behind the balcony seats) and barely the capacity to make a trip up here worth while to a 72-year-old legend and his family of extremely talented players. But this was just the tip of the iceberg.

The opening act was the Noel Haggard Band, Merle's oldest son and his brother Bennie on lead. These guys were so nice, they didn't even flinch when the vocals were down too low and the instruments mixed loud. This became a theme for the evening as each act came up to the stage only to battle the evil Feedback monster with the haphazardly placed monitor speakers. They played some great standards, which is the best way to describe them. The Haggards were joined by a pair of Elvis clones, clad in black embroidered jump suits, the Malpass Brothers, who sang as sweet as the Everly brothers. They laughed about the monitors, saying "We really don't like our own voices, so you can turn them (the monitors) down." Despite the challenges, they put on a good show doing an upbeat version of "Hello Wall" and many others.

During the intermission, you might think the CenterArts sound person would have figured out the problem with the monitors and the microphone placement. But, no. I was livid in my seat as the rest of the evening progressed even worse. By the time Merle sang through one song with the bats of Michael Moore Jr.'s crappy monitor speakers, the man stopped and looks at the audience. "The best sound between Fort Bragg and Crescent City? If I had known it was this bad, I would have brought my own PA! I men, we have been playing together for 30 years and ever since we started using monitors, our sound has gone to hell, Lets just shut them off and see what happens?" From then on, the sound was great, the vocals were heard, the bats were gone.

Merle even gave us an encore with "Okie From Muskogee." The audience was pleased and warmed by his stories, occasionally getting in a pot comment or two. He even put it to a vote whether or not marijuana should be legalized. The nays had it. Surprisingly, I saw many young faces in the audience. It seems a new generation is appreciating the classic Country melodies and leaving Billy Ray Cyrus in the dust. Cool.


Free Form Radio said...


If you knew what you were talking about it might be worth reading!

Michael Moore, Jr.

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