Two of the most iconic voices of the Bakersfield sound, Dwight Yoakam and Merle Haggard had a musical kinship that ran deep. Their many collaborations included “Beer Can Hill” (also with Buck Owens), and a remake of “Swinging Doors,” with Yoakam also covering several of the Hag’s songs over the years including “Holding Things Together,” which contains what he deems the ultimate verse in all of music. Here are Yoakam’s poignant, passionate words about the late legend, as told to Rolling Stone‘s Patrick Doyle.
To say Merle Haggard was one of the very greatest would be an inadequate understatement. The word ‘genius’ is used too often to describe people. But I would put Merle Haggard’s artistic genius up against anybody in history, in terms of pop culture and chronicling human experience, love and loss, and the gamut of human emotion.
I’ve been posting a lot of [Haggard] songs for fans. I started thinking about his ability to transcend all the tragedy in his personal life. It started with his father dying when he was 10 years old. He was coming home from church with his mother on a Wednesday night; his father had not gone to church with him. His father was at the kitchen table. He wasn’t moving, and they realized there was something wrong. His father was shockingly young [when he died], in his early Forties, I believe. He had a stroke just from the life he had lived trying to help his family survive. He was migrant worker and it was a tough work for those migrant Okies who had blown out of the Dust Bowl when they moved to California.
Merle’s sister said that [their father’s death] probably shaped him more than any other event in his life. It overwhelmed him. He talked about witnessing the strongest man on earth, his father, in this state — and he was completely helpless. He passed away a few days after that, and Merle couldn’t contain himself. He never settled down as a young teenager. It was a very Steinbeck world — Grapes of Wrath was the world he was literally born into, the labor camps. He wrote about it on “Mama’s Hungry Eyes”:
A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labor camp
Stand out in this memory I revived;
Cause my daddy raised a family there, with two hard working hands
And tried to feed my mama’s hungry eyes
It’s one of the songs that shaped my experience as a songwriter and taught me what the standard should be for expressing the emotions about the human experience, the shared experiences we have.
His real life was larger than life. I think he was 19 when he was arrested. He used to laughingly say it was one of the stupidest burglaries ever attempted: He broke into a bar that he and a buddy had been drinking in earlier. They were drunk and tried to break into the safe while the bar was still open, so they were caught red-handed. He’d been in a juvenile hall over the years; he had a lot of trouble. I was always taken with Merle by the conflict of his desire to like people and the scar that he carried from that prison experience at such a young age. That wouldn’t allow him to fully trust anybody ever, it seemed. And out of that dichotomy came these songs.
He never really escaped being the fugitive that he was in life. A lot of people didn’t know he had been in prison at that point. He didn’t talk about it publicly; he was ashamed of it. And Johnny Cash famously told him on his show in ’69 or ’70. . . He said, “Merle, I think you owe it to yourself and the public to talk about your life.” Because that’s where Merle saw Johnny the first time, at one of the prison shows [Cash] performed in San Quentin, when Merle was a 20-year-old inmate. Of course, he wrote “Mama Tried,” which was kind of a fictionalized account of that experience. The other one is “Sing Me Back Home”:
The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom
I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest
And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell
‘Let my guitar playing friend do my request.’
Imagine going to San Quentin at 18, 19 years old. I can only imagine the devastation of that. And I just felt a sorrow in Merle even when he smiled. It was around him. He wanted so desperately to like people. It must have been an overwhelming burden to not be suspicious the whole time. Just talking with him, being with him and the honor that he offered me his friendship. . . it will always stay with me.
The song that taught me more about songwriting probably more than other song I’ve come across is “Holding Things Together.” It’s one verse. When you write a verse like the verse that’s in that song, there’s no other verse needed:
Today was Angie’s birthday
I guess it slipped your mind
I tried twice to call you
But no answer either time
But the postman brought a present
I mailed some days ago
I just signed it love from mama
So Angie wouldn’t know
“Holding Things Together” is about a broken family. The man is left with the children, as the mother has left the family — a reversal of the cliché of the more common scenario. And that happened to Merle a couple of times. His previous wives were troubled in their own right. But Merle was able to channel all that through his music.
A father mails a birthday present to a little girl and signs it, “Love from mama,” so the little girl won’t have to live the tragedy of knowing her mother forgot her birthday. That’s Merle Haggard. The love in that song, in that lyric, in that story. . . it eclipses anything I’ve ever come across.
There was a delivery in Merle that was that effortless. It’s Sinatra-like. I was talking to Dick Clark one time and Dick said to me, “I wanted to make [Merle] a pop star back in 1968. . . I told him, ‘Merle if you let me, I’ll put everything I have into taking you crossover and making you a pop star.’ And Merle said, ‘I can’t do that. It’s not in me. That’s not my music.'”
I got to interview him for the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Bakersfield Exhibit. He said to me, “Dwight, do you know the difference between country music in Nashville and country music in California?” I said no. He said, “Country music in Nashville came out of the church. California came out of honky tonks and bars.” I thought, in a succinct observation of a singular difference, that was an astute and accurate one.
He could be succinctly accurate with all emotion. He did it when he wrote “Today I Started Loving You Again.” His ex-wife, Bonnie Owens, co-wrote it. After they divorced, she was still singing backup with him. He told me they got home from a weeklong run and flew back into LAX. He saw Bonnie getting her luggage and looked at her and said, “Today I started loving you again.” That’s what he wrote that about, looking at Bonnie in the airport. So he was able to capture life’s honesty in the moments that were fleetingly honest.
One of my favorite memories was he did a TV special in Vegas and invited me to do “Swinging Doors” together. He was great at doing impressions. His Buck Owens impersonation is hilarious. It’s eerily, spot-on Buck. Merle brought me on in Vegas that night and he did one of those for me. He moved his leg and danced a little bit like I’m known to do. And that’s something that I’ll remember forever.
A few weeks ago, I called him. He was weak, but I didn’t realize at the time that it would be the last time I spoke to him. We were talking about Kris Kristofferson, actually, and the fact that Kris may have had good news recently about his own health issues. And Merle was really thrilled about that. We talked for a bit more and said goodbye and said we’d speak again when he was better. Today I thought, “You’re better now.”