"A fugitive must be a rolling stone" (Merle Haggard)
One guitar marked the difference. One Fender Telecaster where country music met the Bakersfield sound together with a pedal steel, fiddle and of course, the honeyed voice of the lonesome cowboy Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016). Another legend who abandoned us in that cruel 2016 that showed no mercy. It happened on the 6th April, his 79th birthday. The life of this "outlaw" of American popular music runs parallel to a career marked by hit after hit where his relation to the six strings was fundamental -and the four strings as well, of course. One chapter of his biography that cannot be forgotten is the role played by one of those figures who live in the shadows of the big stars, Roy Nichols, the lead guitarist in Haggard's band, The Strangers, for over 20 years.
The Telecaster was the key to this reaction against the Nashville sound, the ‘official’ style that every country artist had to respect if they wanted to triumph on the jukeboxes of the time. Without the sharp, biting sound of that guitar model -now converted into a symbol with the Fender Custom Merle Haggard Signature Telecaster- it wouldn't have been possible to shake up the honky tonk scene, inject some new blood into the genre and, above all, write songs about the real world, the one lived in by the people who worked from dawn to dusk to save up the money to buy his records. Our legend was, first and foremost, an anti-establishment rebel who smoked marijuana, protested against the Vietnam War and was involved in more than one of those barroom brawls that liven up the westerns you see at the cinema.
Haggard was a child of his era; the type that climbed on board freight trains in search of their destiny and, once in a while, ended up with their bones in prison. Three stormy years were spent behind bars, betrayed by his wife, and too drunk to even try and escape, according to the accounts of his biographers. His jail couldn't be your average everyday prison, naturally. Haggard was sent to the fearsome San Quentin penitentiary and that was where -adding another juicy detail to his legend- he decided to dedicate himself body and soul to country music after hearing a concert by none other than Johnny Cash in 1958. Two years later, he was paroled and, from all appearances, ready to turn himself into a good citizen. [Twelve years later, the governor of California at that time, an actor named Ronald Reagan, signed an order pardoning him for all his past run-ins with the law. Merle was by then a star].
It only took Haggard a couple of years to record his first single, Singing My Heart Out, but that only sold a few hundred copies. That was a first try, and national success came his way almost immediately in 1964 with his version of Sing a Sad Song by Wynn Stewart. Soon after that, he met someone else who would play a fundamental role in his career, Liz Anderson, the composer of songs like I’m a Lonesome Fugitive. She and Bonnie Owens were the two most important women in pulling out everything this crude, rough cowboy had inside him.
Certainly he wouldn't have recorded Branded Man in 1966 without them, the definite breakthrough hit that launched him as a country star. The Bakersfield Sound reached its peak and snatched control of the country charts away from the Nashville studios. A good part of the blame falls to Roy Nichols [1932-2001] for his style of picking the Telecaster, not to mention the pedal steel guitar of Ralph Mooney. They were responsible for enveloping the vocal harmonies of Bonnie and Merle between bales of hay and longhorn cattle.
For Haggard, those were the golden years when everything he played went to ‘Number 1’, The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde, Mama Tried… Sing Me Back Home -the latter one of his most frequently covered songs. The songs he wrote painted a portrait of one part of deep America simmering in its own sauce of puritanical patriotism. He dedicated one of his greatest hits to that America, Okie from Muskogee, offering a controversial, satirical vision of that "Oklahoma, United States” that would follow him for the rest of his life whenever he granted an interview. His references to marijuana and LSD aligned him with the hippies. However, nothing was farther away from his personality, hidden beneath a hat, with a single glance being more than enough to disprove any such thought. He was just another kind of rebel. With a bad ass reputation, that's for sure.
Back then, Nichols was already at his side. They met in the early '60s through Wynn Stewart and when Haggard formed the Strangers in 1965, he had no doubt the lead guitarist would be another legend, a child prodigy who had all the bands in his native Arizona fighting over him when he was 16. They paid him 90 dollars a week, big money for a musician his age in the late '40s. His boss would be the "brain" of the Bakersfield Sound, or the Outlaw sound, but he was the real right-hand-man who shaped and defined that sound. The biting solos that cut like a knife or were fired off like bullets in a duel under the sun were almost always his handiwork.
Anti-systems of Country
But the ideas came from Haggard. Perhaps he wasn't as skilled as his colleague -improbable enough for a fiddler- or he had other things to do on stage where he was the absolute centre of attention. Merle was also a great guitarist whose influence exceeded beyond his instrumental work. Nothing would be the same once they burst on the scene with their Telecasters -with permission of their Martin acoustics collection-, not even the 'outlaws' who owe their existence to them. They were the "anti-systems" of country.
The truth is that Haggard's decline began when Nichols retired. Between personal and family problems, the new generations in the genre almost completely wiped him off the map during one decade when he only released three albums. The next decade there would be three times that many...
He would go back on the attack with the change in millennium, once again embroiled in controversy over his opinions, this time with the war in Iraq as the backdrop. And with a new lead guitarist in his band, Norman Stephens, there was no one better to release a new album with versions of songs by Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Hank Thompson as well as three new songs from his own pen.
The last few years have been for collaborations, as often occurs with the great artists who are semi-retired due to age-related ailments, and Merle was involved in his share. The venerable Willie Nelson is one who didn't back away from him and the results were some memorable recordings. The last one, Django & Jimmie, was released last year and featured other notable colleagues.
Cash, Jennings, Nelson… Merle Haggard is another piece of the history of American popular music. A marked man, a "fugitive" as he recalled time and again in the songs where he was obsessing about his past as a prisoner. Over the course of his life, he tried to drown that episode several times in alcohol and cocaine, a living hell that he always managed to find a way out from thanks to a treatment that never fails: a guitar.