Any god or demigod worth a damn comes in multiple manifestations. You got your young, sneering Elvis and your sequined jumpsuit and scarf Elvis; you got your baby Jesus and your bearded sandal-wearing Jesus–and even your t-shirt and tuxedo-wearing Jesus. So it is with any figure who exists in a space between man and myth. Jesus, Elvis, Merle. You could certainly come up with more names, but those three for sure.
I’ve been thinking and worrying a lot about the only one of that trinity still living, who has gone into the hospital and cancelled his March tour dates. The 78-year-old Merle Haggard, indefatigable musical genius and ornery old American treasure, ranks up there with the coolest human beings on the planet, but I also have a soft spot and fascination for the just-starting-out Merle. You can get a sense of what I mean in these two vintage shots, part of a series of weird outtakes from his Branded Man album that is reproduced in the excellent booklet accompanying the Bear Family Untamed Hawk box set.
You might expect the handsome unlined face, intense gaze, and the full head of hair, but might find surprising the urban attire, the windbreaker and the pointy-toed Cuban-heeled boots. At the very onset of his career, Merle seemed to have kicked back hard against any sort of “country” image. “I’ve never been in the hills in my life. I’m a city boy. But I’m a real country singer,” quoth the notes from Untamed Hawk, unsourced alas.
On a recent drive to and from Nashville (a place Haggard notoriously hated fwiw) I became obsessed with “Today I Started Loving You Again,” spare and minimal but absolutely perfect: the simplicity of the loping guitar line; the echo accentuating the purity and ache of Hag’s voice (what a glorious instrument it was back then, before life and the road took away the higher part of his register); those accent harmonies, a genius musical idea that was apparently a gift from Buck Owens. Oh, and nailing those accent harmonies, none other than the former Mrs. Owens, then Mrs. Haggard, who was a bigger star than either of them when it all started, and somehow wound up “washin’ and ironin’ and pickin’ up” on the Haggard tour bus….
(That “washin’ and ironin'” line is from a wonderful Laura Cantrell song about Bonnie called “Queen of the Coast,” which I can’t recommend highly enough.)
Unbelievably, TISLYA was a b-side to “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” which was a #1 hit on the country charts, but not much thought of now. TISLYA is now one of his best-loved songs, and it nags me to think it might have been an afterthought. A b-side? I wonder if Haggard and the guys in the studio know they had something special, or did they just record TISLYA as another song to fill up an album. Haggard brought his band into the Capitol Tower for 21 sessions in 1968. The core band of Roy Nichols, Bonnie Owens, Jerry Ward, Roy Burris, George French, and Norman Hamlett, sometimes joined by Glen Campbell, Billy Mize, and James Burton. It was a period of ridiculous creativity, and it might have been hard for the musicians to separate the great from the ordinary. Making immortal music was just a day’s work.
“I had a pain that went all the way around from my belly button all the way around to my back.” Haggard told Rolling Stone in February. “I asked the doctor, ‘What was that pain?’ He said, ‘It was death.'”
It’s the second time this year he’s had to check in to sort out his pneumonia. I can only hope, maybe even pray, Hag kicks death’s ass one more time.