Written by author Marc Eliot who has penned biographies on Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles, and Clint Eastwood, the biography documents the full-throttle, rollercoaster life of one of the greatest country singers of all time.
According to USA Today, Eliot knew Merle for about 25 years up until his death in 2016, and he grew up listening to him with his buddies in the early ’60s.
“I’ve always been attracted to underdogs. So it’s compelling to write about people who overcame living both the American dream and the American nightmare to succeed.”
Eliot had nearly 100 conversations with artists who knew Haggard, or had a story about him.
This includes the likes of Mary Stuart, Dwight Yoakam, members of Merle’s band “The Strangers,” and Merle’s best friend Fuzzy Owen.
Dwight Yoakam weighed in on what he thought was the essence of Merle… escapism:
“The best part of Merle’s story was his struggle to escape, not just from prisons, which he was good at, but from the emotional prison over which he had no control.
The rest of his story is a somewhat trite show-biz saga… he wrote this, he sang that, he did this show, he won that award, and so on.
The real drama took place offstage, apart from the physical world, where a battle for self-reconciliation was fought.”
Eliot also discusses how Merle’s father’s death haunted him his whole life:
“Because he thought his father’s death was his fault, it haunted him. He acted out his frustrations by becoming a delinquent and ending up in (California’s) San Quentin (State Prison) by the age of 19.
Moreover, he took up the guitar because it connected him with his father. However, the anger, rage, and fear related to his father’s death remained with him for the rest of his life.”
Eliot also said that his sound was constructed from growing up in the prison systems and at the bars:
“That atmosphere worked its way into the music. The songs had upbeat and rhythmic pop-crossover styling with electric guitars, but lyrics that appeal to tough, drunk guys.
It’s not romance and love with girls; it’s womanizing with women. It’s not Coca-Cola (they’re drinking); it’s hard whiskey. They’re not driving around in Cadillacs; they’re driving around in Volkswagen buses. It created a formula that artists still use today.
Merle was singular. He did a thing that nobody had ever done before. Haggard made anti-romantic country music that was as pragmatic as it was autobiographical.
In his writing, he was both timely and timeless. Every generation comes back to (Merle’s) roots.”
Country music legend, pioneer in the genre, and some would even go as far as to call him the GOAT.
And if you know anything about Merle Haggard, you know that he was famously in the audience when Johnny Cash performed his legendary San Quentin concert in 1960.
Why was he in San Quentin? Because according to Merle, it was the only jail that could hold him.
In a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair,Merle recalled his multiple trips to jail, and his multiple escapes… 17 of them to be exact:
“I was scared to death. I was just 19 at the time, and I’d already been in a lot of jails. San Quentin is the last place you go. I wasn’t really that bad a guy.
They just couldn’t hold me anywhere else. I escaped 17 different times, so they sent me there because I was an escape risk. When I walked out on the grounds of San Quentin, I was scared. I was there two years and nine months.”
In a profile with GQ, Merle detailed more regarding his escape methods, whether it was hopping fences or breaking through doors, and sometimes… just walking right out:
“I noticed early on that people looked right at you and didn’t see you. If you just walked the right speed, you could almost walk right through them.”
And while 17 times seems like a bit of a stretch, it’s an oddly specific number to quote, which he did multiple times.
According to a 1990 interview with the New Yorker, Merle admitted that back then, guys like Clyde Barrow and Jesse James were his idols.
“I got in trouble on purpose… I wanted to experience the things I had heard in Jimmie Rodgers’ songs, I wanted to be a Clyde Barrow. Jesse James was one of my idols.”
And of course, San Quentin was where Merle first saw Johnny Cash perform live, sparking his desire to join the jailhouse band and ultimately pursue a serious career in country music.
Years later, Merle would meet Johnny in a bathroom, about to play a show together, and they started talking about that iconic San Quentin show. But for some reason, Johnny couldn’t remember Merle performing…
And that’s because Merle wasn’t performing…
“Yeah, he thought I might’ve been one of the performers. I had to tell him, ‘No, I was in the audience.'”