Legendary country singer Merle Haggard died today at 79. Here are four profiles of the master, by four master writers, that follow him through the years.
1. “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” (Peter Guralnick, Collected in Lost Highways, 1978)
Guralnick had the good fortune to be on the spot when Haggard was in the midst of divorcing Bonnie Owens (Buck’s ex-wife) and marrying Leona Williams. (That marriage didn’t last either.) Maybe this wasn’t such a good time, he told Haggard. No, Haggard said, it was fine. “You know, I’m a strange kind of person. The more that’s going on, the more life I’m able to be involved with and learn about, the more it seems to replenish my well of ideas.”
2. “Ornery” (Bryan diSalvatore, New Yorker, February 12, 1990)
“Now, as far as my body development,” Haggard told diSalvatore (don’t ask how he got onto this), “I’m two different people. My right side is more developed than my left side. That’s an occupational hazard. My chiropractor said to me, ‘You look like you had a hard life. Like you lifted lots.’ Well, no, but I have played the fiddle some. HA HAAA HA HA! Hell, if a fella could get good dope anymore, he’d learn to play the fiddle left-handed and build up the other one-half of his body.”
3. “The Last Outlaw” (Chris Heath, GQ, November 2005)
Heath caught him in an autumnal mood. Since Haggard believes in UFOs, Heath asked what aliens could learn from listening to his records. “That I’m a contrary old son of a bitch, I guess . . . I hate to admit fear. I hate to even admit fear’s part of my reasoning. But I have some dementia that’s coming around, and there’s a bit of a nervous tic—I don’t know what that’s about; I guess it’s growing old. And I don’t feel as bulletproof as I should feel…. I’ve traveled all over the world without a seat belt for forty-two years. Forty-three. And I’m a bit of a gambler and have a feel for odds. The odds are really against me.”
4. “The Fighter: The Life and Times of Merle Haggard,” (Jason Fine, Rolling Stone, October 1, 2009)
Four years later, Haggard seemed more at peace, but no less given to self-revelation. “We was more like brothers than the brothers we had,” he said of the recently deceased Johnny Cash. “We understood each other’s problems. He was the guy every macho guy in the world wanted to be, and he wasn’t happy with himself at all. I’m a lot like that.”
David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls, and two story collections, The Wonders of the Invisible World and A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me. He teaches at the University of Montana and in the Bennington Writing Seminars.