The flashing moments in a lifetime that you know you will always remember, that you’ll carry to the grave are intimate, special and rare. The times when you are aware of that fact while it’s happening are even more so and can be emotionally overwhelming. I love Merle Haggard’s music and had the opportunity to see him perform in my old home town, the place I was raised and on the very stage I graduated High School from. The show was fantastic, Haggard was and still is in great form, but it was the last song and a moment I shared with who I feel is the most talented artist in country music history, that I will always remember.
The crowd, littered with some faces I knew, was your typical respectful sit down southern country music audience. They loved the show but reflected their admiration in a very orderly and systematic fashion. Song completed, applaud. Classic hit completed, stand up and applaud. For his closer Merle sang perhaps his most beloved track “Sing Me Back Home.” As soon as I knew the song I stood transfixed and for at least two full lines Haggard stared right at me, out of instinct I turned around and noticed that it was only me and maybe two other people standing. I left that night believing (and still do) that part of my purpose in life was to hear Merle Haggard in that place and at that time. That will always be, as one of Merle’s song says, a favorite memory of mine.
PBS is set to air another installment of their incomparable American Masters series this time focusing their sights square on the man who helped popularize the Bakersfield sound with his own brand and is in the argument for greatest country music artist that has ever been. The special is called Learning To Live With Myself and it promises to be an absolute mind blower for Haggard fans and a go-to reference for anyone else looking to discover “The Hag.”
It follows Haggard from his youth living in a house created from an abandoned box car, to his family’s dust bowl journey out to California, to Haggard’s time in prison, to his rise to fame and subsequent legendary career. Imagine if Tom Joad had the fire of Brando, could write as honest and focused as Hank Williams and could sing as smooth as Sinatra. The documentary features a treasure chest of rare footage as well as recollections from the man himself.
His is a life engulfed in bad decisions and improbable resurrection. It’s an overused term but the fact that Merle Haggard ever made it at all is a miracle, and one as an American and a music lover I am certainly grateful for.
Here is a brief video preview of Learning to Live courtesy of PBS:
And here is a more in-depth interview with director Gandulf Hennig on the film:
“Merle is very guarded, at the same time, very honest. As an artist, he is as original and as spontaneous as it gets. Working with Merle, I learned to prepare for the unexpected at all times – it seems that he often doesn’t know himself what he’s going to do next. There is no middle ground with him. It’s not always easy, but it’s always exciting.”
Among the notable people interviewed for the documentary include Haggard himself, his family, Keith Richards, Robert Duvall, John Fogerty, Billy Gibbons, Kris Kristofferson, Dwight Yoakam and Don Was. The special is set to premiere this Wednesday, July 21st at 9PM EST.
If you are not familiar with PBS’ American Masters series do yourself a favor and check out the show’s home page. Just some of the luminaries featured in this series include Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Guthrie, Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe and Allen Ginsberg.
For casual fans or anyone new to Merle’s music, below is a hand-picked 10 song study guide to get you prepped for Wednesday night or to review after taking in Learning To Live With Myself.
Sing Me Back Home:
The Fightin’ Side of Me:
Make-up and Faded Blue Jeans:
Going Where The Lonely Go:
Today I Started Loving You Again:
Reasons To Quit (with Willie Nelson):
“I may drown in still waters but I’ll never swim Kern River again.” – Merle Haggard
I am just about out of my mind in anticipation of this PBS special. Wednesday night simply can’t get here fast enough. To get your hands on any of the songs heard above or any other great Haggard music head on over here.
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