Merle Haggard’s My House Of Memories: For The Record
Anyone even slightly familiar with the background of Merle Haggard’s music would be unsurprised to hear that Lefty Frizzell’s indispensable recordings of Jimmie Rodgers songs such as alt.country precursor “My Rough And Rowdy Ways” were among his prized boyhood possessions. But it may intrigue many to learn that by the age of 14 Haggard was already keeping his set of “Lefty Sings Jimmie” 78s at the Bakersfield juvenile delinquent center day room, since he seemed to be returning there as often as home. Or that he’d return to the center after an arrest for joyriding across state lines only to watch a prizefighter inmate smash each one of those records to the floor in a near riot.
Stories like that are what’s best in Merle Haggard’s new memoir — which comes almost two decades after the publication of his well-known autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. This new volume follows the pattern of so many “as told to” and “in collaboration with” second autobiographies: It’s blatantly written to follow up on the success of the earlier book (and the always blunt Hag makes no bones that this one’s part of his current program to get out of debt); it’s less organized than the first, since the “how I got here/showbiz struggle and success story” approach has already been taken; and it focuses on relatively sensational incidents most likely to make the thing “hot.” In Merle’s case, that means focusing on incidents that led him to reach 21 at San Quentin (and not without parole!), later haze-producing binges of sex and drugs, and the dark side of the country music business and its denizens.
Haggard works to set the record straight, most memorably, about California teenager Merle, a near-celebrity escape artist perpetually running from the hands of local cops and sheriffs, just starting to sing a little — long before writing songs such as “Running Kind” to reflect that history. We meet, in more detail than we may want to, the Merle who passed a good part of the ’80s staging wet T-shirt contests on a houseboat. And we hear about the slippery moves of select record company executives — some of these reputed weasels named, others (even third wife Leona Williams) singled out for remaining nameless!
There’s not, however, very much in this new book about the “small” matter of Merle’s music, the reason we will care about any of this in the first place. But there is a heartfelt tribute to Strangers guitarist Roy Nichols, an account of Haggard’s working relationship with Bonnie Owens (including the writing of “Today I Started Loving You Again”), and Merle’s admission that he really wanted to be a guitar player in a band, not a leader.
Haggard also has some choice words about the current mainstream country scene: “Country music is…more popular than it has ever been. But it seems a little short on soul and substance sometimes, and it doesn’t turn me on!…How long has it been since you’ve heard a song that just rattled your cage?”
Which suggests what, after two books, is still the best way to catch up with the most potent account of Merle Haggard’s life: Pick up, say, the Down Every Road box set, and listen to the songs; listen to his life. Cages will be rattled.