Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peek at our upcoming show. To hear the full program, tune into WWNO Saturday at 7 or Sunday at 6, or listen at Americanroutes.org.
The voice, words and music of the late Merle Haggard, one of the greatest country song makers America’s produced. He sang about life growing up in the post-depression farm town of Bakersfield, California. His prison time in San Quentin, and the eternal themes of love, and longing; all driven by that distinctive Bakersfield sound: twangy guitar, tight high harmonies and honky-tonk shuffle. Merle’s hundreds of songs included Lonesome Fugitive, Workin’ Man’s Blues, and Okie from Muskogee. Back in 2000, we spoke with Hag about his father, an Okie who migrated to California. A railroad man, musician and larger than life figured.
MH: I grew up in a sort of an only child atmosphere because my older brother and sister were already away from home. My dad worked for the Santa Fe railroad. He had bought an old piece of land; an oil dell, just outside of Bakersfield. And he bought an old refrigerator car, set it out there and made a house out of it. He passed away when I was nine, unexpectedly, he died in a week’s time. It was probably still the most devastating thing that’s ever happened to me, cause we were close. He played hillbilly music, he played Bob Wills style fiddle, and he played banjo, mandolin, sing. And would probably have enjoyed my success more than anybody. So it’s always been a loss that never completely went away.
When I lost my father, I went sort of like through a shoe, you know, blew a tire, went off the other direction, went off the road and started screwing up and there was nobody there to keep me in line. It was all about going to school; they wanted me to go to school, I didn’t want to go to school and they’d throw me in jail for not going to school, and I’d break out of jail and steal a car. Finally, by the time I was 16, 17 years old, that I was criminalized, I was what they call institutionalized. I’d heard about juvenile detention halls and I’d heard about prisons and I wanted to see if the books and the stories and the things they said about people like that were really true.
NS: SO you ended up in San Quentin,
MH: Yeah, that way of thinking got me there in 1957. At that time I was 19 years old.
NS: When you were in San Quentin, you had visitors, country music players, Johnny Cash came through.
MH: Yeah, 1958, Johnny Cash came to what they call a New Years Day variety show that they have every year for the prisoners. There were like strippers there, all kinds of stuff that you would think would be more appealing to a convict, but Johnny Cash sold out. He was the one that got the standing ovation and you can’t make them convicts do anything - they’ll give you an honest report on your performance.
We got some of the nicest people in the world in prison right now for some sort of abuse or another. And you know, if they want to incarcerate them, if they feel they should be locked up, well probably a hospital would be more suitable. I think we’ve gone too far, I can’t see the word prohibition and the word freedom in the same sentence.
NS: You believe in decriminalization of all the drug laws
MH: Absolutely. The prison stuff, sometimes I have to say to myself, “did that really occur, was that really me?” there’s a reoccurring dream that happens where I’m back there. I’m back in prison and I don’t know why but I can’t get out. I’ll probably have that the rest of my life to remind me of the things that I should do and the things I shouldn’t.