Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Merle Haggard Story

I have been working some with Merle's cousin John and got reinterested in Merle's story.

"Hennig refers to his film as a documentary of Haggard’s life and art. “I like to call it art more than just music,” Hennig said. “Because I think he’s one of the greatest poets of the 20th, and now 21st, century.”

Currently, Hennig’s crew has been on the road with Haggard and his entourage for about a week. He said they came to Bakersfield to learn more about the how Haggard grew up and about his friends and family. Hennig politely referred to Bakersfield as Haggard’s playground.

The previous night, Hennig’s production team moved about the hidden recesses of the Fox Theatre. They filmed Haggard’s Feb. 13 show not only from either side of the stage but from between cracks in curtains. Afterward they captured the mood and essence as family members and friends disappeared into Haggard’s tour bus.

The entire time, Hennig’s cameras rolled. They captured fans outside a gate and even held a camera into the tour bus windows for a glimpse of Haggard’s nightly show-on-the-road life.

As they passed along historic Route 99 the next day, Hennig was presented with the idea that Bakersfield’s old highly-valued traffic artery had undergone a transformation over the past 40 years. Fancy Basque restaurants along a stretch of a once rural motel-pocked road had fallen out of the city’s favor to become a dilapidated stretch filled with businesses, and in some areas, a shantytown of drug-infested motels where prostitutes frequent. One memorable Basque restaurant had even been gutted to become a casino.

Hennig’s fascination with Haggard began while exploring the life of Gram Parsons in the 2004 documentary he wrote and directed, “Fallen Angel.”

“Gram was influence by Merle Haggard quite a bit,” Hennig said.

In one of the film’s scenes, “Fallen Angel” documents John Nuese, a fellow Harvard student and musician of Parsons, who told him in 1965 about Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Haggard’s and Owens’ work became much of Parsons’ building blocks as he ventured into a hybrid of rock and country that he called “Cosmic American Music.”

Parsons died in 1973 at the age of 26, but he helped spawn the country rock movement. Hennig’s film has been received as the first official documentary of Parsons and includes interviews with country music stars Dwight Yoakam and Emmylou Harris, as well as Peter Buck, Keith Richards and others.

Hennig said after he created “Fallen Angel” he wanted to learn more about Haggard, calling his life a “true American epic story.”

While Hennig notes both Haggard and Parsons both suffered the emotional trauma of losing their fathers early, he said the rest of their lives have been vastly different. He said the Haggards were a hard-working family, but not poor, and never quite fit the Steinbeck "Okie" cliche of starving dust bowl immigrants. He said they had to work for a living, and they did so with pride.

Hennig defines Parsons differently: “The most striking biographical difference is to me that during his short career, Gram always led a financially comfortable life as a trust fund kid, but never got a grip on his personal demons. He finally burned out and tragically died at the age of 26, leaving behind a great and influential, but somewhat limited, body of work. Merle however overcame the obstacles in his way, and, although struggling at times, blossomed and matured artistically, continuously creating songs that touched and continue to touch the core of the hearts of so many people.”

The pickup eventually wound along the Panorama Bluffs for views of the Kern River Oil Field before descending onto Alfred Harrell Highway to Ethel’s Corral, one of Bakersfield’s last remaining bars with a Honky Tonk theme. There, people can tie horses to hitching posts and enter the rustic building for food, drinks, and on weekends, dancing.

While outside, the film crew walked up to a giant statue of a Native American where they met a man who had been on Haggard’s baseball team. Wearing a cowboy hat and dark glasses, the man laughed that since the team didn’t win very much, they were called “Merle’s Girls.”

After interviewing some of the patrons who played Haggard’s music on a jukebox, Hennig sat down and spoke with ABC23: “He created this unbelievable body of work,” he said about Haggard. “Unlike most other country artists that are still around, with the exception maybe of Willie Nelson, he continues to do it. He’s not a cabaret act. He’s not a greatest-hits show in Vegas. He’s on the road, I don’t know, 100 dates a year, and keeps getting better. He’s still writing albums all the time. He’s writing extraordinarily great songs.”

Asked what he found fascinating about Bakersfield, Hennig said it’s “interesting to see the oilfields, the pumps, the long roads, some of the Honky Tonks. You start to get an idea of the kind of place this must have been 40 years ago.”

While Hennig spoke, just behind him a dog lay just outside the back door to Ethel’s waiting for a food scrap. Soon a truck engine started, and there was a pause while the crew prepared to drive into Oildale. They were going to make their first visit to Trout’s Bar.

Hennig sat at a picnic table and waited for the truck to drive away. He’d spent days following one of the most lasting country legends alive. In Ethel’s at least, there was no sign of a young country big band getting ready to blast the Bakersfield Sound. There was only a jukebox. “From what I understand when I talk to people from here, that magic time in Bakersfield … is probably pretty much over,” he said. “Doesn’t mean there’s no longer a scene and no longer bands playing. But unfortunately, Nashville won. At least for now.”

Quite amazing, this walk in life, isn't it?


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