The influence of Johnny Cash on the style and career of Merle Haggard has been well documented. As an inmate at San Quentin, Haggard was able to hear Cash perform on New Year's Day in 1959, an event that precipitated the central epiphany of both the life and myth of this great American troubadour. However, the events leading up to Haggard's incarceration are much less pored over, and their influence has been, regretfully, overlooked.
Merle Haggard's childhood, while often tumultuous, was, like that of any other American adolescent in the 1950s, filled with music. In addition to the burgeoning rock and roll scene, Merle was attracted to the sounds of Nashville and Texas. The ubiquity of the "Grand Ole' Opery" need not be overstated, but its influence on him extends much further than casual listening.
Between stays at juvenile detention facilities, Haggard traveled extensively in southern California, frequenting barrooms, dance halls, and nightclubs of variable repute. In 1953, at the age of 16, he happened upon a performance by guitarist and vocalist Pee Wee Crayton at a club on Los Angeles' Central Avenue. Haggard was transfixed not by the blues-based R&B of Crayton, but by the compelling sound of his recently contracted saxophonist, Ornette Coleman. Coleman, a Texas native, seemed to be a kindred spirit, another wandering soul, a diamond in the rough. The two young men spoke only briefly during the set break, but this momentary encounter was to have profound future ramifications.
Following another brief stay in the county jail from December 1953 to March 1955, Haggard went to see his favorite musician, Lefty Frizzell, at the Rainbow Garden in Bakersfield. Like many young men of his generation, Haggard had a cursory knowledge of the guitar, bestowed upon him by his mother, and a burning desire to perform. During the performance, Frizzell noticed Haggard singing along with his songs and invited him up on stage to sit in with the band. The crowd's appreciation of his brief performance convinced him that music was to be an important part of his life, and perhaps his career.
Upon returning home, Merle was fortunate enough to catch an episode of ABC's "Ozark Jubilee," a variety show featuring many important musicians, including, on this night, Johnny Cash. Cash was performing his new hit "Cry Cry Cry," accompanied by the show's house musicians. A loyal viewer while in prison, Haggard had noticed that the bassist, Charles Haden, had an interesting interpretation of rhythm, not unlike his own. Haggard's attraction to atypical rhythms and his ability to combine more driving rhythmic figures with Cash-like lyrical simplicity was to become his hallmark.
With his interest in "Ozark Jubilee" only exceeded by his criminal tendencies, Haggard found himself again in prison, and upon his release in 1957, learned that Haden had left the cast of his favorite program. Shortly thereafter, he and his friend Bob Teague happened upon Haden at the Seven Arts Club, a jazz venue in Bakersfield. Haden had relocated to Los Angeles and was pursuing a career as a jazz bassist, having landed this particular gig with pianist Hampton Hawes.
Teague relates that Haggard eagerly struck up a conversation with Haden, which ranged from their more eastern roots and identical ages to their analogous musical aspirations. After hearing Haden expound at some length about his desire to move away from traditional country music into more creative territory, Haggard expressed similar sympathies. They may have differed somewhat in their respective final products, but both men wanted to play more energetic, creative, and emotionally communicative music.
At some point in the conversation, Haggard undoubtedly mentioned Ornette Coleman's name; there are only so many kindred spirits one encounters in a lifetime. Later that week, Haden sought out Coleman at a performance by the Gerry Mulligan quartet back in Los Angeles, and their musical kinship has been well documented ever since.
The two did not remain in close contact but occasionally ran into one another as both frequented the same bars and nightclubs of southern California. In early March of 1957, both were back in Bakersfield, Haden performing at the Blackboard with Coleman, Don Cherry and Paul Bley after having been fired from their engagement at the Hillcrest in Los Angeles the week before, and Merle, down on his luck. After drinking heavily with two friends during the first set at the Blackboard, Haggard and company left with plans of robbing a neighboring restaurant to get some much needed money. This botched burglary resulted in Haggard's two-and-a-half year prison term in San Quentin, where he was, among other things, to hear Johnny Cash and spend his twenty-first birthday.
Merle Haggard's influence on the music that came to be known as "free jazz" is unquestionable. What remains unknown is how the music of Haden, Coleman, Cherry, and Bley altered Haggard's musical course. It has become the mission of a new generation of musicians to flesh out this important period of music history and explore the complementary nature of the "New Thing" and the "Bakersfield Sound." Fortunately for historians and fans alike, Bryan and the Haggards have created this remarkable recording, emphasizing the influence of harmolodics and the avant garde on the music of Merle Haggard, an influence too often overlooked and yet so obvious in hindsight.
- Leonardo Featherweight