Just Another King Following in the Footsteps of the First
Drew L. Wilson is a writer, photographer and documentary filmmaker who’s work has appeared in Stream Side, Water World, PBS and over 20 other environmental and engineering magazines. He is currently working on a documentary about Bob Wills to premier at Tulsa’s Historic Circle Cinema, as well as a screenplay with Merle Haggard on Bob Wills’ life.
Somewhere tonight Merle Haggard will be singing his heart out for the common people of America. He doesn’t have to. He could be sitting on his fishing dock listening to Bob Wills music while catching a mess of bluegill for supper. It’s his favorite method of rehab from cancer surgery, which he describes as “…getting half my fuckin’ lung ripped out.” Or he could just spend the rest of his days reminiscing about a life most men only dream of. But his spirit won’t let him. He’s entered another artistic growth period at 72, brought on by a 16 year old son who is bending the lead strings like the proverbial boy who sat beneath the tree by the railroad track.
By Drew L. Wilson
At 72 Merle Haggard has worn out another bus and is taking delivery of a shiny new one crafted by some Amish friends. He prefers to travel the nice, straight interstates that don’t give him motion sickness, but he knows that many of the people who love him are in places far off the beaten path and that the roads leading there are full of curves and potholes. Those roads take him to the common people who call him a hero. They are descendants of the “Grapes of Wrath” generation, and they called Hag’s idol, Bob Wills, the same thing. They live in the backwoods and farming communities of every corner of the country and they love music that comes from the spirit and causes emotion. Merle doesn’t mind traveling to where they live to sing for them because Nashville doesn’t really care if old poets are still making art, and he doesn’t expect the radio stations to play his new songs. He also knows that the economy has a lot of his people pinned down. And besides, he’s got a 16 year old son he wants to introduce to these folks. His son is learning how to let his mind get out of the way so that his spirit can come through the guitar. And he’s freaking everyone out when that happens.
Haggard isn’t who most people think he is. He believes in UFO’s. He’s a conspiracy theorist, although more along the lines of the kind of cynicism that Socrates taught. He says and does whatever he feels without regard for what his detractors might say. But there’s a sensitive side to him that comes from the same part of his soul that wrote so many of the timeless songs that make us feel our own spirit. In reality, he has just reached a level that the rest of us hope to obtain–the ability to own our own lives and live them the way we want. Haggard is not just the king of the road or a “poet laureate of the hardhats,” as he’s been called—he’s the guy that has lived all of our misfortunes of divorce, alcoholism and death along with our blessings, and helps us understand these things through lyric and melody. No matter who we are, he’s written a song that works for us like a junkie’s drug of choice. And he’s been doing it long enough that some of us get to feel the same song in a new way after life has turned us into different people. He brings them to us live in our home towns instead of on the internet or on CMT, by confining himself to a bus that feels like the prison where he really did turn 21. And now he has somehow whipped cancer’s ass to keep writing songs that help us reach whatever emotion we long to embrace.
He backs it with a ten piece band. He knows no other way. It’s the way Bob Wills taught him to do it.
“I’m a cowboy, bull-ridin’, sumbitch!” yells a tuned-up Arkansas fan from behind the security line before a concert in a cow pasture in the middle of the Ozark Mountains. It is a benefit concert for a man who lost all his cattle to a tornado. The cowboy repeats the statement over and over hoping Merle will somehow hear it from inside his bus and come out to sign his cowboy hat. The man is shirtless and built like a cage fighter and becoming loud and demanding. Everyone in security clothing has an eye on him.
I believe the cowboy when he tells me he’s been ridin’ bulls all day but wouldn’t have missed the Hag for nothing. ” He yells again—the same thing—toward the bus. He is, indeed, a cowboy, bull-ridin sumbitch. I notice an open gash in his shoulder where a bull has stepped on him. The wound still has dirt in it. I wonder if he is the guy who was walking around earlier flying an eight-foot Rebel Flag with Merle’s face on it.
A girl sporting dreads in her early twenties is sitting next to him on the ground plucking a three-string guitar and singing loudly out of tune. She looks like she belongs on the streets of Seattle instead of the backwoods of Arkansas. She suddenly stops and tells the cowboy to shut the fuck up. “I’m trying to audition here!” He looks down at her, smiles and walks away.
“So I hide my age and make the stage
and try to kick the footlights out again”
It’s a tad over 100 degrees in the cow pasture and Haggard has traveled all night from his last concert in Kansas. He suddenly appears from the side of the stage and the screams from the crowd physically enter him when he takes off his hat. He does a little softshoe jump and the energy travels in visible quivers up his body and is released through his outstretched fingers shooting in all directions and everyone in the valley feels it. His band, The Strangers, kick into that zone that has made them 9-time ACM Touring Band of the Year. Every musician sounds even better now that Merle is on stage. They sound perfect. The crowd is drowning them out and the stage becomes absent of music and only the screams continue and everyone in the pasture and on the stage is staring at Merle. He saunters the few steps toward the mic cooler than James Brown taunting the crazed audience by darting glances, back and forth, locking eyes for just a moment with everyone in the first several rows. They go wild and become even louder as he lays into the guitar with the first notes of “Silver Wings.”
The stage physically rocks when the mob shoves foreword. A man who is crammed up to the front of the stage raises up a 16oz. can of Busch with one hand while holding an 18 month old girl on the opposite shoulder. The baby is fist pumping its tiny hand to the beat of the music. A few feet over, a woman has lost all control and is crying like those chicks at an Elvis concert–the only difference being that she is about 50 and has a black eye. Tears soak her face and blouse and she covers her eyes, only taking in short glimpses of Merle as if she isn’t worthy. My 12 year-old daughter and 14 year-old son sit mesmerized on the side of the stage staring at Merle as if he were Peter Pan and they had been transported to Neverland. I’m on stage filming the show and notice that his own band is also mesmerized by him even though some of them have been playing with him for over 40 years. This is when it all sinks in and I wonder how we pulled off the best summer vacation a family could ever hope for. We’re on the road touring with the Legend himself. The Hag.
Following a Documentary
The journey started for me ten months earlier, when I walked into a Mom and Pop diner somewhere in Northeastern Oklahoma. The minute I walked into the joint I heard a Bob Wills tune playing over what I thought was the speaker system, but soon realized was a live performance. I looked to the back of the restaurant and saw G.W. Millspaw, an 80-something-year-old man, shoved up against the beer coolers. He was banging out the tune on an electric piano. I hadn’t heard anyone playing a Wills’ tune live since I moved away from West Texas ten years earlier. Millspaw’s eyes were closed as he moaned out a line about his woman leaving him. He made me feel as if it had happened yesterday.
The few tables of patrons were ignoring him. The whole scene froze me in my tracks. I turned around, walked back out to the car, grabbed my video camera, and walked back in to film him. Millspaw sat down with me after his set and told me several stories about getting to be a roadie for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys back in the 1940’s. He said he was never really good enough to play with the band, but Bob let him sit in during a few concerts.
“He was the biggest act in the country and would let amateurs who could play a little sit in from time to time,” says Millspaw. “Can you imagine getting on stage with Garth Brooks or the Rolling Stones?”
Millspaw continues by telling me that the Texas Playboys invented the rock tour and the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” lifestyle. He tells me that when Elvis, Cash and Jerry Lee hit the road together, supposedly “inventing” the rock tour, they were really just trying to do what Bob Wills started in the late 1920s. He tells me story after story about the Great Band, and I can tell that this brief period of his life was by far the most exciting chapter. And it’s the reason why he sits in this cafe every Tuesday and Thursday. When he closes his eyes, he’s trying to relive it.
I had seen that expression before. He had the same face that my father had when reminiscing about Wills. He always said that when he was a kid, his bragging rights came from having an uncle who got to play saxophone with Wills a few times in the late 1930s.
I walked out of the cafe and called one of the few remaining Texas Playboys—the only one I knew–Frankie McWhorter. He sent me on the journey to document the great Wills, much in the same way he had given me orders when I worked for him over twenty years earlier. 30 interviews later I met the Hag, Wills’ biggest fan.
Once again I looked into eyes that were shining from first hand inspiration by Wills when Haggard gave me a first interview outside his bus after a concert in Abeline, Texas. He was overcome with emotion when he told me about Wills touching him on the cheek in 1968, telling him, “Did you know son, that Bob Wills is a Merle Haggard fan?”
“Do you think that made me feel pretty special?” Merle asks me after mimicking Wills voice and patting me on the face the way Wills had touched him. I knew exactly how he felt. The first interview led to several others, including a stint on the Hag’s ranch where we talked about what could be the greatest movie ever made–a movie about the life of Bob Wills.
“I’ve spent way too much of my life thinking about a movie based on his his life,” said Haggard, who is also working on a movie about his own life. “As a young child, I didn’t know what the word celebrity meant. But there was Joe Lewis, President Roosevelt and Bob Wills. And those names were all equally important at that time in American History. And there’s a whole bunch of us who owe Wills. Hell, George Strait wouldn’t know how to wear his hat if it weren’t for Wills,” he says, trying to make me understand the influence Wills has had on American music. “Strait has some of the charisma of Wills. The sober part. But Bob had the demon to deal with.”
Through the many interviews I gathered about Wills, I heard a lot about his demons. Most of the people who knew him felt this was a subject that should be kept secret from the general population and were leery of opening up to me about it. They had always protected Wills while working for him and still felt it necessary over 30 years after his death. They somehow thought that Wills fans should be sheltered from knowing about the “bad” parts of his life.
Wills had the same problem that often plagues artists–addiction. He was an alcoholic who whitenuckled it through long periods of sobriety, always followed by hell raising benders. He used amphetamines like many of the truckers of the day while on the road, and stories of his sexual prowess would make Gene Simmons and Wilt Chamberlin blush. He was a deeply religious man who spent time preaching and thought God had put the call on his life. He carried enormous shame from not following God’s plan for himself, and felt he was tormented with the duel pleasures of God guiding his fiddle bow while Satan led him through the sinful world of jazz, addiction and sexual indiscretion.
He battled his disease during a time when society was locking alcoholics up in sanitariums along with the clinically insane. There were no Betty Ford Clinics that today would just be considered a normal chapter in the lives of performers. In those days, the inability for one to hold his liquor like a Texas gentlemen was worse than having a disease. Today rehab can resurrect a career. This unbearable shame was perhaps what made him work without rest to give of himself to humanity in hope that he could somehow win back God’s favor. He gave away millions of dollars and everyone I interviewed had a story of how Bob had changed their life with a Zig Ziggler-like talk that made them feel good about themselves.
In the end–after two heart attacks and two strokes–Wills thought God was punishing him for the way he had lived his life. But to the millions who heard him and saw him perform, and to the lucky few who received his personal words of encouragement, he was God. And his pulpit was larger than any preacher ever had. He was the definition of all that music holds for the human spirit. He was the emotion that gave people hope during a time in American history when few had any hope at all. He brought people together to dance and fall in love. Along the way he never compromised his art and helped form the roots of American music.
Through six marriages and thousands of concerts, he lived the rags to riches American dream but suffered the kind of pain that only an artist can condone.
“But it’s still a family story,” Haggard continues. He begins the description of what he feels should be the opening scene of the Bob Wills movie.
“Early one spring morning, the year is 1923. If you can imagine an aerial shot from a helicopter over a small farmhouse and a barn sitting between two nearly dry rivers in West Texas. A beautiful fiddle tune is coming out of the barn. The camera cuts to the breakfast table inside the farmhouse where nine kids, Bob’s younger siblings, are sitting around eating a giant breakfast like we all used to eat.”
Merle looks out the window of his hotel room and his eyes dull a bit as if he has just been transported there. A childlike grin falls over his face as he takes a puff off of his pipe and continues in his singing voice, clear, deep and strong. “Bob’s mother Emma asks the kids, ‘who wants to bring him his breakfast?’ A few of them fight over the honor, and 10 year-old little brother Johnny Lee carries a heaping plate full out to the barn, where the 17 year-old Bob is standing in the loft next to the window, playing the fire out of the fiddle.”
“Bob stops playing to listen as the wind blows to his window the spirituals being sung by the sharecroppers out in the cotton field and he starts to hum and scat into his fiddle. He’s lived in the barn for a year, and his hair is long and he’s unshaven. He’s lived in the barn ever since he made the commitment to become Texas fiddle champ. He finally wins it a few years later on the streets of Fort Worth. It’s the same year that Mr. Benny Benion had the last legal gun battle in the state of Texas–on the same street. He killed a man. I guess Fort Worth was the place to be in 1932. If I could be transported in time, I’d like to see that fiddle contest and I’d like to see that gun battle.”
Merle leans forward and locks onto my eyes and says, “When he came out of that barn, he was Bob Wills.” Merle’s eyes are wide and his voice breaks when he says Wills’ name. His head is cocked and he is overcome with emotion and looks at me as if he is wondering if I am fully aware of who that man became. I’m sure I’m looking at him like a cow staring at a new gate. He’s wondering if I know that Wills was the first King. If I know that he was an authentic civil rights grandfather before anyone had coined the term. That he led social and artistic growth movements that made people have hope in the 1930s and 40s, when few common people had anything but worry and grief over feeding their children or losing them in war. He wonders if I know that Wills was further ahead of his time in social reform than he was in his music—music which is still winning Grammys in recent years at the hands of Ray Benson, George Straight and the Dixie Chicks. He wonders if I know that Wills was a humanitarian who helped thousands of people along with every musician he came in contact with, and that his greatest regret was the same as Haggard’s—that he left his family for the road. He wonders if I know that you can’t talk about American music without mentioning Bob Wills. He wonders if I know that he accomplished it all with the simple art form of the fiddle and the new media of radio. I nod even though he hasn’t asked me these questions aloud. I want to tell him I was raised on Bob Wills’ music, which brought my folks together. That my dad had sat on Bob Wills’ knee the same way Merle had as a child. That I met my wife at Bob Wills Days in Turkey Texas in 1988, and that we danced all night to his music. That I am just another psycho fan, like him, of a man who died in 1975.
I don’t say any of it.
He looks back out the window and is silent. I suddenly understand that Wills was more than a great band leader and mentor to the Hag. He was in some ways the father that Merle had lost at the age of nine. That Wills was a man that loved Merle when nobody knew who he was. Before Okie From Muskogee and the 40 #1 hits. After the prison term and all the shame that almost kept Merle from becoming anything but a two-bit hoodlum. That he left Merle his fiddle before he died. It’s Merle’s most prized possession. Merle remains silent for over a minute, finally regaining his composure and breaking the silence with, “They say he played the Goddamn hell out of it from that day on.” He suddenly stands up and says in a whisper, “turn that fuckin’ camera off.” He walks out of the room.
Back on the Road
Merle kicks the footlights out at every stage; he leaves old women and men crying, cowboys screaming and sometimes fighting over the young hotties who are hoping to catch the eye of his son Benion. Benny, named after Horseshoe founder Benny Benion, has inspired his dad with his guitar playing–which led to Merle’s late life artistic growth period and the 13 new songs that jumped out of Haggard that will be released sometime this year through Wal-Mart. They’re damn good songs, if you happen to like something that sounds more like country than the rock-n-roll backed with a fiddle that seems to be the biggest trend in country music. No, the fiddle Merle plays is the same one that was played by Bob Wills, The King of Western Swing. And the music? I’m no critic, but it sounds like quintessential Merle.
The new album is full of emotion and will be partially owned by the IRS, since Haggard was unable to convince them that his ranch should be a write-off because the water, ducks and fish inspire his craft. They told him that if that were the case, then everything and anything in his life could be considered inspiration for his craft. He has been forced to work a Willie Nelson deal. The Government was eager to oblige a deal similar to the one they worked for Willie when he was in tax trouble because they made a hell of a lot more money than he owed them off of his Who Will Buy My Memories album.
One of the new songs, titled “I’ve Seen It Go Away” is an obvious reminiscing of a long life with regrets and longing for things that no longer exist. He mentions Bob Wills as the best who ever played and also warns girls, boys, and all kids about the environment, politicians and the pitfalls of not living life while waiting for life to become great.
One priceless memory of our adventure was when my 12 year-old daughter, Savannah Bleu, was invited to sing with The Strangers at a sound check in Topeka, Kansas. She sang the Bob Wills tune “Faded Love” for Merle and Uncle Daddy Frank Mull. It was just another example of how Wills legacy is being manifested through Merle. He made my daughter feel like a giant star. Merle is also now ending his show with a religious song the way Wills did.
And that’s when Merle closed the deal for me with my wife. That is, when the Hag told my wife our little girl had a special voice, my wife was sold on the bit I’ve been feeding her about being on a mission from God to film a Bob Wills documentary and write the screenplay for the movie of his life. It’s the only way this kind of shit could be happening.
Before Bleu’s big break (that’s what my daughter goes by since Mull was introducing her by the handle to among others, Don Henley), my wife was convinced I was just having a mid-life crisis that gave me great ideas like walking out of a six-figure career to spend my life savings shooting a documentary. Now she has also taken on the ‘mission from God’ attitude. Merle has that affect. It’s more than charisma; it’s the kind of persona all presidents and kings possess. It’s the same persona that everyone tried to help me understand about Wills and what I consider his greatest contribution to humanity. Those men cause inspiration in others.
Back in Arkansas, at the concert in the cow pasture, it doesn’t take Haggard long to figure out what kind of crowd he has before him. He takes them on a ride that leaves every person–and the few remaining cows–changed. He leads his band in the manner of the King of Western Swing, pointing to different musicians when it is their turn to take a ride. He expects them to let their spirit come through their instrument in authentic jazz tradition. The energy is also evident in Merle’s son Benion, who goes all caveman on ‘em with solos that make them scream even louder. After one creative hard lick, his mother, Theresa, covers her mic and leans over to me and says, “that’s my boy.” Merle raises his eyebrows in awe at Benny’s finishing flair and begins to giggle as if he knows where the talent comes from and what it feels like to take a ride on a song when one is truly inspired. He’s been getting off on it for over 50 years, and he says it’s even better now watching his son fall in love with music.
At the end of the concert, Merle leaves it all in the puddle of sweat that has dripped off of him onto the fabricated steel stage. He exits and the exhaustion is evident. Security parts the mountain folk like the Red Sea. Many are weeping. None of them know he has cancer and will undergo surgery in a couple of months and have half his fuckin’ lung ripped out. He almost falls when he steps on uneven ground, covered with hay, but his manager Frank Mull is there to catch him. He makes it the short distance to the sanctuary of his bus.
The cowboy, bull-ridin’, sumbitch makes his way up to Merle’s bus, and is calm and trying the nice approach to getting his hat signed. The bus slowly pulls away to head to the next show and everyone hears the crunch of a straw hat as the back wheels move forward. The cowboy picks up his unsigned-lid and joyously proclaims, “Merle Haggard’s bus squashed my fuckin’ hat!” He shows it to everyone who will see. He is proud. He will hang it on the wall of his house as one of his most prized possessions.
Someday, he will tell young relatives that their mother saw the Hag from the front row of a concert in a cow pasture before she was two years old. His eyes will hold the same excitement of the one hundred people I interview about Wills.
And he’ll have the hat to prove it.
Watch a trailer for the documentary:
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