As singer, instrumentalist and songwriter, Merle Haggard has few peers in the soul-tearing world of country music. As a father, however, he has been something else. The many sides of Merle are now reflected in his son, Marty, 28, who acknowledges his debt of lineage and, at the same time, bears the wounds. “He’s not your standard dad, you know,” says Marty.
Merle Haggard, in fact, was doing time in San Quentin for burglary when Marty was born, the second of four children of Leona Hobbs, the first of Merle’s four wives. After his dad’s parole and return to the family home near Bakersfield, Calif., Marty’s first memory is that of his parents in domestic combat. “Dad liked to argue, and Mama would take it a step farther and go berserk,” says Marty. “It took all his strength to keep her from whipping his butt, and half the time she did.” While the elders brawled, the kids cowered in a corner. “It was like a damn circus,” Marty recalls, and his bitterness is palpable.
Yet there was also the incredible Haggard gift of music that, countless hits and millions of albums later, has firmly established Merle Haggard in country music’s pantheon. Marty shared in that, too, beginning road tours with Merle in his teens and learning as well from the likes of Western swing king Bob Wills. Today Marty is off on his own. With his first single, Talkin’ Blue Eyes for MTM records, ascending on Billboard’s chart, he promises to become the second best-known Haggard in the country music biz.
Marty has absorbed more than his share of bumps, bruises—and worse—along the way. In 1969 both he and Merle were thrown by a horse that they were riding tandem. Merle broke his back; Marty escaped with lesser injuries. To this day, says Marty, “we both still have a problem standing onstage holding up those heavy Telecaster guitars.”
Then, eight years later, a terrifying highway incident nearly ended Marty’s life. He had a bit part in a TV movie and was driving to location when he stopped for a hitchhiker, only to find himself staring at a gun. The thug ordered him out of the car and demanded money. “I didn’t have much, and dumb-ass me wouldn’t give it to him.” There was a shot. “It hurt like someone hit me in the stomach with a baseball bat, and the bullet burnt going through,” he says. As the gunman fled, Marty staggered back into his car and drove. “I was wanting to go to sleep so bad,” he says. “I don’t know what kept me on the road.” After about 15 miles he spotted a 13-year-old girl by the roadside: She called for an ambulance and comforted Marty until it came. Merle, just back after a tour, arrived at the hospital as his son was being prepared for emergency surgery.
Marty astonished the doctors with his recovery: out of the hospital in five days, on TV location in two more. Unfortunately, his role required him to spend 14 hours in a swimming pool. “I was diving off the board with the stitches in me,” he says now with a blend of amusement and embarrassment. “I looked like a sick prune.” The bravado would cost him plenty: An infection developed, which required more surgery—”the most painful part of the whole dad-gummed thing.”
Like his father, Marty never finished high school. Instead he joined forces with his older sister to form “Marty and Dana Haggard and the Driftwood Band,” which toured for three years before folding. “Things were good but I just lost the desire and ran out of money.” He took a job as a “hydro-blaster,” which required climbing into oil-field steam tanks to clean out hardened sludge with a high-pressure hose. Finally, Merle rescued his son from drudgery, luring him back to the stage to play rhythm guitar and sing harmony. “I realized that’s what made me the happiest,” Marty says, but it also brought back the pressures of performing. In 1983 Marty was busted in L.A. for cocaine possession.
He says his turnaround came with a visit to a Baptist church in Bakersfield. “It was like a rock hit me, and I totally turned my life over to God,” he says. “The drug charge was eventually dismissed, and this year, Marty and his wife of six years, Shree, and their two daughters, Dani, 5, and Doni, 1½, resettled in Nashville.
Nowadays, Marty plays a couple of concerts a week, traveling in a van that’s “on its last legs, and it ain’t half paid off.” With his first successful release, he is looking ahead to an album that will include some of his own songs. He refuses to sing about anything that glorifies drinking or cheating, a self-imposed ban that might cramp the style of many country stars. “I’m not saying I’m Mr. Righteous,” he says. “But music is a powerful tool and if I’m going to affect anyone with a song it dang sure isn’t going to be in a bad way if I can help it.”
He is saddened that his father has not visited him in Nashville (his mother, says Marty, has been in and out of institutions in recent years because of drugs). Nor has Merle said much about Marty’s hit record. But there is no resentment, Marty insists. He admires Merle Haggard (“He’s the best all-around performer there is”) and treasures the lightweight guitar his father gave him, the twin to Merle’s and a boon to performers with bad backs. “I’m not copying my dad,” he says. “If I sound like him, it’s not purposefully done. If I don’t, that’s not purposefully done either.” So far he has sounded more Marty than Merle. He is comfortable with that.