The pay was quite a laugh too. It started at $3 a month, with a grand high of $18. It just seemed to make more sense to me to lay around the yard and play the guitar. The future was laughable. I didn’t have one.
from Sing Me Back Home, Merle Haggard’s autobiography
Merle Haggard did, it turns out, have a future beyond the walls of San Quentin, where he logged 33 months for a 1957 Bakersfield, Calif. burglary. Now, two decades, two dozen No. 1 country hits and 10 million albums later, Haggard’s income reaches grand highs indeed. At 44, he has released his 28th LP, Big City, and—causing even more talk—a confessional memoir.
Sing Me Back Home recounts Haggard’s Okie boyhood (his father was a struggling farmer), his trips to reformatories and then San Quentin, and his failed marriages to Leona Hobbs and singer Bonnie Owens. (The book, co-written by family friend Peggy Russell, was published by Times Books, $12.95). “I’m not sure it was the right thing, putting all my life down in this book,” Haggard allows. “I can see it in people’s faces. Now I’m at a disadvantage from the moment I meet someone.” Fellow-convict-turned-country-singer David Allan Coe thinks Haggard may damage his career by reminding the nation of his prison record. “A lot of self-righteous people,” Coe says, “may quit buying his records.”
Haggard also disclosed an unrequited passion for Dolly Parton. They toured together in 1974-75, shortly before he split from Owens. Haggard reveals he was smitten by the “exceptional human being who lives underneath all that bunch of fluffy hair, fluttery eyelashes and super boobs.” On reading Merle’s comments, Dolly declared, “I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or flattered.” Leona Williams, 38, who became Haggard’s third wife in 1978, took his admission good-naturedly. “Well,” she laughs, “I ended up with him.”
Earlier this year, though, she and Merle separated for six weeks amid rumors of ugly scenes at home. “Certain people,” Leona says, naming no names, “wanted to break us up and get me out of the picture.” At the time Haggard was in California and Leona in Nashville. He explains, “She’d get a call saying, ‘Merle’s in such and such a cocktail lounge.’ She didn’t know I was getting calls about her, too.” Haggard sued for divorce, he says, after an erroneous article reported Leona had filed. When they finally met in Nashville, Merle says, “We got back together in a couple of hours.”
Merle proclaims, “I love my wife now.” But he adds, “There’s plenty of times I wish I didn’t. I have no more control over my feelings for this woman than I did over addictions I’ve had like tobacco and alcohol.”
To aid the reconciliation, Leona has forsaken her short-lived solo tour to rejoin Merle’s act. “I know my career would get a lot more attention elsewhere,” Williams says, “because when Merle comes on they forget Leona. But now that I’m touring with him, we are getting along better.”
Haggard rarely sees first wife Hobbs, with whom he had four children. However, Owens continued as a backup singer for Merle until last January and they remain close.
In the past, a road-weary Haggard pondered retiring to his houseboat; lately he has feared losing his creative edge, worrying about “male menopause.” But his current single My Favorite Memory is his 49th to make the country top 10. He’s working on albums with both Willie Nelson and Leona. And he still averages 120 concerts a year.
Haggard is too much a maverick ever to get his act all together. “I hate to be known as dependable,” he says. “If I had the nerve, I’d probably be happier as a criminal. Jesse James is at the top of my list of heroes.”
Yet when he takes a long look back, Haggard admits with a smile, “It’s not necessary to go to prison to be a country singer. In my book there are many examples of what not to do with a life. I think about the time I wasted and how I could have been doing then what I’m doing now.”