Merle Haggard Plays Musical Wives, and His Ex Now Sings Backup

“Our situation,” drawls Merle Haggard of his marriage to country music colleague Leona Williams, “is either peaches and cream, or it’s dill pickles.” If that sounds like a C&W song, so does their marriage.

There’s a women’s liberation theme: Haggard has trouble accepting advice from his wife—”She’ll offer helpful criticism, and I’ll take it as a slam.” Then there’s the Tennessee vs. California theme: The couple married last October and settled near Redding, Calif., far from Leona’s home in Nashville. “She wasn’t too thrilled about that,” he says, adding: “Tennessee’s a nice place if you’ve never been anywhere else.” But most serious is the triangle theme: While Leona tours these days with her own show, Haggard’s entourage includes his longtime backup singer Bonnie Owens, who happens to be his ex-wife. Haggard jokes that he tries not to sing his old hit I’ve Got a Darlin’ (for a wife), “because the audience might get to wondering who I was talking about.

“It’s really a workable situation if both of them ladies could just understand it thoroughly,” sighs Merle, 42, who suggests Leona should prefer Bonnie to “some new, mysterious lady from no place.” It also makes sense professionally, since Bonnie, 46, has sung with him for most of his 19-year career (and helped him toward 34 No. 1 country singles and album sales of 10 million, including his current Serving 190 Proof). Leona, 36—who had a hit, Yes Mam (He Found Me in a Honky-Tonk)—says she’s no longer jealous, yet it “still bugs me that people think I’m crazy. But they probably tell Bonnie she is, too.”

Tangled situations aren’t unusual for Haggard, an unlikely combination of macho Western pride and sensitivity. An ex-con who spent 33 months in San Quentin, “the Hag” dotes on his four-pound toy fox terrier. (“The truly masculine trait is to have a small dog,” he kids.) Although tunes like his Okie from Muskogee and Fightin’ Side of Me got him labeled a red-neck, he admits to using pot. (“The song says ‘we,’ not ‘I,’ don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” he notes.) In any case, the Hag has strong opinions on most subjects. Women’s lib does rile him—”We all know they have a terrible time once a month and I’d hate to have one of them pushing the [nuclear] button.” He’s a Christian but writes off “organized religion” as “a tool for con men.” And one of his most off-the-wall theories is that Elvis Presley’s death may have been faked: “It would be the first chance for freedom in his entire life—and it could have been a scheme Colonel Parker dreamed up.”

Fortunately, Merle’s new wife, Leona, believes in both freedom and homemaking. “I enjoy that a woman is supposed to bring her husband’s coffee and make his bed,” she says. Yet she claims to be a match for Merle in independence. His songs about cheating are probably based on experience, she realizes, but laughs, “I wrote a few cheating songs myself.” As Leona sings in Call Me Crazy Lady: “I won’t stay with a man who is hell bent on rambling, unless he lets me do the same.”

Haggard’s father, a dust bowl Okie from Checotah, moved the family to Bakersfield before Merle was born. He got a job as a train yardman and put the family up for a while in a railway car. Just 9 when his father died, Merle turned to truancy and car theft, landing in two reformatories from which he escaped seven times before he was 18. At 19 he got into an eight-year marriage that resulted in four children: Dana, now a 22-year-old housewife; aspiring singer Marty, 21; Kelly, 17; and Noel, 15, who still lives with Dad. He says: “They haven’t been bad children. But they feel slighted that they were living with me, yet I had no time for them. Children just don’t understand they can’t have their father all the time.”

Haggard’s own life had by then grown increasingly violent. “I beat the hell out of a guy one night and took some money,” he recalls. “I always felt that was the worst thing I did.” Then, at 20, an attempted robbery of a cafe put him into San Quentin.

All along, though, he had an unselfconscious sense of poetry and a marvelous natural baritone—still probably the cleanest, best-pitched in pop music. So when he was paroled in 1960, he returned to Bakersfield, began singing in bars and had his first hit in 1963 with Sing a Sad Song. Two years later he married Bonnie (divorced from country star Buck Owens) and began drawing on his life for hits like Workin’ Man Blues and Mama Tried.

Merle’s third wife, Leona, grew up at least as poor. Ninth of 12 children of a Vienna, Mo. road grader, she at one point shared a bed with several siblings. At 5, she started playing “rhythm mandolin” behind her father’s fiddle at local dances, and at 15 had her own weekly radio show, Leona Sings. She married a year later “for about two months,” then entered a 14-year union with Ron Williams. (They have three children, Cathy, 19, who’s back in Nashville, and Ron, 10, and Brady Lee, 5, who live with Leona and Merle.) The two toured as a duet, including a stint backing Loretta Lynn. Leona ultimately scored solo hits like Country Girl with Hot Pants On and Once More which attracted Merle’s interest when Bonnie left the road in 1974. “Leona had something a little different in her voice,” he recalls. “I wondered what the female looked like that was doing that.”

He hired her as a backup singer. Then Bonnie asked for a divorce in 1976—”We weren’t legally separated but I wasn’t coming home a lot,” Haggard says. Leona recalls, “Merle and I went to a movie and that’s how we got started. We had lots of arguments—he’d go back to Bonnie and then come back to me. I tried to get away but when you love somebody you can’t.” Then Merle finally got divorced last year, and Bonnie reports, “We split everything 50-50.” Her share was about $500,000.

Haggard seems to be tapering off from the extravagance that marked his earlier career. He’s moved out of his $700,000 Bakersfield country mansion—with moat—to a $200,000 ranch house in rural Palo Cedro, some 200 miles north of San Francisco. His $200,000 model train set is in storage, and he plays less blackjack, which cost him “over a million” between 1965 and 1975. He admits, “I’ll probably wind up drinking too much straight bourbon a couple of times a year,” but he adds, “I never was questioned about what I did when I was gone in my other marriage. Now we question each other.” His worst problem, he says, is inability to show affection for his kids—”It’s like wanting to do something and you can’t—like someone’s got a cable attached to your pants and you can’t move.”

But after the times the Hag has seen, he figures his current troubles are hardly worth mentioning. “Hell,” he says, “I ain’t gripin’.”

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