Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review (book): Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard’s House of Memories.
By Haggard with Tom Carter.
Cliff Street Books. $25 259 pp.

review written by Tom Wilmeth
5/19/2000; published in Shepherd Express, summer 2000

Merle’s hit song insists that “Mama Tried,” but her son should have tried harder on this book. Anyone reading this new autobiography with the hope of discovering insights to Haggard’s songs, and specifics about his music will surely be disappointed. The first half of My House of Memories focuses on the singer’s days as a juvenile delinquent, finally landing him in San Quentin Penitentiary. The escapades that led to this incarceration make for sometimes interesting, if repetitious reading.

Much like a false start on a recording, this book has numerous instances of aborted tales and often pointless build-ups with little or no pay-off. The few specific individuals Haggard chooses to discuss also proves odd. For example, he lavishly praises his longtime guitarist Roy Nichols, and then details the night at the Hollywood Bowl when Nichols got drunk and tarnished an important show for Haggard.

One vignette taking place at Milwaukee’s County Stadium is among the handful of music-related stories that the book could have used many more of. Haggard was playing bass for Buck Owens at this 1964 show when Owens broke a guitar string. Buck told Merle to sing something while he fixed it. Haggard sang the then-current hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Friction was caused between the star and the side-man when Haggard got an ovation that bested what Owens had received.

The book’s half-hearted account of random incidentals from Haggard’s life is a disservice to its subject (who doesn’t seem to mind), and to his music and his fans. The last third of the book is frustratingly fragmented, reading like a narrative with no editor, somewhat like Willie Nelson’s breezy reflections of the mid-1980s, offering little to the existing knowledge of country music fans.

Merle should have taken a cue from the comprehensive and informative autobiography of one of his favorite country performers, Hank Snow. Snow, like Miles Davis’ book, gave his entire life story and his music the effort that both deserved. At the conclusion of My House of Memories, Haggard talks about finding a hand written account of his mother’s life, including battles against Indians and malaria, travels in covered wagons and seeing the unopened Oklahoma territory. Now that’s the autobiography I want to read!


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