Just two weeks ago I found myself on holiday driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles on the most direct route you can take. The 5 takes you from the Bay Area to La La Land the less scenic way and in much less time. If you want to take a stop you’ll find yourself very near the epicentre of Californian Country Music, Bakersfield. Having already bored the family with too many country stations on the radio I decided it would be pushing it to suggest stopping off for a look around. We opted for an all-day breakfast at a roadside Denny’s Diner and over the pancakes I found myself telling my son the story of Bakersfield’s most famous scion, Merle Haggard.
My boy loved hearing the tale of the young man who ended up in jail hearing the music of Johnny Cash in concert at San Quentin where Hag was serving time for robbery in 1958. Merle Haggard’s life was in complete turmoil when he encountered Cash on that fateful New Year’s Day. He ended up only serving 2 years of the 15 year sentence and he owes his turnaround to a realisation where life was or wasn’t heading for some of the people he met behind bars. Part of his own recovery was joining the jail country band in response to that Johnny cash concert.
We listened to Silver Wings back in the car on the way to our final destination in Santa Monica and the next day I woke up to the news that Merle had died that morning on his 79th Birthday.
A few days later we were back in the Bay Area and, as luck would have it, I found myself listening to the local NPR station while I waited in the car for my son to pick up his take away Burrito at a little Mexican luncheonette just off Highway One. Terri Gross’s Fresh Air was playing out a 1995 interview she had broadcast with Merle where he talked extensively about his time behind bars and his own redemption. In a remarkable interview he told Gross:
I really kind of was crazy as a kid, and then all of a sudden, you know, while I was in San Quentin, I just – I one day understood – I saw the light. I just didn’t want to do that no more and I realized what a mess I’d made out of my life, and I got out of there and stayed out of there – never did go back.
Went and apologized to all of the people I’d wronged and tried to pay back the people that I’d taken money from, borrowed money from or whatever. I think when I was 31 years old, I paid everybody back that I’d ever taken anything from, including my mother.
On Tuesday night we’ll play out some of that interview as well as a conversation Merle recorded for his first ever BBC Radio interview in the early seventies. We’ll play the songs that matter and we’ll toast on-air the man whose music shook the Nashville establishment and gave a voice to working people through his songs.
We’ll also get round to playing you some great new music. Listen out for new tracks by Sturgill Simpson, Cale Tyson, Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle, Sam Beam & Jessca Hoop. We’ll also give a spin to the album I’m sitting listening to right now, Red Sky July’s ‘The Truth and The Lie.’ It all starts at five past nine and you can find us on BBC Radio Scotland. Join me if you can.