MERLE HAGGARD'S MY HOUSE OF MEMORIES

For the Record

By Merle Haggard with Tom Carter

HarperCollins. 259 pp. $24

When, beginning in the 1960s, country music made its march from the boondocks into the mainstream of American music, three men led the way: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. All are now of a certain age -- Haggard, to be precise, is 62 -- and though they continue to perform and record, they don't get either the audiences or the air play that once were their due. As country drifts more and more into the grasp of pop, its grand old men (and women, too, i.e., Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn and June Carter Cash) are pushed aside, their incalculable contributions neglected and forgotten.

That's the way of the world, the American corner of it in particular; our eyes are so firmly fixed on the future that we scant, even ridicule, the past. Yet the truth is that though all three of these heroic figures are now well into their sixties, they remain vivid and commanding presences. The years have exacted a price on their voices, and at times they seem content to replay the hits of yesterday rather than explore new musical territory; but that, too, is the way of the world.

Apart from his music, each of these men has his own signature: Cash is the man in black, Nelson wraps his long hair in a bandanna, Haggard is the ex-con. Though each has his mythology, Haggard's is by far the deepest and most intense, not merely because the mark of the prison cell has never quite left him but also because of the complex, ambivalent anti-authoritarian vein that runs through his heart. He is at once the embodiment of frontier independence ("There is a restlessness in my soul that I've never conquered"), of hard-line patriotism ("Okie from Muskogee"), and of working-class resentment against wealth and privilege. Just when you think you can put him into a pigeonhole, he slips away and seems to be something else altogether.

The oddly titled Merle Haggard's My House of Memories: For the Record is Haggard's second attempt to pin down his contradictory, elusive self. The first, Sing Me Back Home: My Story (written with Peggy Russell), was published in 1981; it is now hard to find and expensive to buy. That may explain why Haggard has done a second book, for despite the flap copy's claim that this new volume picks up where the first left off, Haggard tells many of the same stories in only slightly different ways and adds only marginalia to a life's story that remains substantially a mystery.

That, in truth, appears to be just the way Haggard likes it. Though many of the remarkable songs he has written "are drawn from personal experience and observation," he keeps the real Merle Haggard -- whatever that may be -- tightly under wraps. To journalists he is genial but distant, and (as Tony Scherman pointed out in a perceptive piece a couple of years ago) he is given to going abruptly on his own version of walkabout, disappearing with cronies or vanishing on his own. No doubt this has much to do with defenses he erected during his tumultuous life -- "17 stays in penal institutions, incarceration in a penitentiary, five marriages, bankruptcy, a broken back, brawls, shooting incidents, swindlings, sickness, the deaths of loved ones, and more" -- but it's frustrating for those who admire and are curious about him.

My House of Memories is just about as elusive as the man, and by contrast with Haggard's previous memoir it is too often perfunctory, which is exactly the impression he gave on stage at the Birchmere a year and a half ago. A CD recorded at more or less the same time, "Live at Billy Bob's," makes plain that the spirit and the music can still move him (not to mention his audience), but it may be that all the excitement and all the ailments are finally catching up with him. There's a valedictory tone to this book that hasn't been present -- or at least hasn't been noticeable -- in any of his previous work; it's at once touching and unsettling.

Thus though Haggard retravels much of the ground covered in the earlier book, there's little of its in-your-face tone. He's reached the age at which what he calls "my lawless youth" seems a lot less amusing to him than it once did. He's haunted by lost opportunities and wasted energies:

"We're all creatures of habit, and I was no exception. In 1957 I was 20 years old. I had first run away from home almost 10 years earlier. In other words, before I reached the age of maturity, I had spent nearly half my life running away or behind bars. I'm convinced I would have been a career criminal, and I would have had a short career. I would have gotten a life sentence early in life, and died young, if music hadn't saved me."

On the next page he quotes a couple of lines from one of his best songs -- "I was born the running kind/ With leaving always on my mind . . . " -- and then says: "I wrote those lyrics in minutes. I spent years living them." Yet the music always was there, and in the end it saved him. Like most country musicians, he had no formal training, but he had natural gifts: a smooth, expressive baritone voice, hands and fingers that took to the guitar and the fiddle, and a remarkable songwriting talent that, over the years, covered an equally remarkable range of subjects. Haggard is best known for pugnacious patriotism ("Muskogee," "The Fightin' Side of Me"), honky-tonk blues ("I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," "Misery and Gin") and proletarian angst ("Mama Tried," "The Roots of My Raisin'," "Workin' Man Blues"), but he has also written wonderful love songs, some of which are affecting, some of which are funny and raunchy.

If this book tells us anything about him, it may be that the only real Merle Haggard is the musician, that when we look for anything else we're headed in the wrong direction. He talks about caring more about music than renown ("I've never played music primarily for the audience. I've played it for myself and for the sake of the music"), and probably there's much more to that than false modesty. But as he describes the origins of two of his most notable songs, "Today I Started Loving You Again" and "Always Wanting You," one comes to realize that for him the line between his life and his music is virtually invisible: that the life has been lived, and is still lived, in order to create the music. Thus the time Haggard did at San Quentin, for example, matters not in and of itself but for what it contributed to his music, and probably the same can be said of his five marriages as well.

New recordings of most of the songs mentioned above can be heard on "For the Record: Legendary Hits," a two-CD album released to coincide with this memoir. The recording quality is excellent, but the original versions of the 43 songs are uniformly best; readers who don't know his work should try one of his many greatest-hit compilations or, if they're really ambitious, the superb four-CD retrospective "Down Every Road." That is where his real life's story is told; this book, like its predecessor, is just a footnote.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.