In the new documentary Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself, Dwight Yoakam recalls a story Dick Clark once told him about the country legend early in his career. “You’re a movie star,” Clark allegedly told Haggard in the late ’60s. “Please, would you just cut one or two pop songs? You could be as big as anybody in terms of crossing over.”
The honky-tonk hero responded, “That’s not what I do.”
So goes a man famous for his almost terminal habit of keeping it real, when a little less honesty might have better lined his pockets. It’s a trait hammered home by the film, which airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, on WNPT-Channel 8 as part of PBS’ acclaimed American Masters series. It could apply just as strongly to its maker, Gandulf Hennig, whose specialty is cutting away the crust of legend to uncover the truth below.
“I needed to keep it real,” says Hennig, a rail-thin, leather-clad German with a penetrating stare and an air of relaxed composure. “The worst thing that can happen is you try to make something to appeal to a larger audience, and then if you get shitty reviews, you got screwed by yourself and other people.”
This isn’t the first country music doc for Hennig, a native of Cologne, Germany. His Fallen Angel, a highlight of the 2006 Nashville Film Festival, took a much-mythologized subject — the late country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons — and found a more complex and tangled figure than the too-frail-for-this-world artiste of his cult profile. While making that film, Hennig did a lot of interviews here, and for the last four years he has split his time between Nashville and Berlin, where he spent most of his adult life.
Hennig’s latest work, a gripping tale of one of country music’s most elusive figures, offers a rare and probing look into Haggard’s world. Learning to Live With Myself paints a detailed picture, from Haggard’s early years in Oildale, Calif., and his troubled youth to his integral role in the Bakersfield Sound, his incredibly prolific and successful career (38 No. 1 hits between 1966 and 1987), and his status as an icon of hardcore country.
Though Hennig has no interest in making comparisons, what emerges is a musical legacy and life story every bit as compelling as perhaps the most iconic renegade country artist of them all, Johnny Cash. Yet Haggard enjoys a small fraction of the popularity and reverence bestowed upon the Man in Black. Admirers on the right and left alike argue that Haggard’s hard-to-pin-down conservatism has kept him from the near-sainthood accorded the liberal Cash in later years.
But while Cash was singing about doing hard time, Haggard was actually serving it. In fact, one of the turning points in Hag’s life was getting to see Cash play in San Quentin — from the audience of prisoners.
“There were a lot of us that they called ‘outlaws’ back in the beginning,” says a laughing Kris Kristofferson early in the film, “but Merle was a real outlaw.”
WATCH: GETTING HIGH LEGALLY