Merle Haggard and the Fender Telecaster

Merle Haggard meant a lot to me. I grew up listening to one of my grandfathers playing guitar and singing some of his tunes. Haggard represented well what it was to be poor, white, and from some rural area where what is important is living well, not having some philosophy degree and an inflated sense of self.

It's the poor who are forever the most likely to have run into problems with the legal system. Such a paradigm is as ancient as the hills. Merle Haggard ran into the law like a brick wall, was imprisoned for it, and somehow, against all odds, came out on the other side to become famous, and well respected. He did so while maintaining the same attitude of rebellion.

By the time The Hag died in 2016, a year when so many baby boomers died, he was worth forty million dollars, give or take several million. He'd had thirty eight number one country and western singles on the Billboards chart, but perhaps his greatest contribution was to be one of the primary founders of a style of music known as The Bakersfield Sound.

The Bakersfield Sound or style of music sprung out of and from Bakersfield, California. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were the two primary movers in the development of the style. What was really going on was the two were in a rebellion against the kind of music being produced in Nashville, Tennessee in the late 1950s. The record executives were producing music which they called country music, but was inauthentic for incorporating orchestras, and topical matter which simply didn't represent rural folk well.

The Bakersfield Sound wasn't limited to the area around Bakersfield, California. It was more a result of the migrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and other places affected by the great dust bowl, to California than it was a representation of geography. The migrants, famously known as 'Okies,' brought their rural southern culture with them to California. Most of them stayed there, and Haggard mostly grew up there.

The early 1950s brought about a change in music including the birth of entire genres, such as rock and roll. The sound coming out of Bakersfield had a primary instrument as its driver, and like rock and roll, that primary instrument was a solid body electric guitar. In the case of the sounds coming out of Bakersfield, that solid body electric guitar was almost always a Fender Telecaster.

Merle Haggard and the Fender Telecaster

So the sound of Bakersfield and Merle Haggard could be said to be twangy, very twangy. Hey, that's what country and western should sound like, steel guitars and telecaster twang. The subject matter should represent the rural working class, their lives, their concerns, and their dreams. Merle Haggard did just that, as did Buck Owens.

Their sound influenced many many persons, and saw itself cross over into the realm of rock and roll. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Byrds all recorded music very much in the vein of what Merle Haggard was doing. It didn't matter that The Hag would casually make fun of hippies in some of his most famous tunes. Gram Parsons had wanted Merle Haggard to produce his albums, the sound was so distinct, so aesthetically pleasing.

The guitar playing of Merle Haggard could be characterized as incorporating a lot of string bending to simulate the sound of steel guitars, and the sound of someone crying. I don't think Merle got the recognition he should have as a player. He was no virtuoso, but he used the skills he did have in a crafty way. He got the most out of himself as a guitarist.

Merle Haggard was a student of jazz guitar. This may not seem so apparent, but there it is just the same. Your sound is your sound, it's always specific to you, and if you sound just like your favorite musicians, then you're definitely not doing things correctly. Merle often used his thumb on his fretboard hand to fret notes, he played with a pick, and also incorporated the use of his free fingers on his picking hand. People don't often think of guitar playing in the sense of cleverness. Well, Merle's guitar playing is clever, it's catchy, it is damned tasteful.

The Hag's instantly recognizable singing voice won't ever be replaced. It was a baritone with a wide range, and he sounded like a man who'd smoked a few million cigarettes. He had, and he survived lung cancer, but died from pneumonia at the ripe old age of seventy nine years.

He'd been greatly inspired by the music and storytelling songs of Johnny Cash. Cash, of course, played in the prison Haggard was locked up in. While in prison Merle became acquainted with persons who had much sadder and traumatic situations than he had had; and he commemorated them in some of his greatest songs. He was truly a modern bard with an electric guitar and a backing band.

Merle Haggard and the Fender Telecaster

Merle Haggard was already singing and playing in clubs before he got arrested and sent to prison. You can bet he was on his way to success, but he was a bit of a wild man, and his career was both interrupted and elevated due to his stint in prison. When he got out in 1960 he didn't waste too much time before going after his first recording. The record sold only two hundred copies, but Merle got his feet wet in the recording studio.

1966 saw The Hag having his first hit song, 'I'm a Lonesome Fugitive' would set the tone for his brand of country music. The people in the record industry literally did not know Haggard had been in San Quentin prison. Merle never announced it in any sort of formal way, he ascended gracefully into our collective consciousness. Roy Nichols was his guitarist, and would remain so for two decades. By the end of the 1960s Merle was a superstar for his singing and songwriting.

You don't think of Merle's music and politics these days, but his early hits were extremely political in nature. Haggard was dismayed by the protest culture of the 'hippies out in San Francisco.' Here we are in 2017 and the situation is the same today as when Haggard first recorded his infamous 'Okie from Muskogee.' Middle America and the ultra liberalism seen on either coast are disparate entities still. What Haggard did was tap into the things middle Americans were thinking, and they were things no one was saying. Merle sang what so many had wanted to say but hadn't. His next major hit would coin a phrase which seems to be going nowhere. 'The Fightin' Side of Me,' introduced the slogan 'love it or leave it' to the world.

Merle Haggard had gone from being an inmate in a prison to being a symbol for right wing Americans. He found this uncomfortable. Those clothes didn't fit him at all. Haggard wanted to push a song he'd wrote about an interracial romance, but his record company dissuaded him from it. One need not be a hard right wing person to be a patriotic American, and patriotism would remain one of Haggard's themes.

You call out a President of the United States of America, feminism, modern masculinity, and two of the big three of American automotive manufacturing and the state of our currency in one song, and you might just be a real American patriot, like Merle Haggard was. The song my grandfather used to love to sing while he strummed chords, and I tried to also do so, as a child was 'Big City.' Merle wasn't just a champion of the working class, he was also the champion of what he thought of as the silent majority.

The state of mass media prefabricated crap that is called country music these days seems to indicate some absolute antipathy towards the silent majority. It's like the record labels literally hate the common US citizen, and the evidence is the crap produced and promoted towards us today. We should all hope Merle is reincarnated as a US citizen again.

From 1981 through 1985 my dad was going through a country music phase. Merle Haggard had twelve top ten country singles during those years. He was aging, going through what he called a male menopause, a mid life crisis. The Hag fell in love with cocaine for a while, and then he divorced cocaine in the same way he had his previous wives. He started smoking marijuana at the age of forty one. Ironic that he'd once had a hit song lambasting persons who did just that. We're all moving targets, are we not?

Fender Merle Haggard Telecaster

As Merle got older he played guitar less and less in his live shows. He still played, but he found that singing and playing at the same time was more stressful than he liked. He was touring up until his death, he loved to perform live, and we as people loved to go to the show. What a fine memory it must be to have got to see one of the founders of both The Bakersfield sound, and the Outlaw Country Music movements.

Merle Haggard was an absolute legend of American music and a scion of our culture. So too is Fender guitars, and so it isn't any wonder Fender honored one of its biggest ambassadors with a guitar built to please him, and then offered it to the public of adoring fans too. No one will ever replicate Haggard's singing voice, or his honest songwriting, but the tonality offered from his Telecaster, with some care and dedication, that can be had, replicated, and kept alive.

Be sure you realize the Fender Merle Haggard Telecaster ain't cheap. It's not inexpensive at all either. This is a Fender Custom Shop guitar, and it goes for around seven thousand dollars. Why does it cost so much? Well, this is far removed from the standard Telecaster guitars Merle played in his early years. This is unlike those entirely.

The Fender Custom Shop Merle Haggard Telecaster is non traditional in many ways. The standard variety of Telecaster is a completely solid body guitar with a very very bright and twangy tonality. The Haggard Tele is not a solid body, but a hollow body with a solid top. The top is of figured maple, and that in and of itself makes this guitar special, but the body's chamber is hollowed out in places with tone chambers to provide a richer tone while the maple also adds some brightness.

Then, there is the issue of the neck. Fender guitars as a near rule are bolt neck guitars. The necks are bolted onto the bodies and can thus be easily replaced. Not so here. These Merle Haggard Telecasters are neck through construction, what does this mean?

Merle Haggard Telecaster backside

The neck through construction guitar is built to where the neck of the guitar can never be replaced, nor should it ever need to be, as the neck is literally part of the body too. This is a labor intensive design, and it accounts for a large portion of this guitar's cost. It should also be stated here that maple is not inexpensive, and figured maple is even less inexpensive - so the maple and the neck through designs are two of the main reasons these guitars cost so very much more than a standard Telecaster design does.

Our pickups are Texas Specials here. These are very hot wound and bright pickups which Fender uses on several other guitars, including the Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster. The switching mechanism of this Tele is not the regular three position switch, but a four position switch. What is up with that? With the four position switch one can get the neck and bridge pickups in both series, and parallel configurations, and these are very different tonally. 

Then you have the gold plating on the hardware. You buy one of these, one of the finest Fender Telecaster guitars ever made, and you get something like a sports car, something you can show off to everyone, but the guitar, unlike a car, can last for generations and be handed down as a treasure to the next generation.