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Archive for Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Down every road’ with Merle Haggard

July 21, 2010

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Shame has become a dirty word of sorts. Decades of psychoanalysis and efforts to boost personal self-esteem have convinced many that self-reflection resulting in guilt is a hang-up to be avoided. Apparently, Merle Haggard — the subject of the “American Masters” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) profile “Merle Haggard: Learning to Live with Myself” — never got the message.

Over five decades and hundreds of songs, Haggard has become the Shakespeare of shame as well as a master of such literary themes as pride and resentment. And he wrote and sang employing direct language and spare imagery that put him in the pantheon of country poets with Hank Williams.

While Haggard may not be the kind of man to seek counseling, “Learning” is shot through with self-analysis. Haggard’s hardscrabble youth, the resentment against Dust Bowl “Okies” in California in the 1930s and the early death of his father loom large. Haggard suggests that his subsequent rebellion and descent into petty criminality and prison all stem from that tragic loss.

As a teenage juvenile delinquent, Haggard made his mother’s life a nightmare, and he wrote any number of songs trying to make up for it. “Mama Tried,” “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Lonesome Fugitive” echo with repentance of a man who has no one but himself to blame.

For all of the poetry of remorse, Haggard remains best known for “Okie From Muskogee,” a patriotic anti-hippie anthem during the contentious early 1970s. “Okie” earned Haggard the embrace of President Richard Nixon and California’s governor, Ronald Reagan. Students of history trying to understand the change in American politics over the past decades, from economic issues to matters of cultural division, would do well to study Merle Haggard.

Fellow musicians, from Kris Kristofferson, Keith Richards, Tanya Tucker, Dwight Yoakam and John Fogerty, weigh in on Haggard’s music and legacy. We also hear from his current wife and two ex-wives. All three women took to Haggard because he looked so forlorn and convinced themselves they could make him happy. But bliss may be a step too far. A manager recalls being shocked when Haggard told him that he’s happiest and feels safest when holed up in small cubby on his tour bus, a place roughly the same size as his old cell in San Quentin.

Don’t go looking for an A-to-Z biography. “Learning” emphasizes his troubled roots and his peak record-selling years in the 1960s and 1970s and comes back around to his recent comebacks and health scares. As a character study and appreciation of an artist, “Learning to Live with Myself” lives up to the name and the standards of “American Masters.”

Tonight’s other highlights

• The top six perform on “So You Think You Can Dance” (7 p.m., Fox).

• Phobias loom large on “Modern Family” (8 p.m., ABC).

• The new six-part series “Confessions: Animal Hoarding” (8 p.m., Animal Planet) profiles folks who take the whole “pack leader” thing a tad too far.

• Keith travels to Cyprus on “Man Shops Globe” (9 p.m., Sundance).

• “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman” (9 p.m., Science) looks at new discoveries that challenge assumptions about the building blocks of all matter.

• Aspiring chefs compete around-the-clock on “24-Hour Restaurant Battle” (9 p.m., Food).

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