During a recent lull in summer television, I found myself watching a brand new documentary on Merle Haggard, from the American Masters series on PBS, entitled Learning to Live With Myself. I started out with relatively low expectations, but they were raised a good bit when I saw that the director was Gandulf Hennig, the same person who made the Gram Parsons documentary Fallen Angel, of which I was a big fan.
If you look up Hennig's IMDB profile, you'll see the aforementioned documentaries are the only two films he has made (that have made it onto IMDB at least). For a German national, who apparently now lives in Nashville, Hennig has an amazing ability to capture the lives of American musicians in a way that few other people can. He compiles interviews with a wide spectrum of people and his storytelling is simply perfect in its continuity and completeness. (Note: embedded video below may not show up in Google Reader).
The documentary follows Haggard through his traumatic early life, largely a result of the death of his father when he was 9 years-old, and moves through his troubled early adulthood into becoming a country superstar. They do a beautiful job of portraying the somewhat contradictory roles he filled, being an outlaw of sorts, but also becoming a conservative icon following the release of "Okie From Muskogee." Not only does the film chronicle Haggard's life in depth, but it also stands as a detailed record of the important role California country music, specifically the Bakersfield sound, played in the diversification of country music in the 1960s and beyond.
Not unlike the Fallen Angel documentary, the strength of this work is in the wide breadth of interviews that were conducted. Keith Richards, Dwight Yoakum, Kris Kristofferson, and Marty Stuart are but a few of the stars who contribute to the film, but maybe even more importantly, family members and childhood friends were also interviewed, providing a very strong and detailed picture of a man who doesn't often reveal his public life. Hennig truly succeeded in his endeavor by gaining Haggard's confidence on a level such that there are many candid moments in his interviews with the artist.
One of my favorite moments in the film comes when it was discussed how Dick Clark one time told Haggard, near the peak of his mainstream success, that if he simply recorded a few pop music songs he could literally be one of the biggest stars on the planet. Haggard reportedly told Clark very simply "That's not who I am." Rather, Haggard took it upon himself to promote American roots music, recording songs with the Texas Playboys and releasing an album of Jimmie Rodgers songs.
This film far exceeded my initial expectations and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Haggard or in the history of country music in the United States.
I don't know how long it will be available, but apparently you can watch the entire film online at the PBS Web site here (or click the link below the video above).