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Yeary The Lone Stranger from Nashville West
An Interview of Mark Yeary, formerly of Merle Haggard’s Strangers
By Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen
The burglary of a restaurant that he thought had closed for the evening was the last-straw incident. To his chagrin, the restaurant was still open for business. The helter-skelter handling of a botched robbery not only earned him a prison term, it earned him the dubious status in The Book of Lists #3 of one of the "19 Stupid Thieves." Finally, Johnny Cash's live performance at San Quentin managed to knock some sense into him. Cash would later encourage him to be guilelessly candid with his fans about his prison history and less-than-pristine.
November 3, 1960Haggard was released from San Quentin. End of sentence. Merle did not enter the free world with the clean slate, but on that auspicious day, Merle promised himself he would never set foot in another prison again.
No, Merle was not always a pearl in the oyster of Nashville West. He was once more like an uncut diamond with a lot of rough edges to smooth out. Although the womb of time would eventually give birth to a kinder, gentler Merle, and his pearly musical genius would shine brighter than ever, he started out as just another bad boy from Bakersfield. As archetypes go, it seemed to be his lot to play the villain, and he played it with furious passion. Like so many other snowballs rolling down the wrong slope, God intercepted him before he completely self-destructed.
Bakersfield was the stomping-grounds for a long succession of country music legends, including Buck Owens, Ferlin Husky and Tommy Collins. Merle stood boot to boot with these big stars. Though Bakersfield might seem like hell to some, it's the place Merle Haggard has always considered home. Back in the days when Bakersfield was revered as "Nashville West" everybody in country music was trying to emulate "the Bakersfield sound." Even the Beatles are known to have recorded a cover of one of Buck Owen's original tunes. Back in the day you could say Bakersfield was the Liverpool of country music. Be that as it may, Merle Haggard and The Strangers were more like The Stones than The Beatles, and Haggard was country music's Jagger. He may have earned a fool's reputation and a prison stint for breaking in to an open restaurant, but in the years to follow Merle Haggard would earn more gold records and garnish more respect from the music world than almost any country artist that preceded him.
Mark Yeary: From Merle Haggard and The Strangers to The Lone Stranger
When Haggard wrote “(My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers,” he had no idea that Mark Yeary would become one of the most cherished members of The Strangers.
Since Merle and Mark went
their separate ways, Mark has displayed remarkable courage and fortitude
in carving out a niche for himself in an increasingly competitive market.
Merle eventually relinquished his life of crime. As he gradually ditched all of his partners in crime, he began diligently searching for a partner-in-rhyme. It appears Mark Yeary was divinely appointed to ride shotgun with him on the Streets of Bakersfield.
Tollbooth: Where does your passion for music come from and when did it all begin?
Yeary: I've always liked music. The first music I remember listening to was the music of Elvis Presley. I have a sister who's eleven years older than me and a brother who's nine years older than me and I was exposed to Elvis through my brother and sister. Then when I was in the sixth grade, The Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show and that happened to be on my birthday, February 9th. Right then and there I decided I was going to be a musician.
Tollbooth: Where did you grow up and what early life experiences have shaped your music?
Yeary: I grew up in
Brea, California in Orange County. I would say that besides being
around radio a lot and listening to the music that my sister and brother
introduced to me, the fact that my dad sang in a barbershop quartet was
a factor. I had a lot of music around me right from the get-go.
My grandfather was a famous violinmaker, and he had a shop in Sacramento.
He didn't learn to read music until he was forty, but later he became the
concertmaster for the San Francisco Philharmonic. So I think a lot
of what I have was inherited. Then when I was fifteen we moved here
to Bakersfield. My dad worked in the oil fields and he was transferred
over here. When I moved to Bakersfield it was culture shock.
Previously there had been only one black student in my whole class.
When we moved, I attended East Bakersfield High School and there were a
lot of Mexican-Americans and blacks. I had never been around the
type of music they tended to play; soul music, James Brown, stuff like
that. The kind of music I like to play, rhythm and blues, came from
that experience. I was actually in a band the first week after we
Yeary: I liked Eric Burden and The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, The Beach Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, stuff like that.
Tollbooth: How did you meet Merle Haggard and how did you become involved in his band?
Yeary: I had a chance to audition for this TV show in Bakersfield called The Jimmy Thomason Show. Jimmy Thomason was a fiddle player and he'd actually worked for Governor Jimmy Davis down in Louisiana, and boy did he tell me some stories. He was a pitch man and had been around. He ran for the state Senate. I think it was around 1956 or 1957. Anyway, he ended up on this country TV show in Bakersfield from four-thirty to five o'clock on channel 23. Bill Woods was the piano player. and I'd been playing Hammond organ and was playing rhythm and blues and never really thought about playing country music or even thought about what it was. But I'd heard about Merle Haggard just from living here in Bakersfield. Anyway, I went to audition for The Jimmy Thomason Show with that song called, “Kansas City,” which, you know is more of a rock 'n’ roll song. They hired me on the show, which was a good thing. My dad had just passed away and I was going to college. My mom was getting social security money to help me go to school. I had just received a notice that I couldn't go back for the next semester because I had done so poorly. That was because I was majoring in Hammond organ instead of concentrating on my regular college classes. I was going crazy trying to figure out what I was going to tell my mom, so that job came around just at the right time and Jimmy was a great guy. He treated me very well and we were a pretty good band. We worked six nights, sometimes even seven nights a week. We had a gig at Edward's Airforce Base five nights a week, so we did the TV show and then we'd head over to Edward's. Then we worked in Fresno at the De Marque Club and then on Sunday nights we played at the Bakersfield Inn. It was great; making good money, being on TV and getting all that fan mail and everything. Then Jimmy started getting letters from people who were saying my hair was too long.
That's where Merle saw me, and he listened to my piano playing. He wanted someone young, who wasn't set in their ways so they could learn all of the different piano styles that he liked. So he talked to Jimmy and Jimmy called my mom and asked her if she thought I was ready for it. I was twenty years old at the time. I knew something was up because my mom started harping at me to get a haircut and Jimmy suggested I get a haircut. I thought what's going on? Then Merle called me and asked me if I'd be interested in performing at the White House with him for Pat Nixon's birthday, which fell on St. Patrick's Day. I said yeah. He said, "Do you know where I live?" I said yeah. And he said "Well why don't you come out, we'll sit down and talk," so I drove out there. He called Roy Nichols out, he came out and I sat down by the piano and played. I was not that great of a player then, but he saw something some promise or whatever. Then he called me again about a week later and told me I could have a regular job with him. So I went from playing at the White House to being added as a permanent member of the band.
Tollbooth: What an amazing and sudden change. How did you cope with all that of that?
Yeary: It was exciting to go from where I was to going out on tour. I had never even been out of California. I remember going over to Buck Owen's studio which was in Oildale at the time, at the Old River Theater. Merle had me playing some tunes that they were working on. I guess he thought I had left, but I was sitting up in the stairwell just kind of taking it all in. He was asking the other guys in the band what they thought, and they just said, "Whatever you think, Merle." It was really exciting.
Tollbooth: I understand that you were Merle Haggard's right-hand man for about twenty years.
Yeary: Well, I don't know about that, but we were pretty close, yeah. I've always told him the truth and he appreciated that.
Tollbooth: What role did you have in working in Merle's band?
Yeary: I was involved in the production. I was also a songwriter, and of course, one of the band members. Besides myself on keyboard, the core band members were Roy Nichols on lead guitar, Norman Hamlet on steel guitar, Biff Adam on drums, and when I first started, Dennis Hromek on bass. Through the years we probably went through ten bass players, but the basic rhythm section, for at least the first ten years, was the same. Then there was another guy that played rhythm with Merle for a long time. His name was Bobby Wayne. And there were a couple of others who joined in from time to time who played a special role in the band. One was Tiny Moore who played an electric 5-string mandolin. He played it just like a jazz guitar. A lot of the stuff people hear as guitar on some of those albums is actually coming from Tiny's tiny electric mandolin. Elvin Shamblin also became a part of the band. He was proclaimed to be the world's greatest rhythm guitar player by Rolling Stone magazine.
Tollbooth: That's quite an honor. Amazing! Which albums and songs were you most intimately involved with?
Yeary: Anything from 1973 to 1992. Actually I didn't really get full production credits until the last album which was called The 501 Blues. It received a nomination in a major entertainment magazine as best country album of the year. Then I produced the first album for Curb records and that was called Blue Jungle. I played keyboard on all of the albums from 1973 to 1992. Most of these were head arrangements. The way that Merle operated was just to play things from the top of his head. We all just jumped in and played until we found something that sounded good. We didn't overdub. That's not how we did it back in those days. If Merle screwed up, or if Merle wasn't happy with the feel of the song, we'd all just start the song over again until we got it right. Or I'd do something that I thought was a good solo, and Merle would say, "No, let's do it again." There was a lot of pressure. It was very challenging. One time we went in and came out with 5 hit songs; two or three went to number one on the charts all in a matter of 3 hours. And they were all mixed by the time we left the studio.
Tollbooth: Wow, you were really on a roll!
Yeary: Yes we were.
Tollbooth: What were some of the highlights of those years with Merle?
Yeary: For one, just the chance to be around someone like that. At the time he was really at the pinnacle of his success. It was incredible. And he had a mind of his own. He had his own way of doing things and it took me a long time to realize why he did things the way he did, but it worked for him. It made me really admire him through the years for what he was doing. And the chance to get to travel all over the world, I've been in every state several times some of them hundreds of times. Then there's playing at all the big venues and working with people that I admired. I got to record the Livin' In the Promised Land album with Willie Nelson and some of the IRS tapes. I got to do a lot of work with him and a lot of work with Johnny Paycheck. Just a lot of great people and bands we performed with and producers and to sit down and talk with them. Playing at big festivals, playing at Aid. One year we did four shows with Linda Ronstadt. That was also a great experience.
Tollbooth: What were some of the low points?
Yeary: Just being out on the road and missing the family. It takes its toll. But basically 90% of it was great.
Tollbooth: Yes, I suppose it's a tradeoff in certain ways.
Yeary: Yes it is.
Tollbooth: In the end, what caused you and Merle to go in different directions?
Well, 19 ½ years is a long time to be with anybody, it really is. That was about the time I was producing the album we did with Curb, and I had to be really honest with him about some things I had never really had talked to him about, like the way he managed the finances. And I think musically I was wanting to explore my own ideas. Also, around that time, we had just spent 9 months in Branson, Missouri at a theater that Willie [Nelson] had managed to book for himself for a year and then he decided he couldn't do a whole year and so we did half the shows with him. That circumstance was probably one of the low points because Merle was miserable being there. We were used to doing shows that were 45 minutes to an hour, and then taking off. In Branson we were doing two consecutive 2 ½ hour shows and Merle would have to stand outside and give autographs to everyone who came through there. Sometimes he'd be out there for two hours. It was really rough. At that point he was going to quit, so that's where it ended.
Tollbooth: How do you feel about being considered a role model?
Yeary: Oh, I think it's great. I've always been a rock 'n’ roller as far as I'm concerned. People often think that because I played with Merle for so many years that I was a country piano player. But through learning all of the different styles that Merle liked, and being able to sit down with Leon Russell and Peg Robbins and players like that who I admired, I significantly broadened my range of style. Then there was Grady Martin who was a Nashville guitar legend who produced and played on almost everything for years and years. We were in Lake Tahoe in Merle's suite and there was a grand piano overlooking the lake and Grady was there and he told me, "You've become one heck of a piano player," and coming from him that was a great compliment.
Tollbooth: I realize that you are a professional musician and not a psychologist, but can you think of any particular songs that you have written, recorded or produced, with or without Merle that offer comfort, extend hope, tell a particular meaningful story or contain a valuable psychological message or theme?
Yeary: There was that one that Merle did called “The Way I Am.” Then there was a song that Tommy Collins wrote called “The Roots of my Raising.” It's talking about a guy who goes back home and he's reminiscing about the way things used to be. And no matter how far down I sink, the roots of my raisin' run deep. There were a lot of songs that Merle did that were true stories that came from his life like “Mama Tried” and “They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down. “
Tollbooth: What about “Sing Me Back Home,” and “The Fightin' Side of Me,” and “Okie from Muskogee”?
Yeary: Those were all recorded before I met Merle, back in the sixties.
Tollbooth: And did you have the opportunity to perform those with Merle?
Yeary: Oh yeah. That was one of the great things about working with Merle. We never did things the same from one show to the next. A lot of guys follow a song list. He didn't do things that way. In fact, he could be in the middle of a song and then just start another song. We'd just get to the point where we knew how to follow him.
Tollbooth: Are you familiar with “Eve of Destruction” and/or with the artist, Barry McGuire?
Yeary: Yes, sure.
Tollbooth: Does the song “Eve of Destruction” have anything in common with any of the songs you have written? What do you think of Barry McGuire's performance on that song?
Yeary: Yeah Merle he did one called “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver).” It went like this: "I wish a buck was still silver back when the country was still strong, back before Nixon lied to us all on TV, before Beatles and Yesterday, when a gal could still cook and steal wood," and the chorus goes: "Are we rollin' down hill like a snowball headed for hell?" He never spoke in terms like “Eve of Destruction” but what he did do was compare the present and the future with the past. He'd compare things to when Hank and Lefty were on the jukebox.
Tollbooth: The good old days.
Tollbooth: How did September 11 affect you as a person and has it affected your music?
Yeary: Well it affected me very deeply. It was scary. I remember my wife and I sitting there crying. We felt very vulnerable. How sad for that to happen! As far as writing anything about it, I haven't, so I'm not sure how it's affected my music, other than slowing it all down for a while.
Tollbooth: I see. Now speaking of trauma, in the field of psychology, there is a model of personality known as the conflict model. The conflict model as described by Salvatore R. Maddi suggests that individuals are continuously and unavoidably caught up in a struggle between two powerful forces or what I refer to as "warring factions within." Life for the conflict theorist ultimately involves working out a compromise between the two forces. Do you accept this conflict model as legit, and if so, where are you in your journey to find a compromise between the warring factions within your self?"
Yeary: Yeah, I think everybody has their own demons or whatever they may be fighting with. Music has always been my best friend. No matter how bad things may be going on in my life, I can always retreat somewhere. If there's a piano there or something to bang on, I can just lose myself in writing music or performing music and it's very therapeutic for me. If I get depressed, or really excited about things, I find myself at the piano writing or performing something.
Tollbooth: Do any of your songs describe an internal tug of war or a relationship conflict?
Yeary: Yeah, I would say most of my songs have to do with that as a subject matter.
Tollbooth: What burdens do you bring to your music, and how is your music instrumental in providing release to you and your listeners, shining a light on their shadows and yours, and making burdens lighter in general?
Yeary: Just turning to music as an an outlet for relief. Even listening to old rhythm and blues where they're singing their heart out. It makes you feel good just to listen to it. You know by listening to it that you don't have it as bad as they do so you've got to feel happy.
Tollbooth: Let's talk about the various personalities in the band. Jung makes a distinction between introverts and extroverts. If you compare yourself with Merle, how are you different in that way?
Yeary: He's really an introvert, but in terms of being on stage and the dynamics with the band, he's definitely the extrovert. I'm not really an extrovert until I get on stage, and then I try to be.
Tollbooth: How did you complement one another when you worked together?
Yeary: Well he had such a powerful role to play in the way I ended up playing. He always liked having me around. I was a diplomat. I always tried to be diplomatic with everybody and I think he liked that. He knew where I was coming from musically we knew where each other was coming from and it was easy to play together. One time after we had been playing music together for quite a few years we were sitting around listening to a song on the radio and he said, "You know that guy on the keyboard? Well I think he's trying to sound like you." I thought that was really sweet. Something I'll always remember.
Tollbooth: Do you and Merle keep in touch or do you now have completely different lives?
Tollbooth: Mark, I'm not sure how familiar you are with these old fathers of psychology, but Freud spoke of childhood determinants of personality, or causality, whereas Jung stressed purposeful or goal-directed behavior something he referred to as teleology. As a solo musician, do you see yourself as a drifter or as goal-oriented or teleological traveler?
Yeary: Kind of both. I have been very goal oriented. The power of positive thinking really works. I find myself drifting a lot, but when I decide on a project, something I really want to do, I pretty much stay on course.
Tollbooth: What are some of the things you have done with music since you left Merle's band?
Yeary: I've been writing a lot of instrumental music. I talked to a guy just the other day about doing some music for TV shows and movies. That's one of my goals. I've also jammed with this guy named Bobby Warren, a black guy who plays as good as anything I've ever heard. We went on the road. We played throughout all of California, we went to Hawaii for two weeks, and we went to a Navaho Indian reservation in Arizona. It was fun. We had a good time. But then he became ill. We've been talking about getting together and doing something again, now that his health has improved but I don't know. There are a couple of other things that I've turned down that sometimes I think I shouldn't have. I've really been enjoying just working in my own studio with a variety of projects, and lately I've been playing a lot of gospel music. I also ended up recording a project for my sister and hiring all of the back-up singers. It's mainly just been word of mouth. I'm not really advertising. I'm pretty happy with the results and other people seem happy with the results too because they keep calling.
Tollbooth: Do you think music is a good way for people to express their spiritual side?
Yeary: Oh yeah. The spiritual power of music is tremendous. There are songs that, when done right, have moved me to the point that the hair on the back of my neck stands up and tears fill my eyes, particularly with some of the gospel music that's being played in churches.
Tollbooth: As you know, Bakersfield used to be known as Nashville West. A lot of exciting things came out of Bakersfield. Do you think that image will ever be revived?
Yeary: I don't know. I doubt it. When I first started playing music here there were probably 15 or 20 night clubs that played five or six nights a week, and I'm not exaggerating. A player that was fair could make a living here playing music. There is hardly anything here anymore. And part of that stems from people sitting around with their computers and playing video games, or rent videos.
Tollbooth: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years and beyond?
Yeary: I'd like to be living at the beach some place. Maybe doing music for TV and movies. Hopefully I'll have an instrumental album out and an album of rhythm and blues. I like doing anything as long as its positive and something constructive comes out of it.
Tollbooth: Now I know that you've accumulated your share of groupies over the years. What would you tell some of these kids who look up to you in the way of advice?
Yeary: Well, I'd just say whatever your dream or goal is, you've got to keep working at it on a daily basis. Some days you're going to feel like quitting. You'll ask "Why am I even doing this?" But just keep at it and in a year from now, or maybe two or three, or even five, you'll look back and notice how far you've come. Of course there's always so much farther to go. You want to be the best you can possibly be. If you're a good person, good things are going to come to you.
Tollbooth: I hope we cross paths again in the future. Country music has had a powerful influence on rock. You're a living example of what can happen if you're talented, you have a lot of passion and you're divinely appointed to be in the right place at the same time. God bless you and, as Neil Young would say, "Keep on rockin' in the free world!"
Yeary: Thank you.