Merle Haggard (1937-2016)

We’ve lost Hag. On his birthday no less. Now the only original outlaws of country music left alive are Billy Joe Shaver and Willie, with whom Merle Haggard made his final record, Django and Jimmie.

What stands out most about the man and his music, in contrast to today’s country music, is how real he was. His ballads, in which he was usually at fault for his troubles, pulled no punches. The fact that he hated welfare but sang songs about “living off the fat of this great land,” and knowing where to get a handout while “bumming through Chicago in the afternoon,” was always puzzling but somehow, the way he sang it, it all made sense. The man had conviction. And sure, he may have pumped up the tale of doing time at San Quentin—“I turned twenty one in prison, serving life without parole,”—he actually served three years for being an inept burglar, but then that comes under the heading of poetic license.

In two long emails that I received today from PR firms in Nashville, a list of country music luminaries commented on his passing. Ricky Skaggs, Pam Tillis, Larry Gatlin, Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, Moe Bandy, Lorrie Morgan, Nancy Jones (George’s wife), T.G. Sheppard and others all talked about how they loved the guy and will miss him. What was more striking was the silence from today’s “country” stars. Let’s check a list of the big winners and featured performers from Sunday night’s CMA Awards show. Not a peep out of Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift, Eric Church. But then those cookie cutter marginal talents—excepting perhaps Swift—are pop singers, with no roots or real connection to anything in genuine country music.

While he was an accomplished songwriter who epitomized the Bakersfield Sound in immortal classics like ”Mama Tried,” ”Silver Wings,” ‘Workin’ Man Blues” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and “I Take A lot of Pride in What I Am,” Haggard was also one of the greatest country singers ever. With a smooth, polished tone and a very precise delivery, he learned much early on from one of his first employers out in the central valley of California, the criminally underrated Wynn Stewart. The vocal similarities between the two are unmistakable. No one could sell lines like, “We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo,” like Haggard.

And about that tune, “Okie from Muskogee” which championed small town all-American values in opposition to “hippies” and those who “make a party out of lovin’,” Hag later had two classic comments. The first, in response to the song’s opening line, may be urban legend but it went something like, “The only place I don’t smoke it is in Muskogee.” The second, which was in the late, great No Depression magazine, and was actually quoted in his NYT obituary was, “I was dumb as rock when I wrote “Okie from Muskogee.” I sing with a different intention now.” Pure Prairie League’s version of Electric Flag’s Nick Gravenites’ response song, "I’ll Fix Your Flat Tire Merle,” is a hoot worth tracking down.

I was lucky enough to interview Haggard in person a number of times, the first time in the late '80s when he was still…umm…young and frisky. He was always full of life and laughs. I loved all his conspiracy theories. And one afternoon spent on his tour bus, with his absolutely crack band led at that point by drummer/bus driver Biff Adam will live in my mind forever. Also on the bus that day was Bonnie Owens, who’d been married to both Buck Owens and Haggard. Now there was a woman with a sense of adventure! I was very impressed when at one point during that day he wanted to sit and dutifully listen to cassettes and CDs that young country music hopefuls had sent him. He genuinely cared.

Although he is probably most famous for the Capitol singles and albums he made with producer Ken Nelson in the 1960s and early 1970s—Swinging Doors, Hag, Someday We’ll Look Back are all album classics—he continued to make good records right up until the end. Only in the early to mid-1980s, when he hit a fallow patch on Epic Records, did he make albums that are less than essential.

It’s been a very hard year so far for musicians. To get Pete Townshend about it, Who's Next?

Anon2's picture

More than a few years ago, there were a few mornings when I had to get up at 3:00 or 4:00 am for a long trip. Coincidentally, as I turned on the TV for a few moments, the video of Pancho and Lefty proved to be a mainstay music video of the pre-dawn hours.

It, in a very profound way, defined the essence of the late, great Merle Haggard, and the thankfully enduring Willie Nelson.

I can only offer a few historic lines in tribute to Mr. Haggard, as only his voice and Willie's could deliver them:

The poets tell how Pancho fell,
And Lefty's living in cheap hotels
The desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold,
And so the story ends we're told

Pancho needs your prayers it's true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do,
And now he's growing old

All the Federales say
We could have had him any day
We only let him go so long
Out of kindness, I suppose

A few gray Federales say
We could have had him any day
We only let him go so long
Out of kindness, I suppose

Here's the fine NY Times Obituary:

dalethorn's picture

In late 1969 I walked into Edfred's record store in Akron Ohio, to find Edfred playing Okie From Muskogee for what appeared to be a young hippie female. I had just finished 3 years in the Army with honors, and yet I was anti-war and ready for the upcoming Kent State protests a few miles away. So I wasn't too pleased with Merle Haggard and his songs Okie, and Fighting Side of Me. Yet after a few months with the hippies and anti-war protestors, I started gravitating to Merle's side of the fence. I saw him live in Wheeling circa 1976, and his playing and his fellow musicians were flawless - and he sang the original words to Okie From Muskogee. RIP to a once-great musician, and fully reformed criminal.

rwdp's picture

On the contrary, some feel his epic recordings stand up to any he made. Big City anyone? I wish you had kept your "personal" view out of this, since its just a matter of taste, and seems you could not resist a ding, somehow. [Flame deleted by JA]

dalethorn's picture

BTW, the only thing that made Okie From Muskogee great was its greatness in the original version. The apologetic followups years later are hypocritical, from someone who is tired of fighting for his beliefs and just wants to "get along". Fooey on that. Great music is often controversial - get over it and enjoy the ride.

volvic's picture

the great WKCR - 89.9 here in NYC played several hours of his music yesterday, coming through my Linn Kremlin tuner the music was enjoyable, and really got a chance to enjoy his terrific lyrics. Knew of his music and even have the Willie Nelson/Haggard album, just never knew he had so many great tunes. Yesterday morning/afternoon was a treat.

Allen Fant's picture

Very nice article- RB. R.I.P.