R.I.P. Merle Haggard, 1937-2016

"Tonight we'll kick the footlights out/And walk away without a curtain call"EXPAND
"Tonight we'll kick the footlights out/And walk away without a curtain call"
Photo by Danny Clinch

Iconoclast, cultural provocateur and country music’s greatest living singer and lyricist Merle Haggard died today, checking out on his 79th birthday due to complications from the double pneumonia he contracted last December.

Born April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California, Haggard’s staggeringly prolific artistic and commercial successes — he was the only country performer ever featured on the cover of jazz bible Downbeat, and had 38 number-one hits — were created in large part by, and dramatically contrasted with, his horrifically tragic youth. When his father died suddenly in 1946, the boy’s life imploded, as Haggard recounted in an extraordinary 2004 song: “Dad was my hero, God called him away/Mama was lonely and I was afraid … Born with the blues, trouble in mind; smoking and drinking, by the time I was 9.”

Even beyond his long record of arrests, incarcerations, and so many prison breakouts he earned an “incorrigible” classification, Haggard’s life was always fraught with conflict and contradiction. This went beyond his penchant for brawling and into far more painful psychic territory. He never shook a lingering sense of dread over the fact that, using a vocal style heavily influenced by his idol Lefty Frizzell (who died a broken-hearted alcoholic in 1975), Haggard’s own star had eclipsed Lefty’s, the man who gave Hag his first critical bandstand experience when he invited the teenager onstage to sing during a 1952 Frizzell show at Bakersfield’s Rainbow Gardens.

Haggard revered and respected singers like Ray Price, George Jones, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, but held the Nashville establishment in profound contempt. In his 1985 autobiography, he referred to the Grand Ole Opry as “a bunch of anonymous bastards who don’t know doodle-shit about country music.”

When Music City inducted him into their Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, he produced a huge scroll of paper, let it hit the floor and roll a good six feet across the stage, then solemnly intoned, "First of all, I'd like to thank Andy Gump, my plumber — you're doin' a great job keepin' my toilets workin', Andy." He then delivered a very brief, gracious speech, but that moment that preceded it was a very telling glimpse into Hag’s deliciously misanthropic soul.

Country music was Haggard's religion, and he actively sought to reintroduce and enshrine its divine figures in popular culture. Before he championed Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys on a series of remarkable early 1970s recordings with and homages to the hot Texas fiddle bandleader, Haggard taught himself to play fiddle in an intense, six-month crash course (an almost miraculous feat, as any musician will tell you). He also immersed himself in the music of the long-deceased "Singing Brakeman," Jimmie Rodgers, releasing am exquisitely wrought double tribute album Same Train, a Different Time and even yodeling Rodgers’ “California Blues” during a visit to the Nixon White House. When a flabbergasted Haggard discovered that Frizzell’s original guitarist, Norm Stephens, lived just miles from Hag’s Northern California compound, he immediately took Stephens on the road as one of his Strangers, and prominently featured him on the 2001 Lefty tribute Roots, Volume 1.

But for all his resolute, old-school fealty, Hag drew from a broad spectrum of influences, which he described to me in a 1999 interview. "I thought, 'You know what I'll do? I'll take a little bit of Lefty, a little bit of Elvis, a little Wynn Stewart, a little bit of Ernest Tubb and the other influences I had — Jimmie Rodgers, Chuck Berry, Grady Martin and Roy Nichols, Bob Wills — and just be honest with it, try to make somethin' out of what I was. Well, it worked. It was a new pie.

"It really wasn't part of the Nashville sound. It came from Texas and all over the West. I thought, if I combine all that, maybe I can come up with something sustaining. And it started happening, even as early as when Wynn was kind enough to give me 'Sing a Sad Song' and it went into the charts. And from that day, from 1962 until 1991, we were never absent from Billboard, Cashbox, Record World — we were never out of the charts for almost 30 years."

As a writer, Haggard radically expanded the psychology and themes of country music. Cheating songs gave way to tales of revenge and cruelty, even bald misogyny ("I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can"); celebrating the underdog took on unorthodox new proportions, as on "I'll Be a Hero (When I Strike)." In Haggard's hands, flag-waving became an aggressive, accusatory affair, and an ongoing theme, from the late '60s' "Fightin' Side of Me" to 1988's "Me and Crippled Soldiers." His sound, often with deep acoustic guitar rhythms and angular, tricky steel- and electric-guitar fills (provide by six-string geniuses Roy Nichols, James Burton and Al Bruno), was an austere, often stark affair, and his voice slid through the mix as a rich counterpoint of both country tradition and audacity.

As a singer, Haggard was second only to George Jones. But where Jones was Shakespearean in scope and power, Haggard was capable of such low-key introspection and subtle coloration that he could infiltrate a listener’s soul to devastating effect. And using material like, "Sometimes I hate myself and wish I could scream ... there's a curse on my heart ... I'll never love again" (from 1990’s “Sometimes I Dream”), he plowed through territory no one else could navigate.

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Haggard was a radical, a free thinker, politically a borderline libertarian, staunch Obama supporter — and a big-time stoner. Characteristically, his million-selling 1969 redneck anthem ”Okie From Muskogee,” which opens with the line “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” was written while passing a joint on the tour bus (in 1974 he told a reporter, “Muskogee is the only place I don’t smoke it!”). 

Ultimately, Haggard, the incorrigible ex-convict who wrote and recorded almost ceaselessly in his Shade Tree Manor Studio on his ranch in Palo Cedro, Calif., and refused to stay off the road until he was no longer physically able to perform, the cat who never used a set list and never sang anything the same way twice, was the perhaps the freest man in the world. Or, at least, he is free now.


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