A few disorganized thoughts on the death of Merle Haggard.
This death is a tremendous blow to the world of American music. One of the finest singers and songwriters of any genre in American history, what to me makes Haggard stand out from the crowd is his directness. There’s very little of the pablum that infects country music in Haggard’s music. Yes, he can engage in nostalgia, but it’s a different sort than the backwards-looking rural romanticization so common in country music, a sensible position by the way for many of those musicians to take given that such a large part of their audience were themselves recent urban migrants. But Haggard’s nostalgia is both sweet and bitter because of the tremendous poverty he grew up in. Of course people respond to poverty in different ways. Many try to escape it. But Haggard (same goes for Loretta Lynn) didn’t. Instead, he tried to give dignity to the Okie working class of California in the 1930s and 1940s. That was ultimately his core nostalgic theme. So you have songs like “California Cottonfields,” “Tulare Dust,” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” which is just a tremendously powerful piece of work.
What Merle was of course most famous for is his anti-hippie songs, primarily “Okie from Muskogee” and then his less defensible “Fighting Side of Me.” And then he also became well-known for his occasional liberal stances in his late life. What was the political Haggard? Like most of the rest about him, it was a ball of contradiction. He could go from supporting Obama in 2008 to saying Obama was destroying the Constitution through the ACA to supporting Obama again and there was little reason to bat an eye. This was the same in his music. What Merle Haggard fundamentally believed in was writing hit country songs without selling out to bad music or bad production. That meant he was all over the map. He could from the horrible “Fighting Side of Me” or the utterly execrable “I’m a White Boy” to writing powerful songs about racial injustice like “Go Home” and “Irma Jackson” within a matter of months. The real lesson about Haggard and politics is not to look to musicians for political guidance (see also Neil Young and his Reagan support). Judging Haggard by his bad politics is just as big a mistake as judging him by his good politics–this mass of contradictions is just not the kind of political lodestar you want to be following. He claimed he renounced “Fighting Side of Me” but then played it at pretty much every single show up to the end of his life. Just accept the great songs and reject the bad ones.
And then there is prison. Of course Haggard, even well after his prison days, was a crazy man. He was nearing the point in his life where he was going to be involved in murder, as his friend who he thought about escaping from prison with ended up. He actually saw one of Johnny Cash’s prison shows live. So when he got out, he managed to turn his life around. He always had a complicated relationship with his prison time. He evidently didn’t really like to talk about, but he did like to sing about. And he did that very well. Some of this was self-mythologizing. But while that was a big part of the outlaw country movement in the 70s, he did it in a lot less egotistical way than say, Waylon Jennings who wrote a lot of songs about how rowdy he was and how his wife needed to wait in line for him and the like. Instead, he wrote those prison songs with the same straightforward nature that he did the rest of his music. “Mama Tried” is of course an all-time American song classic, but there are so many others–“Sing Me Back Home,” “Lonesome Fugitive,” and many others.
But in the end, outside of genre or politics or his crazy life, Merle Haggard was just a great writer and performer. I saw him twice, once in Knoxville in 1999, which was great. The other was on the blacktop of a New Mexico casino parking lot on July 4, 2004 (I think). It was crazy hot and the stage had Merle facing into the sun and it wasn’t all that great, but who could blame him for that. The only time I ever sang karaoke was at Farley’s dissertation defense. I figured there was just no way to deny the man at that moment. There was only one song I could sing, arguably one of the finest songs in all of history.
I will one more Haggard post (at least) detailing my 10 favorite songs. Right now though, just keep listening to this great voice of American music.