God rarely grants the gift of musical genius, but let us thank God He’s not at all a snob about it when He does. He once bestowed an extra measure of the stuff on a surly young punk from a white trash ghetto sitting in a San Quentin prison cell, and Merle Haggard gratefully returned the favor by expressing his turbulent life and even more turbulent times and something at the very heart and soul of his beloved America as well as any poet or artist or musician or statesman ever did.
Haggard died Wednesday on his 79th birthday, but not before creating a body of work that rivals anybody’s in America’s rich musical history. He wasn’t just up there with his heroes Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams or his formidable contemporaries Johnny Cash and George Jones in the ghettoized pantheon of the rich poor white trash vein of American music, he was toe-to-toe with the George Gershwins and Hoagy Carmichaels and Duke Ellingtons and Count Basies and Frank Sinatras and Louis Armstrongs and Bob wills and his Texas Playboys and Ray Charleses and Mahalia Jacksonses and Peggy Lees and Ella Fitzgeralds and Muddy Waterses and Chuck Berrys and Elvis Presleys and all the rest at the peak of the majestic mountain that is American music. Which is not bad for a white boy who really did turn 21 in prison.
Haggard’s parents blew in to the San Joaquin valley of California from Oklahoma on the winds of the Dust Bowl, with the appropriately Okie nomenclature of James Francis and Flossie Mae, and thus he was born in the town of Oildale, California, but soon wound up living with several siblings in a converted boxcar outside nearby Bakersfield. His father was well-regarded as a musician by his neighbors, although he was also well-known for the vices usually associated with that talent, while his mother was a strict Church of Christ woman who knew how to sing those weird shape notes in the songbooks, and for the first nine years of his life young Merle pretty much kept himself in line. Haggard’s dad died, though, and he was the sort of congenitally anti-authoritarian youth that is celebrated by Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and “Cool Hand Luke” and our own selves and all the real Americans, so after that he became a habitual truant and low-level troublemaker and frequent guest of the institutions where where he encountered even worse sorts. An hilariously botched burglary on a still-open honky-tonk in Bakersfield during a rare furlough from detention eventually landed him with some serious time as a serial-if-low-level offender in San Quentin, but a serendipitous and best-selling performance by then country-and-western superstar and repentant sinner Johnny Cash, who felt a Christian obligation to visit those in prison, suggested a way out.
In most cases the white boy would have been dreaming, but Haggard actually had the God-given goods. Upon a lucky parole he was easily able to acquire a bass-playing gig with Wynn Stewart, one of the many terrific honky-tonkers who were prospering on a fertile Bakersfield country scene that was cruising along with the all the Okies and Arkies filling the honky-tonks, who had brought their oil-patch know-how along with their glorious musical tradition, and he quickly stood out among such glorious acts as the Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose and his mentor Tommy Collins and the coast-to-coast hit-making Buck Owens and his Buckeroos. He could also play the fiddle like nobody’d ever heard, even where they’d heard the best of the Texas Playboys, and he could play that twangy heartfelt Fender guitar like nobody even in Bakersfield had ever heard, which was saying something, and damn could that white boy sing. He had a gorgeously rich clear baritone voice, with all the timing and note-making phrasing you could hope to expect from the most polished pop singer, and a wringing-every-last-teardrop-from-it thing you could expect from the best of the bluesmen, and he had the range of an operatic singer, which in poor white trash terms meant he could slide up to a blue yodel or growl down in Lefty Frizzell-esque fashion to a guttural down low, and he imbued it all with such white boy soul that even Ray Charles was in awe.
More importantly yet, he knew exactly what to do with it, and he came up with songs worthy of that voice. His first recording under his own name was an amusing account of life on “Skid Row,” which didn’t sell much but still sounds great, but Wynn Stewart offered him a chance to “Sing a Sad Song,” which became a minor hit and enduring classic, and after that Merle Haggard was a star in the rich but ghettoized world of white trash music. He had some classic drinking-to-excess hits and covered all that wild-side-of-life with perfect pitch, and tales of the hard Dust Bowl times what were still with his most rabid fans of the ’60s, but didn’t gain the attention of the broader public until he wrote and sang “Okie From Muskogee.” The runaway country hit even permeated the consciousness of the broader Vietnam war-era country, and came to epitomize the cultural divide of the era as clearly as the hippie Country Joe and the Fish’s anti-war tirade with its F-bombs and anti-establishment anger, even if it was probably all meant as a sly joke, and that’s how Haggard will probably be remembered by most of his beloved nation, but it’s a shame they weren’t paying due attention to the rest of his work.
Since then Haggard and his crack bands of Bakersfield musicians have produced an extraordinary volume of American music of the first order, addressing everything from why his Church of Christ mother wasn’t to blame for him turning 21 in prison and his brilliant interpretations of the same denomination’s Alfred E. Brumley’s classic shape-note gospel songs to that all-time classic slide into the drunken abyss of “All My Friends are Going to be Strangers” and “Swinging Doors” and “Misery and Gin,” and those great recountings of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, and he threw in everything else in the broad country-and-wester spectrum from bluegrass to countrypolitan to crying-in-the-beer honky-tonk to rockabilly, and it was jazzy enough that the jazzbo purist Downbeat Magazine featured him on its cover, and bluesy enough that the blues purists regarded him as the best white bluesman since Jimmie Rodgers, and even the snobbish critics at The New York Times were struggling to explain how his best work really was pretty damned good. Throw in the brilliantly defiant skid-row anthems such as “I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” and “Street Singer” on that “Pride In What I am” album that all the hippies aped backed in the ’60s, and the “seeds of the dustbowl” elegance of his mid-80s “Kern River,” and all the damned good stuff that somehow didn’t become a hit, and it includes an amazing range of styles and emotions and ideas as a contradictory as the man himself. He eulogized his mass-murdering San Quentin pal Carl Chessman on the classic “Sing Me Back Home,” spoke up for law and order on “The Fighting’ Side of Me,” defended miscegenation with “Irma Jackson,” proudly proclaimed that “I’m a White Boy,” perfectly sang the “Workingman’s Blues,” and even went psychedelic with the hilarious “Set My Chickens Free” during one of his occasional exiles from the major labels during the ’90s, and you really have to delve deep into the catalogue to realize that he created as much first-rate American music recordings as anything we can think of.
Back in those glorious “Okie from Muskogee” days Haggard was the bane of the hippies, who had once so adored his twangy Fender-driven and train-hopping and rule-breaking and rockabilly-infused and undeniably American authenticity that the Byrds and the Grateful Dead and the hippie-country were covering his hits, and Rolling Stone magazine was singing his praises and the hippy-dippy Big Brother and the Holding Company had a counter-cultural hit pleading for his forbearance, but he wound up with a strange rapprochement with the modern world. One of Haggard’s last masterpiece recordings was on the punk rock Anti Records label, the hauntingly regretful “If I could Only Fly” album, and in his latter days the man who was forever gratefully granted a full pardon by California Gov. Ronald Reagan was criticizing the Iraq War and happily accepting a Kennedy Center honors from President Barack Obama, who spoke glowingly from the teleprompter about the poetic workingman’s wisdom of this once-imprisoned-Okie from a white trash ghetto that he’d probably never heard of, but at least the chain-smoking and dope-toking and hard-drinking gambler and obviously heartfelt Church of Christ shape-note singer with blasphemous instrumentalists was a damned brilliantly contrarian right to very end.
As much as we’ll miss The Hag, there are hundreds of songs that will provide us solace. Merle Haggard had more than 70 number-one-of-the-week country hits, but there’s one of those every week, and most of his were all-timers, which is more than you can say for any of the pretenders on the current sorry country and western scene, and they memorably expressed what a mean old world and what a great country this is, where a surly young punk from a white trash ghetto sitting in a San Quentin prison cell can make such a contribution to our culture, and we give thanks that God isn’t a snob when passing that kind of talent around.
— Bud Norman