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Thursday, April 7, 2016
Merle Haggard, the Last American Bard
Here's a great tribute to Haggard, who just died. I love "Momma Tried." Many don't understand that "Okie from Muskogee" was meant to be ironic.
Merle Haggard (1937-2016): Brilliance Born in a Boxcar
Merle Haggard was a musical pioneer, foreshadowing outlaw country and country rock.
The songs of Merle Haggard, a bard of the working man, had their roots in country, but they inspired musicians in other genres of American music as well. As a linchpin of the so-called Bakersfield sound, which added an earthy edge to the kind of country coming from Nashville, Tenn., Mr. Haggard foreshadowed outlaw country and country rock, and for more than 50 years composed, sang with a rich, penetrating baritone and played songs that blended a firsthand knowledge of life’s trials and travails with a fervent hope for better times ahead. He died on April 6, his 79th birthday.
Merle Haggard in 2014.PHOTO: CHRIS FELVER/GETTY IMAGES
As a boy, Mr. Haggard began to compile trying experiences that would serve him well as a songwriter. Merle Ronald Haggard was born in a converted boxcar in Oildale, Calif., just outside of Bakersfield. After his father died suddenly while Merle was still a child, Mr. Haggard began to teach himself guitar and to commit crimes that started off petty but escalated in their severity.
A promising musician with a voice influenced by honky tonk’s Lefty Frizzell, by 1956 Haggard was playing clubs and roadhouses. But a robbery led to confinement in San Quentin Prison. After witnessing a Johnny Cash concert at the fabled penitentiary, Mr. Haggard joined a country group in prison and earned his high-school equivalency diploma.
Mr. Haggard signed on with Wynn Stewart’s band as a bassist and, at the same time, began a solo career. When his third single, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” landed high on the Country & Western charts in 1964, he formed a band, the Strangers, featuring a plucky electric guitar played by Roy Nichols.His cover of “The Fugitive,” released in 1966, became the first of his almost 40 No. 1 country hits, which included his compositions “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “If We Make It Through December.” Other Haggard compositions that became standards include “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Today I Started Loving You Again,” written with his wife Bonnie Owens.
In 1969, Mr. Haggard courted controversy with his song “Okie From Muskogee,” in which he disparages hippies and promotes traditional values. Embraced by Middle America, the song was honored by the Country Music Association, as was the album of the same name. Though it defined Mr. Haggard, perhaps too narrowly, he also composed a song that supported interracial love, “Irma Jackson,” which he released in ’72. It was not as well-received as “Okie From Muskogee.”
By then, Mr. Haggard’s songs had crossed over into the rock-and-pop world. Joan Baez,the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and even Dean Martin covered his songs. But Mr. Haggard remained committed to the country side of the ledger, recording a 1970 tribute to Bob Wills and western swing in which Mr. Haggard revealed his skills as a fiddle player. In the 1970s, he had 16 No. 1 hit singles on the country charts.
Mr. Haggard struggled with substance abuse and financial setbacks in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, though his reputation as a songwriter remained stellar as covers of his songs by contemporary singers charted and appeared in films. In 2005, he released “America First,” a song that lamented the state of the country’s infrastructure while the government was engaged in nation-building elsewhere. He issued his final solo album, “Working in Tennessee,” in 2011, and four years later he and Willie Nelson scored a No. 1 album with “Django and Jimmie,” a tribute to Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers.The 78-year-old Mr. Haggard was in fine voice, his characteristic blend of defiance and tenderness golden in the lines he sang.
Mr. Haggard was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. He received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010 for his contributions to American culture. When his journey from a boxcar and a prison cell to the heights of popular music ended with his death, Mr. Haggard was firmly established as an extraordinary composer and artist who spoke plainly from the heart to those who felt the power of his convictions.
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock.