I’ve heard countless discussions around what constitutes “real country music.” These arguments contain few details of what makes up this elusive cultural archetype and people often reach for specific performers to create context.
Merle Haggard was one of those archetypes, greater than himself. He transcended from a mere country music performer to become a touchstone of what is great about the genre.
A product of a troubled childhood partially due to loss his father, James Haggard, at the age of 9. By the age of 11 he was riding the rails near his home, an abandoned refrigerated train car built by his dad. Then came a string of encounters that led to jail time, most notably when his mother turned him over to juvenile authorities for a weekend lock-up in an attempt to change his “incorrigible” attitude.
As he famously sang “Mama tried.”
A bungled burglary to rob a restaurant while they were still serving customers resulted in a two and a half year stretch at San Quentin State Prison. There he dabbled in music until Johnny Cash held one of his many prison shows for the inmates. He found his saving grace delivered by a Man In Black.
The first time I saw Haggard he was in 2009. He was co-headlining with Kris Kristofferson in Santa Rosa California. Cher wsaa in the audience that night. I’m not sure why she was there (maybe an acquaintance of Kristofferson in his hunky ‘A Star Is Born’ days) but I knew that had to mean something special.
The Hag was a lot more laid back than the ornery cuss that wrote ‘Okie From Muskogee’ and ‘ The Fightin’ Side of Me.’ No doubt due in large part to the lemon-sized tumor removed in the previous year. Perhaps is was the marijuana he used regularly after that surgery. When I last saw him in Ft. Worth’s Bass Hall in 2014 he asked the crows “How many are against pot?” To the smattering applauding in the affirmative he smiled and shot back ‘Why?”
Like his fellow Bakersfield sound” brethren Buck Owens Merle Haggard was a crafter of populist storytelling. He transcended country music to create great American standards by holding up songs like a mirror where we all saw ourselves. The good, bad and – like most of us – those in between.
The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom
And I stood up to say good-bye like all the rest
And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell
“Let my guitar-playing friend do my request”
That he died 79 years to the day of his birth will certainly just add to his mythology. Why not? Numerology and statistics aside it just seems like something supernatural.
But he was all too human. Fragile humanity ran through his songs and demeanor. He had passion for the genre he helped create and humility always in the way he approached it. He defined everything great about and, in turn, defined the best in us bound together by it.