Are the good times really over?

Like Elvis Presley and Ray Charles, Merle Haggard is a singer in whose voice one can hear all the strands of American popular music. Today is his birthday and we want to salute him while he is still around to win fans and influence people.

A few years back the Los Angeles Times published a terrific profile of Haggard by Times music critic Robert Hilburn (the profile is no longer available on the Times site). Hilburn’s profile focused on Haggard’s songwriting. Hilburn opened the profile with a visit to Haggard from the tax man:

Merle Haggard, the country music star who really did turn 21 in prison, just like it says in one of his songs, figures it cost the IRS nearly $100,000 the day an agent came to his ranch near here to try to figure out what goes into writing a hit.

Haggard’s tax return was apparently kicked out by the computer for too many business deductions, and the agent wanted the songwriter to show him how the 200-acre spread in the mountains helped him do his work. During a walk around the grounds, Haggard explained how a creek inspired one song, a flowerbed led to another, and a bulldog jump-started a third.

“Finally, this fellow looks at me and says, ‘Why, Mr. Haggard, everything you do is a write-off,’ and he started pointing out other things I should have declared,” the songwriter says, laughing so hard his whole body shakes.

In a thoughtful column (no longer available online), Sacramento Bee editorial page editor David Holwerk dubbed Haggard poet of the people and argued the case for naming him California’s next poet laureate. Holwerk portrayed Haggard as something of a latter-day Woody Guthrie, appending the lyrics to “Mama Tried,” “Tulare Dust,” “Hungry Eyes,” and (the terrific) “Rainbow Stew” to his column. Holwerk acknowledged but discounted “Okie from Muskogie,” a song that seems to me to sit uncomfortably between the anthemic and the satirical. To support Holwerk’s nomination of Haggard as California’s poet laureate, I would cite a song that gets about as close to poetry as the great traditional folk songs do, “Kern River,” or a painfully self-revelatory gem like “Footlights.”

Outside his art, Haggard now talks like a conventional lefty. His views have probably “evolved” over the years. For a few songs that belie the political tinge that Holwerk attributed to Haggard, however, I would cite his paean to freedom and his derogation of “your so-called Social Security” in “Big City,” as well as his hard-headed tribute to the working man in “Workin’ Man Blues.” John Hinderaker would cite “My Own Kind of Hat,” Haggard’s politically incorrect meditation on language and life.

Haggard of course did not start out as a musician, much less a poet. He started out as a criminal and landed in prison. As governor of California Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon in 1972, and Haggard hasn’t forgotten.

In “Are the Good Times Really Over?” (video above), Haggard asks a series of questions that are still timely, and that (mostly) still bite. His observations are part mock nostalgia, part wordplay, and part kidding on the square. He concludes the questions with an answer that is both optimistic and needed.

In any event, as Holwerk suggested, Haggard is the author of a large, complex body of work. Holwerk’s nomination of Haggard as California’s poet laureate was inspired, but why stop at California? (First posted in 2010.)

UPDATE 2012: CNN saluted Haggard on his seventy-fifth birthday with an interesting interview, but see Alex Halberstadt’s superb 2000 profile of Hag for a portrait in three dimensions.

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