A couple of years ago Sacramento Bee editorial page editor David Holwerk published his own column explaining why Merle Haggard should be named California’s poet laureate. If you are familiar with the incredible body of work Hag has produced over the past forty years, you have to wonder why he he hasn’t been named America’s poet laureaute.
Holwerk made the case that Haggard sounded more or less like 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 recognition of Haggard’s achievement, 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.” In “Sing Me Back Home” (in the video above, with Johnny Cash, opening with banter about Hag’s 1969 “Same Train, Different Time” album tribute to Jimmie Rodgers), Hag recapitulates classic country themes with a moving personal touch.
For a few songs that belie the politcal slant that Holwerk attributed to Haggard, I would cite his paean to freedom and his derogation of “your so-called Social Security” in “Big City,” as well as his politically incorrect tribute to the working man in “Workin’ Man Blues,” two of the songs Hag picked out as among his favorite in a Chicago Tribune piece on his current tour. John Hinderaker cites “My Own Kind of Hat,” Haggard’s hilarious, politically incorrect meditation on language and life.
Haggard of course did not start out as a musician, much less a poet. He more or less started out in prison. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon in 1972, and Haggard hasn’t forgotten.
Today Haggard turns 70. He’s still hard at work producing what Gram Parsons dubbed Cosmic American Music. In his most recent project — “Last of the Breed,” a collaboration with Willie Nelson and Ray Price released just two weeks ago — Hag is the dominant force in what sounds to me like an instant classic. We tip our own kind of hat to Hag on his big day.
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill