I’ve celebrated the life and work of Merle Haggard here several times over the years. Today I write in sadness to note his passing at the age of 79 — to be exact, on his seventy-ninth birthday. The Los Angeles Times marks his passing here. The Times also compiles reactions to his death here.
Like Elvis Presley and Ray Charles, Hag was a singer in whose voice one could hear all the strands of American popular music, but his writing establishes his legacy. A few years back the Los Angeles Times published a perceptive profile of Haggard by Times music critic Robert Hilburn. 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.
Today Hilburn cited this 2004 column on Haggard as his favorite. Check it out here.
In a thoughtful column, 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. I wish someone had thought to take up Holwerk’s suggestion. 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 cited a song that gets about as close to poetry as the great traditional folk songs do, “Kern River” (video below), and the painfully self-revelatory gem “Footlights.”
Outside his art, Haggard latterly talked like a conventional lefty. His views may have “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, so to speak, as a criminal, and landed in prison. He was country music’s original outlaw. As governor of California Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon in 1972, and Haggard never forgot.
In “Are the Good Times Really Over?” (video above), Haggard offered a series of observations that are still timely and that (mostly) still bite. His observations are part mock nostalgia, part wordplay, and part kidding on the square. He concluded with an observation that is both optimistic and needed.
Haggard is the author of a large, complex body of work whose measure we may now begin to take. Holwerk’s nomination of Haggard as California’s poet laureate was inspired, but why did he stop at California?
Let’s bring Hag back for an encore and take our leave of him with “Footlights” (video below), his own preliminary summing up. “Tonight we’ll kick the footlights out again and try to hide the mood we’re really in.” RIP.
JOHN adds: Some years ago, Scott gave me, either for my birthday or for Christmas, a four CD collection of Merle’s greatest hits. It was a revelation. Haggard strikes, at one time or another, pretty much every note in the catalog of popular music. Some songs come from another galaxy, far, far away, while others would be hits if you released them tomorrow. “My Own Kind of Hat” was among my favorites, as Scott notes. I also think it remarkable that Alan Jackson had the nerve to cover this song on a 1999 album. But Merle and Alan were both right. The song doesn’t hate anyone, and is no more about fairies than about cherries and babies. Here it is: