With his passing on his seventy-ninth birthday last week, Merle Haggard allows us to begin to take the measure of his contribution to American popular music. He was a giant as a writer, singer and performer. Full of comforts, joys, sorrows and surprises, his art is inexhaustibly interesting.
Listen up as he performs one of the lesser known treasure “If I Could Only Fly” (written by Michael David Foley a/k/a Blaze Foley), from the album of the same name recorded during his late period resurgence. It’s the song he sang for his friend Lewis Talley at Talley’s funeral, as he mentions in the beautiful live version posted here. He’d been performing the song for a long time, with undeniable mastery. Here, however, “he stalls and wavers off key” as he allows the effects of age to reveal the heart of the song. “Tell me things get better somewhere up the way.”
He never tired of paying tribute to his inspirations, even though the commercial imperatives dictated otherwise. Among them were Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizell, Bob Wills and others you couldn’t miss if you were tuned in. He even taught himself how to play fiddle for his Wills album, A Tribute To the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World. In his version of Rodgers’s “Mule Skinner Blues” (a/k/a “Blue Yodel No. 8″), he updated and deepened the tradition as always while expressing his abiding love for it.
Has any country artist written better drinking songs that Hag? You can’t argue taste, but I doubt it. His performance of “I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” in the video below derives from his last time around at the Grand Ole Opry this past fall.