Merle Haggard died nearly six years ago at the age of 79 — to be exact, on his seventy-ninth birthday. Haggard is finally the subject of a full-scale biography — The Hag: The Life, Times, and Music of Merle Haggard, by Marc Eliot. Mark Pulliam reviewed it last week at Law and Liberty in the excellent column “Our redneck poet.” He “expand[s] upon Eliot’s respectful (but not hagiographic) treatment of the prolific singer-songwriter[.]” I recommend it for readers with any interest in Haggard’s voluminous body of work. He sets it in a context that helps us get a handle on it. I thought I might seize on the occasion to look back briefly on a few highlights of his work.
As I am wont to say in this series, we are munching like giraffes on the top of the trees. Mark Pulliam observes: “Haggard released over 100 albums, recorded more than 600 songs (250 of which he wrote), many of them hits, toured extensively, and won numerous awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and the Kennedy Center Honor in 2010 (along with Paul McCartney).” Please forgive the otherwise unforgivable omissions and possible errors in attribution of credits for the songwriting here. My purpose is to offer relief from the news of the day.
Like Elvis Presley and Ray Charles, Haggard was a singer in whose resonant voice one could hear all the strands of American popular music, but his writing establishes his legacy. A few years before Haggard’s death 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.
When Haggard died Hilburn cited the 2004 column on Haggard as his favorite.
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 San Quentin prison. He was country music’s real outlaw. As governor of California Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon in 1972, and Haggard never forgot.
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.
“Mama Tried” was released in 1968. It’s avowal of responsibility is out of joint with the time. That much I can tell you.
Despite the blue collar country niche he was filling, Haggard was recognized by the Grateful Dead and others in the rock world for the quality of his work. By 1969 the Dead were performing “Mama Tried” at Woodstock. The song became a staple of their act. The live recording below derives from a performance at Fillmore East in 1971.
Returning to Holwerk’s list, I want to note the live performance of “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” from I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink. I think I’ll stay here and observe that it surpasses the studio version.
Holwerk acknowledged but discounted “Okie from Muskogie,” a song that seems to me to sit uncomfortably between the anthemic and the satirical. Phil Ochs illustrates how quickly the quality of Haggard’s work was recognized in unlikely precincts. The recording below comes from his live show at Carnegie Hall in 1970. See Marc Eliot’s Ochs biography Death of a Rebel for the rest of the story.
The humorous cynicism of of “Rainbow Stew” is a higher form of realism. The song’s wisdom is timeless, or at least once again out of joint with the time.
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. Here is “Kern River.” I saw Merle live on a Monday night at the Guthrie Theater some time toward the end of his career. He poured himself into “Kern River” and “Footlights.” He made you sit up and take notice.
“Footlights” is a self-revelatory gem (also from I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink).
I don’t have a fix on Haggard’s political views. 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 Dean Holloway’s “Big City”…
….or his hard-headed tribute to the working man in “Workin’ Man Blues.”
In “Are the Good Times Really Over?” 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.
“If We Make It Through December” is another timeless classic. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Merle drew on his tumultuous personal life for some beautiful songs. “Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of them. He rerecorded the version below in stereo on Curb Records.
When Merle really hit it in the ’60’s he took advantage of the opportunity to record tributes to his idols. First up was Jimmie Rodgers.
Then came Bob Wills. Merle took a month off to learn how to play fiddle.
Even after the country audience had moved on, Merle produced some classic work that paid tribute to his roots and his idols, such as Lefty Frizzell.
Haggard is the author of a large, complex body of work whose measure we may now begin to take. I thought Holwerk’s nomination of Haggard for California poet laureate was inspired, but why did he stop at California?
Let’s bring the Hag back for an encore and take our leave of him with the Blaze Foley number “If I Could Only Fly” from the album of that name on Anti in 2000.