I have to say that Merle Haggard, who passed away on April 6th, was my favorite country musician. The LA Times had a really fine obituary:
Through it all, the songs still flowed.
Over decades of trouble, fame, and more trouble, Merle Haggard never stopped making up songs. The country-music star seemed afflicted with a song-writing compulsion, much as Woody Guthrie was.
He penned his first ballads as a child. By later life, he claimed to have written 10,000 of them.
He composed wherever he went, all day long. He was inspired by snippets of conversation, flashes of memory. He drew lyrics from a flower, from the view out a bus window.
Even after Haggard's fame dimmed, and audiences shrank, he kept writing, kept singing. He said “the best songs feel like they've always been here.” He seemed to never tire of unearthing them.
The musician, who sang of his law-breaking Bakersfield youth and whose natural, storytelling lyrics won him a vast following — more than 100 of his songs made the Billboard charts — died Wednesday — his birthday — at his home near Redding. He was 79.
What’s there to say about him? In his early days he was counter to the counter culture, which sort of made him traditional, but I don’t know if that’s entirely true. He was homespun, yes, but he had already been in jail. I do love his counter the counter culture songs. Those certainly endeared him to conservatives. Basically he was American, with all our warts and petulances. From the La Times:
His biggest years stretched from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, during which he once had nine consecutive country No. 1 singles. But Haggard's inborn, relentless creativity never flagged.
He owed some of his fame to conservative anthems, including the combative 1969 release “Okie from Muskogee” which seemed to mock San Francisco's anti-war hippies.
But patriotic pride and political songs made up only a portion of the vast and diverse Haggard portfolio, which included autobiographical laments, odes to working men and women, drinking songs and love songs. A Times critic described his ballads as “caked with the dust of hard-won experiences.”
In life Haggard was by no means the clean-cut square of the Muskogee song, about which he expressed mixed feelings (though after a hiatus, he eventually resumed singing it).
He had grown up a troublemaker — a teenage runaway who rode the rails and turned petty criminal. Sent to prison after a botched burglary attempt, he was among the inmates who watched [Johnny] Cash perform at San Quentin in 1958.
The experience famously helped turn his life around. But it didn't exactly straighten him out. Drugs, divorce and bankruptcy dogged his path, long after success came his way.
In later years he would consider himself more of a Democrat than Conservative. And when you look at his youth, you can understand why. His father died when he was a boy and experienced a good deal of the poorer side of life. Again from the obituary:
Merle Ronald Haggard was born April 6, 1937, in Oildale, near Bakersfield, the youngest of three children of James Frances and Flossie Mae Haggard. His parents were Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma who set up house in a converted boxcar. But Haggard fared better than many fellow migrants because his father had regular work with the railroads.
Haggard described his mother as socially ambitious. His early life contains a telling hint of middle-class aspiration: He took violin lessons as a child. Later, he would play an able fiddle.
Otherwise, young Haggard claimed that he was not encouraged in music. He had always composed, he said. He described his childhood self staring out of classroom windows, making up songs. Haggard recalled an uncle telling his mother, “if you want that boy to amount to anything, you better take that guitar out of his hands.”
After his father died suddenly when he was 9, Haggard ran away. He jumped on freight cars, and spent time in a home for delinquent boys. By 13, he was singing in bars. By 17, he had married a waitress, Leona Hobbs. But he was in jail for auto theft at the birth of their child, the first of four.
Then Haggard broke into a bar, wound up in jail and tried to escape, and in 1958 was sentenced to six to 15 years in San Quentin, where Cash's performance prompted him to form a prison band.
This real-life narrative would become a classic trope of country music. “Mama Tried,” considered by some critics to be Haggard's greatest song, is a fairly straight autobiographical account of his road to San Quentin.
It’s really worth reading that entire obituary. Why is he my favorite country musician? He could play the guitar really well, he understood song writing completely and perfected it, and he was a wonderful story teller. Country music story telling can be outrageous and over the top. Not Merle Haggard’s. They all seem real to me. Add to his music that combination gravelly and nasally voice, a voice which fits perfectly with the story lines, and you have the greatest country singer song writer.
Let’s start with a couple of his counter the counter culture songs. His most famous first.
And then there’s “Fightin’ Side of Me.”
“Mama Tried” rings so true because it is true.
I really want to get some of his later works in as well. I just adore “That’s the Way Love Goes.” He had a great touch with his voice.
Hag, or sometimes in third person was referred to as “the Hag,” did not have a crooner’s voice by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not that of an opera singer. But I love his singing. There’s a term for singing by resonating through the nasal passages, nasality. However, according to this, voice teachers try to train out the nasality. It seems to me that Hag’s nasality is absolutely precious. Thank God he nurtured it. If you listen to any of his songs you can hear how he manipulates it for effect, and it’s the primary quality of his voice that projects honesty.
Notice how he here varies a nasally resonance with a deep resonance in the lungs.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a live song. Here’s a song that’s almost the complement of “Mama Tried,” this called “The Roots of My Raising.”
The family story in that one touches me every time. What’s a country singer without having a drinking song, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
“Ain't no woman gonna change the way I think/I think I'll just stay here and drink.” What a line. That’s one my all-time favorites.
And finally you can’t have a country music song collection without one complaining about city life and heading out for the hills. “Big City.”
Hag, you’re finally free. Enjoy the hills and country where you are now, and rest in peace.