By Kim Cheshire
So far 2016 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for the world of popular music as we bid farewell to three giants of that great rock-n-roll era often referred to by us baby boomers as the golden years; David Bowie passing from cancer at 67, Prince mysteriously gone at only 57, and the subject of this article, timeless renegade outlaw, people’s poet and working class icon, the wonderful Merle Haggard departing these earthly shores on the 6th of April, his 79th birthday.
Since that fateful day the obituaries, homages and tributes have poured in by the thousands from distraught fans, fellow musicians and music critics alike, each documenting the kind of love and affection usually reserved for family members or close friends, but in this case, for this unpretentious working class storyteller, who in reality had more in common with the crowds that still flocked to his live shows than for the industry that he’d spent the best part of his life at odds with.
When asked by Denise to write this ‘eulogy’ for Country Update I figured we’d probably all seen enough of the endless bios and reworking the myths and anecdotes that have accumulated over the years to paint a picture of this man and his life. Whether it’s the dirt poor dustbowl beginnings, the incorrigible boy turned delinquent, San Quentin and Johnny Cash’s influence, the conflicting versions of the truth behind his reason for writing ‘Okie from Muskogee’ etc. Instead I figured I’d attempt to share with you my own reflections of discovering and learning to love the sometimes contradictory aspects of Merle Haggard and his extraordinary gifts.
The word ‘legend’ gets used in connection with Hag often. The term imposes an aura of loftiness that’s totally at odds with the grit and heart of his songs. “I’d be more comfortable with something like “professor,” he once told a reporter, and the description suits him. Studying, analysing and observing the details of life around him, Haggard relays what he sees, hears and feels through his songs. The lyrics are deceptively simple, the music exceptionally listenable. Others who have lived through those same situations recognize the truth in the stories he tells. But Haggard’s real gift is that anyone who hears his songs recognizes the truth in them. When a Merle Haggard song plays, it can make an innocent-as-apple-pie grandma understand the stark loneliness and self-loathing of a prisoner on death row; a rich kid who never wanted for any material possession get a feel for the pain of wondering where the next meal will come from; a tee-totalling pillar of the community sympathize with the poor heartbroken guy downing shots at the local bar.
Although considered the living embodiment of country music to many since the early sixties, Haggard never really saw himself that way, very rarely ever adhering to the Nashville manufactured country music cowboy star aesthetic and thankfully blessed with a creative musical scope that was far bigger than that. Having grown up in the 40’s and 50’s on a steady diet of the white boy blues of Jimmy Rodgers, the hillbilly jazz of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and the supple vocal styling’s of Lefty Frizzell all meant that his musical palette was a lot broader than the majority of the country hit makers of the era. His potent blue collar poetry cast him as an outsider, and the antithesis of the watered down lyrical conventions that Nashville found marketable. Although identifying as a Christian his personal beliefs most likely wouldn’t tally with his hell-raising reputation or the ultra conservatism of the majority of the Bible belt.
To quote the man himself “Country music in Nashville came out of the church, in California it came out of honky tonks and bars.”
Thankfully for the majority of his career he remained in his beloved California, keeping him a safe distance from the tastemakers, trendsetters and corporate bean counters of that anathema we affectionately refer to as the mainstream country music industry. I was introduced to the music of Hag in London in 1973. I can remember it like it was yesterday, Frank, a Scottish guitarist/singer I’d met backstage at a gig somewhere who lived nearby invited me around for a play. We got to talking and he told me that whilst travelling around the US and staying on a houseboat in Lake Shasta he’d met this guy fishing who played guitar and wrote some of the best songs he’d ever heard, he was a country singer and his name was Merle Haggard.
… read the rest of the story in Issue 81.