A Belated Post on the Passing of Merle Haggard
As some have remarked here and elsewhere, 2016 has already been a tough year for music lovers. We lost Glenn Frey and David Bowie in January. Prince passed away in April. Somehow lost in the shuffle was the death of country music icon, Merle Haggard. Better late than never, it struck me that someone in the Ordinary Times community should say something about the man.
Growing up, I was lucky to have two parents that loved country music. My mom favored Kenny Rogers, Kris Kristofferson and Crystal Gayle. Their albums were on heavy rotation in our house. I still love Gayle’s voice and it’s hard not to sing along with Kenny Rogers. My dad’s tastes ran a little more honky tonk, a little more rough. This is the kind of music that really seemed to grab me and has stuck with me in the years since.
There is a famous quote attributed to country music producer Chet Atkins. When asked to describe the Nashville Sound he would shake the loose change in his pocket and say, “That’s the sound. It’s the sound of money.” The Nashville Sound references the heavily-produced country music that began in the 1950s and arguably continues today with the pop country that dominates radio play. It made country music respectable and defined the careers of many a singer. At the same time though, it got away from the roots of country and eventually that led to reactionary movements. The first of those movements would be called the Bakersfield Sound and Merle began playing music right in the middle of it. In the 1960s he helped take it mainstream and I would argue his hits from that era are among his best.
In the 1970s and early 1980s a second reactionary period began, one which is probably better known today. The so-called Outlaw Country movement made musicians like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr household names. Because Merle had really always been an outsider, he was sort of adopted by the Outlaws. It was that kind of country that I remember best as a kid. Hearing the songs from that time immediately takes me back to my dad’s pickup truck; the smell of sweat and grime from his job and Brute aftershave. The vinyl seats would stick to our legs in our humid Kentucky summers and because there were three kids, two of us would share the middle seat belt.
My parents divorced around 1981 and with my dad seeing us less than a father should, and he being who he was, it was hard for him to connect with us sometimes. We would have long periods of silence in the truck where we didn’t speak and you could tell he was struggling with just the right things to say. So instead of talking, we listened to the radio. It was always country music. Eventually I would learn the words to some of the songs and one day I felt brave enough to start singing along. My dad looked at me with surprise, then patted my leg with a smile…and turned the radio up.
So Merle Haggard wasn’t just a great musician for me. His music, and the music of his peers, helped me connect with my dad at a time when I didn’t know any other way to do so. It’s no surprise that today myself and my siblings all still love country music in our own way. It was the soundtrack of our childhoods. In addition to dad’s Outlaw Country, my mom’s country taught me about true love. My grandfather’s country taught me to appreciate the importance of cowboys (he once had a horn installed in his car that would play ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’). My aunt’s country taught me that it was okay to like the pop influence and to not be embarrassed about it.
Merle deserved a little more recognition at the time of his passing but he probably would have appreciated the irony of Prince over-shadowing him. He was one of the last of his generation and truly a major influence on today’s musicians. Just a month before his death, Garden & Gun published a wonderful interview with Merle and Sturgill Simpson. The interview was part of a larger piece that celebrated the return of Outlaw Country. While the label seems a bit forced, there’s no doubt that country music is once again seeing a reactionary period. The ‘bro country’ of the last few years is being challenged by thoughtful musicians like Simpson, Jason Isbell, Parker Milsap and others who learned from Merle and his friends. In the interview, it was almost like Merle knew the grim reaper was not far off and he was passing the torch to the new guys.
Simpson: You just bought a bus. How are you going to stop touring?
Haggard: I can’t. I feel it’s a double-edged sword. It’s what keeps me alive and it’s what f**ks up my life.
That’s the kind of observation that comes from a lifetime of self-awareness. It proves once again that the best poets, writers and musicians are the ones that know themselves.
It seems fitting to close with some of my favorites from Merle (in no particular order). Enjoy.
Workin’ Man Blues (1969)
Mama Tried (1968)
That’s The Way Love Goes (1983)
Sing Me Back Home (1968)