California was not supposed to be a land of country music legends. For that, we had Austin, Houston, and Nashville. For outsiders, there was Tulsa and certain parts of the greater Southeast. But Merle Haggard never did things the way they were “supposed” to be done.
He was California born and raised, and, though it has become a braggadocio tagline for hat acts on country radio, it’s actually true to say of Merle Haggard that he was country ’til the day he died. After all, as a colleague noted Wednesday, there’s nothing more country than dying on the day you were born, which Haggard did on April 6, having just turned 79.
In life, Haggard was a giant of classic country music, one of a few singer-songwriters in a certain generation who got to go by just one name. There was Waylon, Willie, Dolly, Loretta, Johnny, Kris, and Merle, all of whom have defined country music in countless, inimitable ways. Of course, it’s been years since Merle Haggard (or Johnny Cash, or Kris Kristofferson) was played regularly on country radio, thus each of these artists has found a more lasting embrace in the realm of “Americana” and “roots” music.
But genre categories aside, Haggard’s truest allegiance was to the working class and anyone struggling, hard on their luck. The heroes of his songs were homeless (“Hobo Bill”), fleeing something (“Lonesome Fugitive”), drunk (“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”), lost (“Ramblin’ Fever”), and heartsick (“Silver Wings”). Haggard wrote about them in a way that was more humanizing than sympathetic. He didn’t want us to feel bad for anyone; he wanted us to recognize their humanity.
His people had pride, and his songs about them asked us to look past the vices and the violence, the cheating and the fear, to see the struggle of a person hanging on, even when it wasn’t clear if there was anything to hang on to. They challenged us to see ourselves in their mirrors. There was no pity in “Mama Tried,” in other words, only straight-faced honesty. (“Mama tried to steer me better, but her pleading I denied / That leaves only me to blame.”)
Merle Haggard’s songs stretched half a century but each of them was timeless, and there has been no more ripe a time for them as now.
Here in 2016, we see a political landscape fueled by working-class anger and middle-class frustration. We hear rhetoric about struggling and lashing out, getting violent and tamping down. And, the pundits tell us, we’re taking our anger to the voting box.
It’s easy to wonder what a working-class hero like Haggard would have been thinking about it all. Not that we necessarily need our artists to weigh in on our politics, but our music does live in the same world we do. There were likely answers deep within his catalog: “Working Men Can’t Get Nowhere Today,” “They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Are the Good Times Really Over,” “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” and the list goes on.
Further, it’s hard to acknowledge what will surely be Haggard’s legacy without acknowledging the greater context of country music. Even as the Washington Post asked earlier this week why country music’s men are embarrassed about their subject matter, we’ve very recently heard new, deeply substantive music from artists like Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson — all of whom can stand on the shoulders of giants like Haggard, without barely stretching.
In recent months, in fact, Simpson and Haggard seemed to have somewhat become friends, playing dates together and swapping compliments. In a recent interview with Garden & Gun, Haggard declared Simpson “about the only thing I’ve heard that was worth listening to in a long time, to be real honest.” Upon Haggard’s passing, Simpson sounded moved when he tweeted, “We lost a true hero today & I’m very sad to say a true friend. I will always be eternally grateful.”
Back in 2000, when No Depression ran a cover story about him titled “Stay a Little Longer,” Haggard told the writer, Kurt Wolff, “The bottom line is the music. If the music’s good, then all the different scenarios that had to take place to come by it are worth it.”
Indeed, we should all feel blessed that the music remains. Certainly there is plenty to see and hear in his tales of honest struggle; after all, it seems the Hag knew music held an opportunity for us all to become better, no matter where we were born.