Merle Haggard, the epitome of country cool, passed away April 6, 2016, on his 79th birthday. It’s difficult to exaggerate his importance to modern music when Bob Dylan has already described him as “even too big for Mount Rushmore.” Haggard came out of the honky tonk scene of California to become one of the founding voices of the Bakersfield Sound of the 1960s. In a career spanning five decades, he had 71 Top 10 country hits, 34 of them in a row. His most recent album is Django & Jimmie, which he released with fellow icon Willie Nelson in 2015.
While fans commiserate over his death, we can find some happiness in rediscovering his music all over again.
Known as the poet of the common man, Haggard showed audiences how a country song should be written and sung. Perhaps it came to him easily, because he lived many of his songs before writing them. His first person lyrical style frequently recalled events from his own life. If fans related to it, so did Haggard, who in 1966 sang “Someone told my story in a song.” Many of Haggard’s classics say more in a few verses than most of us will say in a lifetime.
As a send off to “The Hag,” we take a brief look at his life through his own songs.
Mama Tried (1968)
Although Haggard started guitar at age 11, he spent his teen years in and out of reform schools. He was busted several times and in 1957 was sentenced to five years in San Quentin for burglary. Like the song, Haggard did turn 21 in prison, but his real story differs somewhat from the protagonist of “Mama Tried.” The real substance of the song is the feeling of regret. He grew up an “incorrigible” child who couldn’t be straightened out despite all the efforts his mother made.
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried
Branded Man (1967)
Haggard’s time spent in San Quentin was not wasted. In 1958, Johnny Cash visited and performed at the prison. Haggard, then 20, was in the audience. According to Haggard, he “saw the light. I realized what a mess I made out of my life, and I got out of there and stayed out of there.”
Years before Outlaw Country had a name, Haggard was genuinely concerned his chequered past would stop his music career before it started. However, dealing with his incarceration in a straightforward, semi-autobiographical way earned him a string of early hits.
But no matter where I travel, the black mark follows me,
I’m branded with a number on my name.
If I live to be a hundred, guess I’ll never clear my name,
Cause everybody knows I’ve been in jail.
Sing Me Back Home (1967)
Haggard’s third number one song, “Sing Me Back Home,” was inspired by a fellow inmate who was executed for killing a State Trooper. Here, the singer takes the role of an inmate watching a condemned prisoner being led toward his execution. The inmate, who regularly plays guitar and sings in his cell, is asked to perform a final song at the condemned prisoner’s request.
The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom
I stood up to say good-bye like all the rest
And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell
‘Let my guitar playing friend do my request.’
Workin’ Man Blues (1969)
“Workin’ Man Blues” typifies the electric guitar driven Bakersfield Country that was Haggard’s signature sound. It was written as a tribute to a core group of his fans: the blue collar working man. The singer fills the role of one of those workers expressing pride in values such as hard work and sacrifice, despite the resulting fatigue and the stress of raising a large family. Indeed, as someone who was married five times and summed up his life as “a thirty-five-year bus ride,” Haggard was never one to shy away from hard work.
Hey hey, the working man, the working man like me
I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be
Cause I’ll be working long as my two hands are fit to use
Okie From Muskogee (1969)
Released a few weeks after the Woodstock Festival in 1969, “Okie From Muskogee” became a conservative anthem for those frustrated with hippie counter culture. “Okie from Muskogee” and its followup single “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, took the perspective of a man frustrated with anti-war sentiments. The songs capture the tension between the hippies and the heartland. Years later Haggard had very different views, and even advocated for marijuana. He also told an interviewer “I sing with a different intention now.”
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take no trips on LSD
We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street
We like living right, and being free
Django and Jimmie (2015)
Haggard’s last album is the duet album Django & Jimmie, which he recorded with Willie Nelson. The title track is a tribute to guitarists Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers – who were major influences for both Haggard and Nelson. While not a song written by Haggard, the title track generously acknowledges how the singers both stood on the shoulders of giants before becoming icons themselves.
There might not have been a Merle or a Willie
If not for a Django and Jimmie
Live This Long (2015)
Also on Django & Jimmie, is the track “Live this Long.” It’s a fitting late career song for a pair of old country rockers. There’s not a lot of regret looking back on the pair’s long lives, but there is one thing they’d change. Django & Jimmie is also one of Guitar Noise’s favourite albums of 2015. Give it a listen.
We’ll keep rocking along, until we’re gone
But we would’ve taking much better care of ourselves