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Saturday, May 07, 2016

Merle Haggard

When Merle Haggard died last month of course I had heard of him, but as a kid who grew up with a distaste for country music (except for Johnny Cash) I thought I'd try to find out just why he was so respected as a great American singer-songwriter. To people of my ilk, he never crossed over onto our radar like Cash or Willie Nelson, but he was a huge star for many.

After listening to a small sample of his music, sixteen of his greatest hits, I found him to be interesting if not particularly diverse. He was part of the Bakersfield sound, which was distinct from the more dominant Nashville country sound, and sometimes hearing another steel guitar can just send me through the roof.

Haggard, to me, is more interesting as a cultural figure. Cash may have played at San Quentin, but Haggard was an inmate there (and was present at one of the shows). He hopped freight cars, had a series of jobs, and after attempting to escape from Bakersfield prison was sent to San Quentin, after which he turned his life around.

Haggard's voice, which is somewhat similar to Nelson's as there is a slight nasal twang, is sweet and not raspy, yet deep within you can hear the pain. He sings many songs that are typical of country music--drinking, mostly. I mean, you can't get more basic a song title that "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," or another called "The Bottle Let Me Down." The other trope is that of the ex-con. The song that put him on the map, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," though he didn't write it, was forever identified with him. He also had hits with "Branded Man," about an ex-con who can't escape his past, and "Mama Tried," about an outlaw whose mother tried to set him right but failed.

But Haggard may be best remembered for some reactionary songs he recorded in the late sixties. Perhaps his most famous song is "Okie From Muskogee," which may have been a satire but probably not, and Haggard was asked about it for years. The song is a reaction against hippies and protesters:

"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 livin' right, and bein' free.
 I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all"

Later, Haggard said he was as "dumb as a rock" when he wrote the song, and completely changed his mind on marijuana. That's good, because white lightnin' is basically as bad for you as paint thinner. There's also a verse about men who wear beads and sandals, as if that had anything to do with anything. The song became a huge hit--if it was satire, then it was sort of like how Archie Bunker, who was mocking conservatives, became a conservative hero.

Another song is "The Fighting Side of Me," in which Haggard states that he won't tolerate anyone running down his country. "Love it or leave it," we hear, a statement that always gores my ox because it is basically anti-American--the democratic process encourages us to try to change what we don't like, either by voting or peaceful protest.

Finally, there's a song called "Are the Good Times Really Gone," which is a bit like the All in the Family theme song "Those Were the Days." Haggard sings about nostalgia for the good old days:

"Back before Elvis, before Vietnam war came along
Before the Beatles and yesterday
When a man could still work and still would
Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?"

I find that the only people who think that the time he's talking about, which must have been the late '40s and early '50s (world war and a great depression couldn't possibly have been good times) are white men. Certainly black people wouldn't call those the good old days, or women, especially when he sings, "Before microwave ovens when a girl could still cook, and still would."

But Haggard, in his later years, grew his hair and beard long and had a don't-give-a-shit attitude. He had a distaste for modern country music (which I gather is the canned sound of people like Garth Brooks) and always had that outlaw edge. He casts a long shadow in the country and western world, and while his music may not be my cup of tea, I can certainly appreciate it.

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