Holding on to Hag: Remembering Merle Haggard 1937-2016

Merle Haggard died at age 79, leaving behind a legacy of authentic country music.

The world will be quieter, less whole, now that Merle Haggard has gone. It’s just hours after his agent confirmed his passing, but it already feels like a lifetime ago. Fellow writers are hunkered down, penning their own tributes; friends are sharing their favorite Haggard tunes via social media or leaving their favorite Hag lyrics as a status update. Me? I’m spinning some of my favorite Merle songs, celebrating his life by celebrating his work. But it’s hard. It doesn’t seem right or fair that the man has moved on. Maybe because his leaving is another indicator that the twilight of an age has come. And Haggard was one of the central voices of that time.

He’s mentioned as being part of a Mount Rushmore of country music beside Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings and if such a thing existed his likeness would be chiseled in that rock. He appealed to beer drinkers, dope smokers and hell raisers from all walks of life because he was all of that. He came from poverty and worked like someone who would never escape it almost until the end. His friendships, especially with Nelson, appeared to run deep and he remained authentic to the end. Perhaps this last is why he touched the many lives he did, because people felt that they knew him, that he might as well live down the road and might even pop in for a visit or knock on the door when his car broke down. And he was proof of redemption.

But he was also an incredibly complex man whose contradictions were his own. David Bowie, at least as the public saw him, may have only been consistent in the ways that he remade himself time and time again. Merle remained an open book whose main makeovers came when sartorial sensibilities shifted with the calendar. He didn’t make overblown albums and he never went seeking an audience that wouldn’t have him and maybe that’s what accounts for what endeared him to so many. Like many artists with commercial success, we might try to say that so much of who Haggard was came down to one song.

When talk today turns to music from the Vietnam era many are quick to cite the remarkably apolitical Beatles as articulating dissent. Others get a little closer to the heart when they mention Credence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. But Merle’s 1969 hit “Okie from Muskogee”, like Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)”, often gets left behind. Yet it’s one of the quintessential statements of the time and perhaps the song for which Haggard will be best remembered.

More than a little ink has been spilled over this seemingly simple song, including a healthy amount in Peter La Chapelle’s 2007 Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music and Migration to Southern California. “Okie” transformed Haggard from an artist with a few hits under his belt to a man with an important cultural statement in his pocket. The album named after the track went gold and the single became a major success both on the airwaves and in the sales racks. Like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, which would emerge several years later, analysis of “Okie” has yielded few concrete answers.

As La Chapelle writes, the song has been viewed as a rallying cry for ultraconservatives, a critique of the upper class, and as little more than a story told by a certain kind of person who can’t believe what the world is coming to. References to unrest on college campuses, long hair, marijuana, and other perceived threats to democracy roll by in the lyrics and one gets the idea that the narrator doesn’t like any of it one bit. But are the narrator and the singer the same? Not necessarily and an analysis of Haggard’s own politics doesn’t provide much satisfaction either. He even confessed that there is a multitude of interpretations than can be made from the song and any one of those could be right. We have the man himself on the live album, Okie from Muskogee, playing up the anti-hippy sentiments in front of a crowd that cheers when he says the town appears to be hippy free. But that’s not the final word on the matter, not even from Haggard, who’d vacillate on the definitive reading any number of times in the coming decades.

That we can’t pin him down on this matter is part of what makes him such a fascinating figure, a man of contradictions and frailties that no press agent could ever gloss over. By the time he had his first hit in 1964 he’d been to prison, doing a three-year stint in San Quentin for burglary. While incarcerated he witnessed Johnny Cash perform and became determined to do something other than time. Once free, he gigged in Bakersfield bars, scored a recording contract with the Tally label and was soon climbing the charts with a string of Top Ten hits. “Swinging Doors”, “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “The Fugitive” (also known as “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”) arrived in quick succession and set the tone for much of his career.

“The Fugitive” was one of several songs that lent authenticity to Haggard’s outlaw past. Written by the team of Liz Anderson and Casey Anderson it walked the line between regret and resignation that would become something of a Merle trademark. His self-penned 1967 hit “Branded Man” detailed the fears of a convict about to re-enter the world. Here was someone who’d done his time but who feared that he wouldn’t be accepted. That same year he released “Sing Me Back Home”, the story of an inmate who longs to return to a time before he went wrong. It’s one of Hag’s most affecting and poetic lyrics and a song that, like another of his prison songs, “Mama Tried”, became a favorite among the hippy set, namely the Grateful Dead, a band that would perform and record both on a regular basis during the early 1970s.

It was home and family, two themes inseparable from classic country music, that provided Haggard with his best material. “Hungry Eyes” was inspired by his own mother, a woman who could never quite get what she wanted from life despite hard work and dedication. It was a piece as true as they come: The family had fled the dust bowl, come to California and lived in a converted box car. What kind of hope would there be for people who’d come from such desperate circumstances?

An appreciation for the rewards of labor came in the form of “Workin’ Man Blues” while nods to his origins continued via “If We Make It Through December”, “The Roots of My Raising” and others throughout the 1970s. He helped spark and maintain a revival of western swing music during that decade and released a few gospel albums along the way; he recorded a duet with Clint Eastwood (“Bar Room Buddies”) in 1980 that marked a new era in his career. For several years, he would become a man about the good times or the regrets that came with it, something he sang about on “Reasons to Quit” from 1983’s Pancho and Lefty, acknowledging the toll drinking and drugs were taking on his soul and his muse.

As good as that song is, the album might have fallen into obscurity had it not been for a last-minute decision to cover Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”. Though no one, not even Van Zandt, could ever say exactly what that song is about it, it might as well have been about the two aging country outlaws who graced the cover. They’d record a few more albums together over the years, most recently Django and Jimmie in 2015. Haggard was often at his best when collaborating with someone, including some late-career surprises such as “It’s Too Late For Me”, a duet with Peter Wolf from the J. Geils Band frontman’s excellent Midnight Souvenirs album.

There were good Merle records in the 1990s and beyond and some that were less than good. His days of chart-topping records were over but then that was the case for many artists of his generation. Country had become unrecognizable to itself although youngsters who’d been taken in by latter-day Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings turned up at concerts to show their appreciation. And Merle returned the favor.

He’d struggled with pneumonia a few times in recent years, having to cancel or postpone tours. But he always got back on the road and was ready to do so again. The coming weeks would have seen him perform dates with Nelson, though just days before Hag’s death Willie began announcing that Jamey Johnson and Ryan Bingham would be taking to the stage with him. According to a social media post made by Haggard’s son Ben the country legend had told his family a week before his final departure that he was going to die on his birthday.

And so he did. April 6, 2016, became the day that Merle Haggard drew his last breath and it also became the day when American music as we knew it died a little more too. Yes, there are those legends that remain — Willie among them — but he’s more or less alone now, carrying the torch of a generation that wrote what they knew and lived the songs they sang. Each of them takes from this world a firsthand knowledge of a way of life that is long gone, a life that involved rising out of poverty to stardom but doing so with integrity and without apology.

So, tonight, several hours after the first words of this piece made their way to my computer screen, the music has come to a close and I begin to suspect that as much as I want to hear “Sing Me Back Home” it will only bring tears. Those tears have come and gone several times in these hours of course, but to shed them now while listening to the beautiful cadences and the exquisite melody would be only to acknowledge that Merle Haggard is gone. I can’t imagine that I’m ready for that admission just yet.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.