Merle Haggard was an American music legend. And yes, he wrote “Okie From Muskogee,” “Fightin’ Side Of Me,” and other anti-hippie songs. Those are fine songs. And a lot of people I like them. I don’t particularly because, although I don’t like hippies, I see nothing wrong with burning your draft card or saying bad things about America. But reducing Haggard to those songs is pure foolishness. Haggard was a rare talent in country music: someone who could sing incredibly well, was an accomplished songwriter, and was also a solid instrumentalist, playing lead guitar and fiddle.
Firstly, he was a superb singer, with great range and an uncanny ability to wring emotion from lyrics with his phrasing, without being saccharine. Accordingly, his first success as a singer was as an interpreter of other people’s music.
His first hit record “Sing A Sad Song” from 1963, was very much a Countrypolitan pop record that was much slicker and lusher than his later sound, and his vocal leans towards the mid-range of his voice, highlighting his ability to effortlessly slide up into a high yodel like his idol Jimmie Rodgers.
On his first LP from 1965, Haggard wrote or co-wrote 5 of the 12 songs, mostly the filler material, with none of his own songs being hits.
In fact, Haggard didn’t have any big hits until his breakthrough in 1967, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” written by country singer Lynn Anderson’s mother, Liz:
That Haggard had spent 2 years in San Quentin prison made it an appropriate match for him, although Liz Anderson had no idea when she played Haggard the song. The song became Haggard’s first No. 1 record on the country charts, and provided his career with a direction and a persona. He wrote and performed similar songs (which became similarly big hits) for the next few years, notably “Branded Man” (which addressed the theme of a convict who served his time still feeling like an outlaw in society) and “Mama Tried” (containing the immortal line “I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole”, which Haggard later admitted included the untrue last half because “it filled out the line”).
Haggard’s albums from this era began to feature more and more self-written material, which seemed inevitable, as he is as good a songwriter as anyone in country music. “Sing Me Back Home,” a song inspired from Haggard’s experiences in prison, is probably my favorite song of his, drawing on his memories of being in solitary confinement next to Death Row inmate and author Caryl Chessman (who was executed during Haggard’s stay at San Quentin) as well as the execution of his friend Jimmy “Rabbit” Hendricks. It’s one of those songs that has such a timeless quality that it’s almost hard to imagine it being written by any one person; if it hadn’t existed forever, perhaps it just emerged one day fully formed from the ether.
Haggard was born and raised outside Bakersfield, California in a converted boxcar, the son of two Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma, who joined many emigrants from their home state in California during the Great Depression. As a youth, he had started running away and jumping freight trains at a young age. This begun a streak of juvenile delinquency that graduated into adult criminality when he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to a lengthy term at San Quentin at age 20 (interestingly, Haggard was born in April 1937 and, according to his autobiography, began his San Quentin term in March 1958, enabling him to indeed “turn 21 in prison”).
Despite this string of modern sounding hits celebrating (and lamenting) his hard man life, Haggard was, perhaps more so than any other country singer of his status, a traditionalist with the utmost reverence for country music’s history. At the height of his fame in 1969, he released a tribute record to 1920’s country singer Jimmie Rodgers. Then a year later, he taught himself fiddle basically from scratch (although he had some childhood violin lessons) in order to record a tribute record to Western Swing star Bob Wills.
In addition to the Bob Wills album, Haggard began to record more instrumental material featuring his band, the Strangers. Although Haggard was a facile lead guitar player, he deferred to his guitarist Roy Nichols, a nimble and inventive guitar player whose clean clear runs were an integral part of the electric Bakersfield Country sound of the 1960’s, and a direct precursor to country-flavored rock players like Jerry Garcia.
Haggard’s band was one of the best in the business, featuring players equally adept with almost any 20th century American music ranging from jazz to honky tonk to pop, including fiddle player Jim Belken, formerly a violin player with the Dallas Symphony (“I quit when I realized I didn’t want to find myself fifty years old and gettin’ cussed out by some Hungarian”).
It was fitting that such a formidable band would record a few albums of their own, most notably 1973’s “Totally Instrumental with One Exception.” It’s an amazingly varied album, with material ranging from throwback ragtime tunes to incredibly melodic and evocative pieces that seamlessly mix elements of country and jazz. Funnily enough for music from a such a tough dude, the album sounds to me like it was made to score a film by sensitive fop Wes Anderson:
Haggard’s story, going from the most famous prison in the nation to the top of the charts in a just a few years, is one that will probably never happen again, for a large variety of sociological and economical reasons. Haggard himself recognized this, observing in his autobiography:
“Can you imagine what would happen today if I was twenty-four, just out of prison, and trying to get a record deal in Nashville? When I got my deal, the labels were looking for artists who had their own style. Today’s sanitized country music is produced by a bunch of artists who sound like each other.”
I would argue that the cultural and economic stratification would probably prevent a 24 year old Merle Haggard from getting a deal fresh out of prison more so than musical issues. But, Haggard does have a point than yesterday’s country artists were much more distinctive, and his mimicry is just another one of his talents: