Country music icon and outlaw Merle Haggard has died at the age of 79. The legendary singer passed away at his home in California.
Over the course of his seven decades Haggard lived the kind of life that would have made a classic-era country song. His earliest days were spent living in a retrofitted train boxcar, the only home that his parents—Great Depression migrants from Oklahoma—could afford in Bakersfield, California.
By age 20 he was doing time in San Quentin, trying his hand at songwriting after being paroled. A love of Hank Williams and Bob Mills would inform his work from that point on.
While Nashville took the rough edges off country music in the ’60s and ’70s, the likes of Haggard and Buck Owens would pioneer what became known as the Bakersfield Sound.
Positioning himself as a honky-tonk rebel—and paving the way for alt-country—Haggard scored 37 Top 10 country hits after his career first caught fire in ’66.
Here are two of our two favourite Haggard moments. The first is the man known to his fans as Hag doing the heartbreaking “Silver Wings”.
The second clip finds Iris DeMent doing his song “Big City”. In a 2004 Straight interview (which you’ll find below), Haggard praised the singer for doing a job with the song that not even he could match.
Here's the Straight's story from 2004.....
Haggard swings both ways when it comes to politics
One of country music’s most enduring artists, Merle Haggard was once the antithesis of everything the American left stood for. And yet, after a brief stint on Anti-, the boutique label of punk-rock powerhouse Epitaph Records, the 67-year-old has independently released Like Never Before, a new album that finds him sounding like a subversive soul mate of the Dixie Chicks.
With lyrics such as “Politicians do all the talking, soldiers pay the dues”, the record’s stripped-down first single, “That’s the News”, has generated enough controversy to make Haggard noteworthy on stations like CNN. He loves America—that’s well-known to anyone who’s followed his career—but that doesn’t stop him from wondering in the song what the hell is going on in the Middle East.
“I’m not going to endorse the GOP and I’m not going to endorse the Democrats either,” Haggard says, on the line from his Northern California home. “I have them on both sides of the aisle in my church. I am, however, going to question the administration, the next administration, and the one before this one. We aren’t being told what we need to know right now. It’s clear we don’t have all the cards for what’s going on overseas.”
Haggard has never been mistaken for a liberal; in 1969 he scored a huge hit with the anti–flower-power anthem “Okie From Muskogee”, which included such lines as “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do”.
Untroubled by being dubbed the “Spiro Agnew of music”, he quickly followed that up with “The Fightin’ Side of Me”. In two minutes and 52 seconds of feverish flag-waving, the long-time California native made it clear how he feels about America, and those who criticize it, when he sang “If you don’t love it, leave it.”
Proving Haggard’s a man of contradictions, he’s still behind George W. Bush, even if he doesn’t agree with where he’s led the country. “He’s all we’ve got, so we better back him. But we’d also better hope that he’s got better intelligence than in the past.”
During Dubya’s rein, Merle Haggard has undergone one of the most unlikely artistic rebirths since Johnny Cash covered Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. Even though the singer once seemed right-wing enough to be a drinking buddy of Hank Williams Jr., he’s found himself embraced by the counterculture.
The groundwork for that acceptance was laid in the mid-’80s, when roots supergroup the Knitters, featuring members of X and the Blasters, paid loving homage to him by covering “Silver Wings”. Alt-country poster boy Ryan Adams would do the same tune a decade and a half later with Whiskeytown, but where things truly got strange was when Haggard was landed by Anti- in 2000.
The singer released two records for the label, and in doing so he found himself shaking hands with the Warped Tour generation.
Combine that history with the fact Haggard—who plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday (April 16)—once did time in San Quentin and you’ve got a man now revered as an alt-country icon.
His rebel streak has led him to strike out on his own with Like Never Before, released on his own Hag Records. With his world-weary baritone accompanied by plaintive fiddle and scuffed-up guitars, the singer is no closer to commercial play lists with the record than Johnny Cash got in his final years. But Haggard’s okay with that, mostly because he doesn’t hear a lot of artists in modern country with whom he’d care to pull up a barstool.
“There’s so much electronic manipulation that it’s no longer about vocals, real instruments, and a good song,” he says. “Most of the artists today are headed for the sea of Branson.”
And where in the heck is that?
“That means hillbilly hell,” Haggard cackles. “I’ve played there a few times. To be fair, they’ve cleaned up their lakes down there [in Missouri] ever since they figured out how to make poo-poo run uphill.”
> Mike Usinger