Icon: Merle Haggard

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 05.17.11 in Icons

There’s never been a country music career anything like that of Merle Haggard. Launched soon after he was released from San Quentin, it presented him first as a reckless, paranoid, yet rather proud honky-tonk man, the electric guitar of Roy Nichols and the steel guitar of Norm Hamlin both reinforcing his workingman’s grit. After discovering, through his prison songs, the value of autobiographical material, Haggard’s writing grew even more personal, and more questioning. This led him into a short-lived political phase that almost reduced him from a man to a symbol, yet was so successful that it freed him to pursue whatever paths he chose. This he has done, both musically and thematically.

He added the influences of heroes like Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell, as well as Bing Crosby and Woody Guthrie to the Bakersfield Sound, his music growing more progressive and more traditional all the while. And his contrarian ways made him and his songs impossible to pin down: He could be patriotic or disillusioned, could deal with matters of the heart or with larger societal issues. The only constants have been an all-consuming restlessness, a determination to tell the truth as he saw it, regardless of the consequences, and a genuine concern for society’s outsiders, be they war vets, racial minorities or salt-of-the-earth workers.

Recording with his road band The Strangers, rather than with sessions pickers, and often playing his own guitar and fiddle leads rather than focusing solely on his vocals, he has a created a body of work rich in empathy, insight and contradictions, yet rarely satisfied. He’s alienated many of his early fans and then won them back; countercultural types once scared by him now consider Haggard one of their own. He’s on his fifth marriage, which has lasted 20 years, and he’s been through drug issues, financial problems and crippling depressions and ennui. Yet through it all, he’s never stopped growing as an artist.

Classic Bakersfield

I'm A Lonesome Fugitive/ Branded Man

Merle Haggard

The title hits of these two albums are two of the greatest prison songs ever. Their success ("The Fugitive," as the song was originally titled, was his first No. 1, though he didn't write it) also helped convince Merle he could sing about darker aspects of his life other than boozing and romantic turmoil. And it was the first single on which acoustic guitar underpinnings, which quickly became a trademark, were crucial. Finally, "My Rough and Rowdy Ways" marks his first Jimmie Rodgers revival (he'd soon cut a double-album tribute). Haggard wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 songs, including the haunting "House of Memories." Branded Man, meanwhile, features three Tommy Collins originals (including "Go Home," Merle's first foray into interracial love songs) and Hag's own "I Threw Away the Rose," which quickly became a calling card. Crackling guitarist Roy Nichols, who was absent on the former album (replaced by James Burton and Glen Campbell, no less), returns for the latter.

Merle Haggard

"Sing Me Back Home" still ranks among Haggard's most heartbreaking songs; it's also, despite its surface simplicity, one of his most complex of the '60s. The growing depth of his writing — and his singing — is equally apparent on "Look Over Me" and "My Past Is Present," while his choices of outside material, from the brilliant "If You See My Baby" to the gothic "Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp," are acute. The bluegrassy "Legend of Bonnie and Clyde," inspired by the Faye Dunaway-Warren Beatty movie, represents the increasing folk flavors of his work, while that single's B-side ballad, "I Started Loving You Again," has become one of his signature songs though it's never been a hit. That album's filled out mostly by outside material, but the choices here are more unlikely, and their relative obscurity reinforces the notion of Haggard as archivist.

Mama Tried/ Pride In What I Am

Merle Haggard

By now Haggard's life has become pretty much an open book. "Mama Tried," with its indelible guitar intro, is perhaps his most frankly soul-searching effort yet, but most of this album is made up of outside material, and once again, some of it — Dolly Parton's "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)" — is more than a little surprising. Though strong, it has a transitional feel — which is only strengthened by Pride, the finest album of his pre-"Okie from Muskogee" career though only the title song was a hit. Dominated by acoustic instruments, with more of a western accent than usual, the album sounds like nothing else in Haggard's '60s catalog (or any other country music of that era). Instead, it's more akin to Music from Big Pink, the Band's debut from the same year, in its emphasis on ensemble playing so tight it sounds loose.

Singer-Songwriter and Historian

Hag/ Someday We'll Look Back

Merle Haggard

Here's the most powerful one-two punch from Haggard's post-"Okie" career. Following the furor raised by his right-wing anthems "Okie" and "Fightin' Side of Me," Haggard became more determined to remain his own man. On Hag, the music is more eclectic than ever, and so's the stance of the mostly-original songs, which are brooding and humble rather than self-pitying or paranoid. Someday We'll Look Back backs introspective songs with richly textured music, somehow harder country and universally pop simultaneously. Beauties like "California Cottonfields" and "Tulare Dust" look back at his past with mixed emotions, "Carolyn" resonates like more than a simple cheating song, "Big Time Annie's Square" offers a self-mocking rapprochement with hippies, the title song finds hope and love in hardship, and "I'd Rather Be Gone" faces tough truths without bitterness or recrimination. Though made up of loose songs gathered from several sessions, this cohesive album represents Haggard without masks.

Serving 190 Proof

Merle Haggard

This remains one of the more astonishing achievements in country music history, an aural documentation of Haggard going through what he later called "male menopause" and struggling with the middle-age crazies. He was 41, and questioning whether his music and way of life could sustain him, but Merle's deepening voice, the acoustic-flavored arrangements of these songs and their unflinching honesty make for a powerful experience that still holds up well today. From the rebellion and self-loathing of "Footlights" (written after he had to hit the stage and perform five minutes after learning his idol Lefty Frizzell had died) to the striking imagery and unabashed romanticism of "Red Bandana," from the emotional and physical horniness of "Got Lonely Too Early This Morning" to the resolute "My Own Kind of Hat," from the self-defeating restlessness of "Driftwood" to the redemption of "Roses in the Winter," Haggard examines and ultimately accepts his conflicted soul.

Back To The Barrooms

Merle Haggard

On the other hand, when the going gets tough, the tough sometimes retreat into alcohol and other substances. Haggard proved no exception. At a time when his marriage to Leona Williams was disintegrating, Haggard explores adversity and escapism as cause and effect, boldly (and successfully) using a different voice for almost every song. Producer Jimmy Bowen effectively weds horns and strings to finger-picked guitar and fiddle to create a nimbly swinging honky-tonk hybrid on blunt songs like "Make-Up and Faded Blue Jeans" and "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink." It's as if Haggard realizes that "Leonard," his sweet acoustic tribute to his troubled songwriter friend Tommy Collins, could just as easily become his own story. And it's also telling that no matter how lowdown the album gets, a track like "Misery and Gin" sports a burnished, pop edge that balances Merle's rough voice and sentiments.

Rainbow Stew

Merle Haggard

Haggard's most happening live album documents the sound he took on the road for much of the '70s and early '80s; the Strangers were supplemented by guitarist Eldon Shamblin and fiddler-mandolinist Tiny Moore from Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, veteran fiddler Gordon Terry and a horn section. The group swung with abandon, and sometimes went in for hot, extended soloing (a feature sadly ignored here, as nothing tops 4:04 in length). Leave it to Haggard to turn this sprawling outfit into an intimate listening experience, even in a venue the size SoCal's Anaheim Stadium. Chestnuts like "Sing Me Back Home" and "Blue Yodel #9" get a complete overhaul, but so do recent tunes like the drinking songs from Back to the Barrooms. As a singer, Haggard has never sounded more confident about what he's doing, and that attitude proves infectious.

Big City

Merle Haggard

Switching from MCA to Epic gave Haggard a shot in the arm, and his first album for the new bosses is fully realized. Still working with an augmented band of Strangers, honed to an even sharper edge, Merle adds considerably to one of his recurring themes — how urban American life can drive a man to the edge when he's a country boy at heart. The richly melodic title song offers one possible solution, but it comes across as mostly wishful thinking. So does the waltz "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)," but that doesn't detract from its thoughtfulness or self-awareness. "My Favorite Memory" and the jazzy "I Always Get Lucky with You" are right up there with "Today I Started Loving You Again" among his greatest love songs; Haggard's deepening voice invests his "You Don't Have Very Far to Go" remake with new meaning.

Fine and Mellow Haggard

I Am What I Am

Merle Haggard

Haggard may, as the title suggests, be at peace with himself on his most recent album, but that doesn't mean he's gone soft. On the contrary, he's as cranky but also as compassionate as ever as he retraces the distance he's traveled. In his marital life, that would be from "Pretty When It's New" (the giddiness of new love) to "Bad Actor" (the folly of trying to bluff one's way through love gone bad). He can look back both sentimentally and unflinchingly on the childhood memory of "Oil Tanker Train" and celebrate with joy and goofiness his senior years. The Strangers play with a jazzy acoustic feel that is still unmistakably country, and Merle's vocals are a constant reminder that he always idolized Lefty Frizzell and Bing Crosby. The opening "I've Seen It Go Away" and closing "I Am What I Am" sum up the whole point of the album. Merle has seen a lot of good things disappear from our culture, and he is pretty much what he claims. But the most important thing is that in all the distance between those two songs, he's still walking tall.


The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years

Merle Haggard

There's no good compilation covering his MCA years (1977-81), but this will do for his 1981-89 stint on Epic. The '80s were not all that good to Hag, but only some of the blame rests with his personal excesses and descent into ennui — the hits may have been fewer and farther between, but he was more interested in albums, anyhow. And you need only hear his desolate reading of Lefty's "That's the Way Love Goes," on which almost every word gets its own phrasing and fillips, to recognize Merle's tremendous growth as a singer. On the celebrated "Pancho and Lefty" duet, Willie Nelson hogs the mic, but Haggard still blows him away. Most of the time, Haggard is torn between longing ("Someday When Things Are Good," the lovely "Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star") and contentment ("Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room," "I Always Get Lucky with You").