Merle Haggard: Original Gangster, Country Prankster

Merle Haggard: Original Gangster, Country Prankster

The really good old country songs almost never lasted more than three minutes. Thrift was an aesthetic virtue because it was also a personal virtue, the product of economic necessity and a resilient masculinity skeptical of most things ostentatious or frilly. The bad old country songs now sound hokey beyond belief, but the good ones, the ones that were sharp enough to pierce that emotional chainmail, remain as profound as ever.

Merle Haggard grew up on these songs. It’s probably fair to say that he grew up because of them, and, until yesterday, when he died on his tour bus at 79-years-old, he had written and performed more of them than any living country artist who doesn’t own a theme park or a line of recreational marijuana. Until the end, he was a subtly brilliant singer and a precise lyricist who filled his music with empathy and contradiction. These songs are fragments — of faded loves, lonesome nights, misremembered memories — but there is no addition that could make them more complete. There are happy examples as well, but to listen to them is nevertheless to feel as Rilke felt standing before what survived of an archaic statue of the god Apollo: You must change your life.

At first, Merle’s story sounds familiar. During the 1930s, debt, dust storms, and grasshoppers pushed Midwest farmers — soon dubbed “Okies” — all-the-way west to California. We usually associate this event with the music of Woody Guthrie, but the migrants themselves often preferred the country music popular in their home states. Honky-tonk acts like Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys came to Cali for long engagements. Soon, Bakersfield was producing local stars like Buck Owens, Bonnie Owens, Jean Shephard and Tommy Collins. Buck was born in Texas; Bonnie, Jean and Tommy all travelled Route 66 from Oklahoma. Merle followed closely behind them, but he was different from day one. His parents had made the cross-country trip twice, but he was born in Oildale, one town north, a first-generation immigrant consigned to growing up in a culture rooted 1,300 miles away.

Settled in Oildale, knowing nothing else, he grew up in a converted boxcar. He was nine when his dad died, and as a teenager he was known for running. He once jumped a train to Texas in order to visit his hero, Frizzell, and he escaped from juvie almost as many times as he was locked up there. He was locked up so many times that the prison would hold onto his personal collection of 78s even between his sentences — everyone knew he’d be back soon.

The wardens at San Quentin did not allow such luxury. Haggard was sent upstate in 1958 after attempting to rob a local diner: He and his accomplice had gotten too drunk to realize that their target was still open for business. Later that year, he joined a San Quentin country band and saw Johnny Cash perform for the inmates. He also used his job in the mess hall to brew beer, and for this, he was sent to solitary confinement, where he sat in the dark listening to the wails of those waiting for the executioner on nearby death row. At some point during this ordeal, he decided to stop fucking around and become a country singer.

He recorded his first of those change-your-life country songs, “The Bottle Let Me Down,” in 1966, but “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” released later that year, was his artistic and commercial breakthrough. With this resolute drifter’s tale, he finally stopped running from his own outlaw past. This move was first suggested by, of all people, Johnny Cash, who was then hosting a weekly TV variety show. “If you let me tell them in my way,” Cash told the newcomer before his debut appearance, referring to his audience, “They’ll love you like we do. And no one will ever be able to harm you with it.”

Over the next two years, Haggard scored four straight Number Ones with songs doubling back on the motifs of “Fugitive”: “The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde” put him on the run, “Branded Man” described a failed attempt at reform, “Sing Me Back Home” drew directly from his San Quentin memories, and “Mama Tried” drew loosely from his life before maximum-security lock-up. This is where Merle established the persona that would stick with him until the end: rebellious, hard-headed, a loner by choice and by circumstance, someone who sings straight. (Those who only know him for the hippie-bashing of “Okie From Muskogee” should note that that the Grateful Dead actually covered “Mama Tried” at Woodstock — at Woodstock.)

The streak ended in the beginning of 1969 — “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” stalled at Number Three — but even this failure turned out to be a new kind of breakthrough: his first single to deal directly what he would later call the roots of his raising, growing up poor in the wake of the Dust Bowl. No, not like The Grapes of Wrath. “The thing that [Steinbeck] did not capture,” Merle would later say, “the thing he left out, was the ingredient called pride. He had these people making some sort of forced migration like the Cherokees out of Tennessee. And it wasn’t that way. They came out here with pride in their eyes.” This was one of Merle’s projects during his artistic peak in the late-’60s and early-’70s: reinserting pride into the migrant, working-class story.

But as David Cantwell points out in his excellent study Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, this was a complicated pride, meaning different things in different songs — even different things in the same song — and always at the point of unraveling. His most sensitive treatment of poverty was, in fact, his next single: “Hungry Eyes.” “Us kids were just too young to realize / that another class of people put us somewhere just below,” he sings over acoustic guitar and orchestra strings, doing his best to recall life in a labor camp. His steady, stitched-up voice regrets the poverty and mourns the alternative, more satiated lives his family could have lived instead, but his vocal chords still resonate with esteem: He’s proud that his mama had such strength and proud that she’s maybe passed some of it on to him.

The child of “Hungry Eyes” eventually grows, somewhat uncomfortably, into the man whose pride becomes indignation on the notorious, beloved, career-defining “Okie From Muskogee.” Written while the Haggard tour bus rolled through Oklahoma, the song celebrates — or does it send up? — the simple views of a small-town American. “Football’s still the roughest thing on campus / and the kids here still respect the college dean,” he sings, so sure of himself that you wonder if he’s putting you on. This is doubly true when he turns on California: “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy / like the hippies out in San Francisco do.”

I still don’t know exactly what to make of this song. It’s great at the same time as it’s embarrassing — totally reactionary yet bearing a criticism still misunderstood by many of its intended targets. The history of pop music has been written by the hippies, and it usually places hippies on top. “Okie” sneers at them as “another class of people” — a new bourgeois whose rebellion doesn’t extend past what can grow from their heads. OK, plenty of working-class kids wore their hair down as well, and plenty of so-called “long-hairs” fought hard for worker and civil rights, but the song became the biggest hit of Merle’s career because its polemic cut deeper than these criticisms.

This was the moment when Democrats began to abandon the union-heavy New Deal coalition and Republicans attempted to capture this constituency by appealing to a combination of cultural backlash (“pride,” you might say) and fear of the other. 1969 was an odd, transitional mess of a year, and “Okie,” like much of America, was caught between these poles, articulating a position that rejected both but — in the spirit of pop music — could be appropriated by either. And because the song itself is so brilliant, almost 50 years later it endures alongside the alienation it describes, providing a unique clue for understanding both our present and historical situation.

I don’t know much about Merle Haggard the man: My big takeaway from his second memoir is that his ’80s houseboat parties were incredibly fun. Nevertheless, I give him credit for always refusing to explain the intention behind the song, neither identifying fully with the Okie nor disavowing his words as satire. Merle was, until the end, an enigma. He loved confounding people who thought they understood him. Who else would send up the idea of a golden age twice in the ’60s (“I Think We’re Living in the Good Old Days”; “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)”) then begin the ’80s with a song called “Are the Good Times Really Over?” Who? And what are we supposed to make of it?

I know a lot people who cherish Merle’s music, and when I ask them questions like this, their answers almost always differ. This is why it feels odd, even inappropriate, that his death has so far been met with a consensus of platitudes. Because Merle had been sick for months, most websites were able to publish pre-written remembrances within an hour or two of his passing, performing the ritual of mourning without the messiness that defines the actual mourning process. Hopefully more debate will leak out in the coming weeks, but country music is particularly harsh on heretics, so when faced with an artist as challenging as this one, it’s usually easiest to call him a great and leave it at that. Our own thoughts, meanwhile, remain as tangled, sleepless and passionate (one hopes) as what we’ve found in his music.

At this point, it’s tempting to return to that music, going song-by-song, album-by-album, until my forehead hits the keyboard — probably around 1982’s “Yesterday’s Wine,” the song where Merle does the impossible and out-sings George Jones. Then there’s “I’d Rather Be Gone,” like a late Raymond Carver poem, written in the kind of stripped, repetitive English people sometimes fall upon in moments of crisis. And “What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana,” my favorite B-side, about love and risk and faith and death. “Kern River,” a geography of heartbreak set in old Bakersfield. “If We Make It Through December,” his attempt at a Christmas song.

I will spare you the rest of them. Except this one, “I’m Always on a Mountain When I Fall,” a little ballad released in 1978. It is another of those perfect country songs, a broken fragment that is also a perfect whole. The title doubles as summary, but I can’t resist block-quoting the first verse and chorus in their entirety:

Most of my life, I’ve almost been a winner.
I’ve come so close but never really won.
Just when I thought I finally made it
I found myself back where I started from.

I hate to say I’m giving up but I believe
Losing’s just become a way of life for me.
Losin’ wouldn’t be so bad at all
But I’m always… on a mountain… when I fall.

Merle sings these lyrics not in the nasal whimper of his hero Frizzell but with a yoked resignation completely his own. Most country stars would emphasize the character’s self-pity, but this one also draws out a stubborn determination and even adds a bit of fatigue, singing like a man who has experienced the weight of eternal recurrence without ever departing from this life. Or reading Nietzsche.

Merle Haggard was, if nothing else, an artist — a dedicated performer of songs, often other people’s. He died in his tour bus, for God’s sake. He never reconciled his contradictions because contradictions were the whole point — they’re the reason that his record about the conflict between Okies and hippies ended up beloved by both. He sang about his life — the hard work, the train-hopping, the prison stints, the love, and the pride — but he invoked those contradictions, a form of artistic distance, to keep anyone on the outside from getting too close.

For that reason, it feels cheap to credit the beauty of this performance to the possibility that he identified with the lyrics Chuck Howard had written. But whether or not he identified with the lyrics, I can still identify them with him. Few post-war American artists climbed as high as Merle Haggard — few have created bodies of work of such breadth, such wit, and such sensitivity. He fell plenty, even as he rose, and as of yesterday, he’s off the mountain for good. That’s OK. Those of us sticking around will continue up his tracks as long as we can, fall after fall, stepping inside his prints until we must leave the mountain ourselves.

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