Merle Haggard died on April 7, on what would have been his 79th birthday.
Merle Haggard was a national treasure and a huge character in the world of American country music. He produced a body of music rich with stories, tales, and social observations and is in good company alongside other country music luminaries Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams.
Merle started his musical career in the early 1960s and went on release over 50 records and was touring and recording until recently. He had a lengthy career writing thousands of songs many of which have become classics and have taken on a life of their own. The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde, Hungry Eyes, Okie from Muskogee, and Mama Tried are all examples of songs that have become imbedded in our cultural consciousness.
Merle could also be the mysterious writer with curious motivations. In the late 1960s, with the Viet Nam war falling in public opinion, Merle jumped into the fray with a number of patriotic songs praising more traditional lifestyles against the new more liberal trends. Fightin’ Side of Me, Workin’ Man Blues stoked the fires of the anti-hippie sentiment and were all hugely popular. Although he never clarified his rationale for these songs, there was some intimation that irony was involved.
Merle also played a large role in the continuity of the country music tradition. Merle was enormously respectful of the past and recorded tribute albums to his heroes Bob Willis, Hank Williams and others. He was a direct link to early country greats Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills and covered their material often in concert.
When Lefty passed away, Merle hired on a number of his touring band. So that Merle could play more Bob Wills songs, he taught himself to play the fiddle over a period of six months on his tour bus. He later joked of the process it was a great way to lose band members.
In country music there is no shortage of outlaw tales but what made Merle shine was he didn’t just sing about riding the rails, or being in jail or on death row, he was actually there. His father, James Francis Haggard, passed away when he was nine and from then on things changed for Merle. He didn’t take to being told what to do and became involved with a number of burglaries and heists. He was caught but managed a number of escapes, later as documented in The Fugitive, and spent a large part of his teens and early twenties in and out of reform schools and then later jails.
Mama Tried tells a fairly accurate version of his childhood leaving home and the struggles his mother had with keeping him out of trouble. Instead of going to school when not serving time, Merle rode the rails and lived on the run. Merle finally ended up in San Quentin and it was here thatU he saw Johnny Cash in concert in 1959. It was also here where he made the decision to finally turn his life around and pursue music and stay out of trouble. And this is where the music begins.