merle haggard, 1937-2016

merle haggard.

merle haggard.

Here’s my favorite Merle Haggard memory. On a sweaty August evening at the 2003 Kentucky State Fair in Louisville, the veteran country music renegade polled a Cardinal Stadium crowd with this query: “How many ex-convicts do we have with us tonight?”
What was surprising wasn’t just the number of hands that shot up in the crowd, but how enthusiastic – proud, even – the respondents seemed. The Hag, without question, was in his element.

As someone who did his own share of time in the ol’ gray bar hotel, Haggard reveled in his unassuming but rebellious spirit throughout his career. Picking up on Buck Owens’ brand of California country, he all but reinvented country music convention with stories of hard won truths and music that both embraced and subverted honky tonk tradition. It was nothing to hear him sing songs of drinking and loss, yet equally uncommon to hear horns in his band for music that sometimes sounded as much like jazz as it did country.

Haggard was a frequent visitor to Rupp Arena during the ‘80s, usually in the company of fellow traditionalists George Jones and/or Conway Twitty. While he had a library of genre-defining tunes to draw from – Swinging Doors, Workin’ Man Blues and Mama Tried were always personal favorites – the one that always got me in the throat was Kern River. It was a song of death, of a raging current that swept away a loved one with unforgiving swiftness. “It’s a mean piece of water, my friend,” Haggard sang with sadness as stark and stoic as the river in question was wild. Just try finding something like that on country radio today.
Generations of country artists have claimed Haggard as an influence. Yet in an industry he saw as unduly commercialized decades ago – hence the very reactionary slant of his music – few seemed to absorb his narrative or stylistic tenacity. The only one to even approximate his sense of invention was Dwight Yoakam.

It didn’t matter if Haggard sang a forgotten celebratory hit like Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man) or if disciples like Emmylou Harris or Dave Alvin echoed his darker visions in covers of Kern River. Haggard, who died earlier today – his 79th birthday – was an original in a genre starved for true distinction. He spoke to the country poet, the working man (and woman) and, yes, even the ex-con, in us all.



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