“Timeless” and “original” are worn-out words that we apply to great art without much care, but in the case of Merle Haggard’s music, they are the only words that fit. Because the best of Haggard’s songs sounded, on first hearing, like songs you’d known your whole life. And at the same time, they sounded like nothing you’d ever heard before.
I never figured out how he managed that, and I never will, but I’ve spent the better part of my life listening to his music, and the older I get, the more I revere the man who died Wednesday, at 79, on his birthday. He ranks with those giants of American music that he himself most admired—Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. And like the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, he was a triple threat: He wrote wonderful songs, played great guitar and fiddle, and sang as well as anyone this side of heaven.
Hell, he even had a great backstory: the child of Dust Bowl migrants, he spent his earliest years living with his family in a boxcar in Oildale, California. By the time he was old enough to vote, he was already doing a stretch in San Quentin for a bungled robbery (he was also one of those rare individuals who was scared straight by his time in prison).
To his credit, he himself was never one for mythmaking. When one interviewer mentioned his being born in a boxcar, he broke in to point out that he was born in a hospital, he just grew up in the boxcar.
And he was always too much the contrarian to be pigeonholed. After “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fighting Side of Me” endeared him to Nixon’s Silent Majority, he recorded “Irma Jackson,” a song about interracial love. Later in life, he would write songs criticizing the Iraq war and endorsing Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid for the presidency. You just never knew which way he was going to jump.
Of course, no one would give a damn about any of that for very long if the man’s music hadn’t been so relentlessly goddamned beautiful. And first, last, and always, he was a musician from the toes of his boots to the top of his cowboy hat.
Duke Ellington’s highest praise was to call something “beyond category,” and that appellation fit Haggard like a tight pair of jeans.
I’ve never known of any musician who cared more about music than he did.
I don’t know how many times I saw him perform, but I never saw him give less than his best. He was always sober, on time, and in tune, and he plainly expected the same from everyone on stage with him (not that he had to worry much, given that his band, the Strangers [best band name ever?] were in almost every incarnation as good as back-up bands ever get).
And he treasured the music of others every bit as much as he cared for his own material. His tribute albums to Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Emmett Miller, and gospel music bear no trace of embalming dutifulness. Rather, they honor and enliven the great art of the American song in every lick and measure.
Those tributes, though, were like calling to like, because no one has ever written better songs than Haggard or sung them more expressively—or made singing look so effortless. His best songs, like “Mama Tried” or “The Farmer’s Daughter,” told stories with a poet’s delicate economy, suggesting whole worlds in just a few lines. And when he sang, whether it was his song or someone else’s, he just owned it.
A lot of country music is wincingly (and yes, winkingly) maudlin, and anyone who loves country learns after a while to just go with it, since the corniness of everything is, after all, what’s keeping you from tearing in two. But with Haggard, that was never the problem, maybe because only by the vagaries of circumstance was he a country musician at all. That reductive shorthand label may have been necessary for the purposes of record executives and concert promoters, but Haggard, here again, was not one to be so easily categorized. He took the instrumentation of country and conventions of its songwriting and made them wholly his own.
Listen to “If We Make It Through December,” a sad song to beat all sad songs about an unemployed man so poor he can’t buy his little girl a Christmas present. The genius of this song lies in its midtempo melody, which, implying as it does a sort of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” indomitability, acts to balance the forthright heartbreak of the lyric without ever contradicting its spirit. And there’s not a maudlin, self-pitying note or word anywhere in it.
Oh, and for those who dismiss country as musically simpleminded, note that there’s an F6 chord in this song where only an F6 will do. This tune all by itself is a master class in songwriting.
Haggard could even succeed with something as unwieldy as the concept album. Go dig out Someday We’ll Look Back, and there you’ll find a musical portrait of the Dust Bowl migration as subtle and evocative as anything Steinbeck ever wrote, and a helluva lot more concise.
Of course, this is all eulogistic hot air. It says nothing of the pleasure you could have while driving down the highway, hunting up and down the radio dial for something—anything—bearable to listen to, when suddenly the car would explode with that spiky guitar intro to “Working Man’s Blues,” or the measured strum that kicks off “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and then and there an ordinary day would turn wonderful.
He could sing you through a love affair, a divorce, a bad afternoon at work, or a good day with the house to yourself with nothing but his voice for company. Pleasure, yes, but more like joy—when a Merle Haggard song came on the radio or the jukebox, I knew everything there was to know about being happy.
The truly amazing thing was that this could happen over and over again, down through the years. Somehow those songs never lost their freshness, their ability to make your heart swell in your chest. And when that happens, you have to start thinking that here is a genuine, world-class Artist with a capital A, because very few musicians know how to make music that never ages, that gets you through good days and bad and all kinds of weather. And because we don’t field a lot of artists of any kind who possess such depth or scope or fun so profound, you learn to treasure them as hard as you know how.
That’s why Merle Haggard’s passing makes the world seem a little dimmer, smaller, meaner. But since this is the man who’s gotten me through more bad times for more decades than I care to count, I do what I always do: turn on the record player, kick back and wait for the heartbreak to mend.
Today, Merle Haggard’s songs are all I know of immortality, and all I need to know.
Goodbye, old pal.