Yesterday around noon, news broke that country music pioneer Merle Haggard had passed away. It was his 79th birthday. As a lifelong fan of music, I was crushed. “Mama Tried” is one of the first songs I recall loving as a kid. Listening to it over and over again until the CD was scratched beyond recognition. Around these parts of North Carolina, and the rest of the country for that matter, people who can appreciate country had a similar reaction. With his passing, that of Johnny Cash in 2003, and Waylon Jennings in 2002, country music has lost another icon.
“The only thing I miss lately in all music is somebody that will put out a melody that you can whistle. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything happening like that.”
The Hag wasn’t typical for his time. When he started making music, following a stint in San Quentin Prison for armed robbery, he became the most popular artist to employ the “Bakersfield Sound,” a more hardscrabble alternative to the honky-tonk tunes coming out of Nashville. His band, “The Strangers” helped him carve a niche in the country music landscape with his laments and his attacks on the counter culture of the time. It was men like Merle, Cash, Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson (who along with Haggard is considered one of the finest singer-songwriters of all time,) that sparked a change in country music which many consider his finest accomplishment. While they might not have created Outlaw Country, they certainly defined it.
“It sounds like something from a Woody Guthrie song but it’s true: I was raised in a freight car.”
While it is easy to mourn the loss of a man like this, who is considered the voice of a generation, 79 years of capturing people’s hearts in song is a hell of a life. It seems like when an artist dies lately, people feel a need to weep for their passing. That’s not the Hag. That’s not country. He was a tough son of a gun, who admitted his faults and grew as he got older. He was also a patriot, one who was willing to poke fun at, and express love for, his fellow citizens. From his twanging tribute to an “Okie From Muskogee” to his admission of being an outsider in “I Take A Lot Of Pride In Who I Am” Haggard made sure that he was always himself. If that’s not something worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.
“There’s a rumor that there may be an attempt at organizing a possible script for a series on my life, which, when you look at my police record, you’d have to have more than one hour to tell the story.”
Rest in Peace, Hag. You be sure to have a few with Johnny while you’re up there. I think I’ll just stay here and drink.
“I enjoy the videos with the sound off, where you can look at belly buttons and everything. Really some pretty girls, but I don’t know about the music.”
Watching videos with the sound off. It’s a TFM..
Image via YouTube