Merle Haggard died, aged 79, on his birthday, still touring. With his musicianship, his melodies, his multiple styles, his utterly expressive voice, and his eloquent, authentic songwriting, Haggard–to my mind–was the greatest country music artist since Hank Williams. (I know, Johnny Cash has to be in there somewhere. But “the Hag” arguably surpasses him on musical points.)
You probably know him best from the corny “Okie from Muskogee,” but listen to his others. In fact, his greatest hits are among the most listenable in country music, no matter which style of music you usually prefer. Blues, jazz, rock, gospel, Western Swing, and more–you can hear it all in his songs, which are also characterized by strikingly beautiful melodies. What I most appreciate about him, though, are his song lyrics, particularly those that capture perfectly what it means to live paycheck by paycheck, struggling and sometimes failing to make ends meet for your family. He sings about poverty–reflecting his own childhood during the Okie migration to California–with plaintive dignity.
If you don’t believe me about the greatness of Merle Haggard, I’ll prove it. After the jump, read the obituary, watch the Youtube of “If We Make It Through December,” and then click to the other songs I link to.
Merle Haggard, one of the most successful singers in the history of country music, a contrarian populist whose songs about his scuffling early life and his time in prison made him the closest thing that the genre had to a real-life outlaw hero, died at his home in California, on Wednesday, his 79th birthday.
His death was confirmed by his agent, Lance Roberts. Mr. Haggard had recently canceled several concerts, saying he had double pneumonia.
Few country artists have been as popular and widely admired as Mr. Haggard. Thirty-eight of his singles, including “Workin’ Man Blues” and the 1973 recession-era lament “If We Make It Through December,” reached No. 1 on the Billboard country chart from 1966 to 1987. He released 71 Top 10 country hits in all, 34 in a row from 1967 to 1977. Seven of his singles crossed over to the pop charts.
Mr. Haggard had an immense influence on other performers — not just other country singers but also ’60s rock bands like the Byrds and the Grateful Dead, as well as acts like Elvis Costello and the Mekons, all of whom recorded Mr. Haggard’s songs. Some 400 artists have released versions of his 1968 hit “Today I Started Loving You Again.”
He was always the outsider. His band was aptly named the Strangers.
Unlike his friend Johnny Cash, Mr. Haggard didn’t merely visit San Quentin State Prison to perform for the inmates. Convicted of burglary in 1957, he served nearly three years there and spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement.
Mr. Haggard went on to write “Mama Tried,” “Branded Man” and several other candid songs about his incarceration, all of them sung in a supple baritone suffused with dignity and regret. Many of his other recordings championed the struggles of the working class from which he rose. He became known as a poet of the common man.