The phrase "living legend" has been tossed around so carelessly that to even say, "calling someone a living legend has become cliché," is a huge cliché. Seems like all one has to do to earn that particular sobriquet in a specific field is to hang around long enough for all the competition to either die out or get day jobs. Still, cynicism aside, there are a few bona fide living legends in this world — people who not only represent excellence in their chosen field of endeavor, but who define the endeavor as well. In that light, Merle Haggard is a living legend in every sense. What's more, Merle Haggard is country music.
An old song once said the perfect country and western song incorporates elements of trains, trucks, prison, Momma, and gettin' drunk. If that's true — and who's to say it isn't? — then The Hag is the living avatar of the honky-tonk. This is the man who kept the wine but threw away the rose when the bottle let him down. The lonesome fugitive who took a lot of pride in what he was, Merle sang of lovers and losers, of society's outsiders, those who lived in the barrooms and the sidewalks and bent over backwards to please, only to be taken for granted in the end. There's no doubt you've been through it all. What keeps him going?
"Music is a positive vibration that we all need," says Haggard. "It comes through me and I believe it comes from God. The Lord is just using me as an instrument, and I'm just doing the best I can to respond to what He wants."
Haggard epitomizes the style and substance of country music, the highs and lows. Sure, Johnny Cash may have been the eternal dark force of human nature. And Willie Nelson may be the last American folk hero. Granted, Waylon Jennings may have had the last laugh on us all with his "never say die" stance. And, of course, George Jones has a voice that can heal the sick and mend the lame. Nothing against those guys, but Merle's the real deal.
Merle sings these tales with such conviction because he writes with such conviction and intimacy, a man unashamed to allow a glimpse into his soul. There's often an air of falseness to singers, even in country music, but you know every word that came from Haggard's lips was gospel, hard tales from a hard life. Every wild boy that's honest with himself feels a twinge when he hears "Mama Tried," and every Joe Sixpack knows the truth in "A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today." That trait is hard to find in the current state of the country music industry.
"You look around at just the last couple years, they've all but shut the gate," Haggard says of the contemporary country music business. "Music is a way of influencing the public. It's easier to sell you what they want than to give you what you'd like to have. The only way I'd have a shot is to do something that's recognized like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where it's so far on the other side of the wheel. I'm coming from the other side of the court, the other side of the railroad track, having nothing to do with what anybody's doing. So I'm sort of the epitome of what they call an outlaw in the music business. I'm really not doing what everybody else is doing. Never have been."
Unbowed by his life and its struggles, Merle never shied away from his dark past, repeatedly using his experiences from his prison days for some of his best songs. He came into this world in 1937 in Bakersfield, Calif., from Okie parents searching for work and the Promised Land the Golden State offered during the Great Depression. By all accounts, Merle was a good boy with an interest in country music until age nine, when his dad died of a brain tumor. Something fundamental broke in the young man and he went wild, spending his teen years hopping freight cars, in and out of reform schools, working odd jobs and playing music.
If anything, music was a ground for young Merle, drawing influence from Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and his main guru, Lefty Frizzell. Still, despite his musical jones, the fire within Merle drove him to desperation, and he did indeed turn 21 in prison, doing a 15-year stint in San Quentin for attempted armed robbery. After three years in prison and a stay in solitary confinement, Merle set about straightening up his life and rededicating his life to music, catching his first big break as a bass player in West Coast honky-tonk star Wynn Stewart's band in 1962. It was Stewart that helped Merle get his first big break after hearing the latter's tune "Sing A Sad Song," which netted him a contract with Talley Records and a Top 20 country hit.
The rest is, as they say, history. Moving to Capitol, Merle bubbled in the upper end of the country charts until 1969, when his single "Okie From Muskogee" became a monster hit. The song not only solidified his place in music history, but also painted him as a hero to the silent majority of America disenchanted with the disenchanted youth out in San Francisco, a position Merle himself wasn't exactly comfortable with.
"I've had a great life and I hope it isn't over," he says. "I don't feel like I'm any older, but I am. I never go around mirrors [laughs]. [Note: "I Never Go Around Mirrors" is a Lefty Frizzell song.] Sometimes I get up at night and accidentally look in the mirror, and boy, it's a mess. The only consolation I've got is that we all got to go through it if we live long enough. The alternative is not good."
Seventy, Haggard is, in a word, feisty. On a musical note, his recent output matches his classic recordings. His 2000 effort for Epitaph imprint Anti-, If I Could Only Fly, is an incredibly beautiful record, and Merle's recent release, Roots Volume 1, is a perfect tribute to Frizzell, Williams, and Hank Thompson, recorded with Lefty's original guitarist Norman Stephens.
"To me there's only one way to do a Lefty song," says Haggard. "If you leave out some of the 'way-yas' and things of that nature, you're not really doing Frizzell. Because of Norm Stephens and his participation in the first records, the ones that influenced me in my early life, that's what this record's about: the music that influenced me before I had music of my own. He sang on key and didn't stay on the same note. Lot of these guys nowadays stay on the same note, [sings a monotone note], then they go underneath it and change chords. But he went everywhere with his voice. He didn't sit there and play it safe. Nowadays, you got these people who're recording into devices that allow them to be in tune. If you didn't have these tuners you wouldn't have most of the children you have nowadays. It's not hard to sing nowadays because the musicians are doing all the work and the singers are just singing one note. [chuckles]"
After the release of Like Never Before in 2003 Haggard returned to EMI and released a collection of pop standards called Unforgettable. Chicago Wind came out in the summer of 2005.
"We fit better in these new areas than we fit in country music today, because country music today doesn't even give us a chance to be acknowledged," Merle says. "In my opinion, there's more payola going down right now than there has been. We're not gonna do anything about it, and in the future it's gonna continue to get worse before it gets better."
Even when success eluded him, Haggard's music remained some of the most consistently interesting and inventive in country music. Not only have his recordings remained fresh, but each subsequent generation of country singers shows a great debt to his work. That fact stands as a testament to his great talent even more than his induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Showing no signs of slowing down, Haggard recently completed a collection titled The Bluegrass Sessions, produced by Ronnie Reno (the son of bluegrass Hall of Famer and banjo pioneer Don Reno). It's Hag's first official studio album diving into traditional bluegrass. It's to be released this October on heralded bluegrass string player Del McCoury's own label, McCoury Music. Hag's perfectly happy to be on an independent label these days.
"Bluegrass is an area of music that I really hadn't ventured into before," says Haggard. "But I've always loved it, and I just thought it would be neat to go down there and work with Ronnie Reno and Marty Stuart, and have them help me do one. I went through my many, many stacks of songs and tried to find things that I thought would work well in these surroundings," says Haggard. "Bluegrass people are the salt of the earth, kind of a no-baloney audience. If you're going to play something and you're going to hook it, you'd better hook it good — it either has to be real funny or it has to be real serious."
Haggard's champion of the common man stance is no facade, but his outlook on all things political isn't as one-dimensional as some would paint. Merle's more than willing to voice his opinion on the music industry, the state of the world and our government. But all that is secondary to his music, still drawing intimately from his personal life. As his recent records prove, as well as a cursory listen through his back catalogue, Merle Haggard's music is still as fresh and vital as it was in the '60s. For a man who at one time seemed down and out with his back to the wall, The Hag is still two-fisted, standing straight and unbowed. Just like a living legend should be.