Merle Haggard’s legendary music career began in a bar in Modesto, California, in 1950. When Merle Haggard passed away yesterday on his 79th birthday, he had been making his fans love, laugh and cry for more than 65 years.
Merle Haggard has long been counted among the legends of country music, and his place among the greats has been cemented for decades. Back in 1985, George Jones’ single “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” put Haggard in the same league with Hank Williams Sr. and Lefty Frizzell at a time when he still had more than 30 years left in his career. In 2010, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presented him with a lifetime achievement award for his “outstanding contribution to American culture,” and, in the five years between that award and his death, Merle Haggard managed to release two more albums.
With there being no question about Merle Haggard’s legendary status, the only question that remains is “How?” How did this man, who was born in a boxcar and spent his youth in and out of jails and prison, speak to generations of Americans?
In what will probably seem like a random reference, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there is a character, referred to with much love as “Uncle,” who takes up his guitar and begins to play. Tolstoy might as well have been describing Merle Haggard.
“[He] sang as peasants sing, with full and naive conviction that the whole meaning of a song lies in the words and that the tune comes of itself, and that apart from the words there is no tune, which exists only to give measure to the words.”
Merle Haggard’s music was all about the words, and his words were simple, clear, concise, and honest. In Haggard’s music, there was no fluff. In his tunes, there were no embellishments. The tunes played supporting roles that, while important, paled in comparison to the words, which were perfect, according to even the highest standards.
For many fans of country music, David Allan Coe’s song “You Never Even Called Me By Name” accurately, if ineloquently, explains those standards. In the spoken part, he explains to Steve Goodman, the songwriter, the shortcomings in the song’s original version.
“I told him it was not the perfect country and western song because he hadn’t said anything at all about momma or trains or trucks or prison or gettin’ drunk.”
When one looks at Merle Haggard’s legacy, it appears that he set that standard for Coe and all the others who followed him. From Haggard’s earliest songs, such as “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down,” to his last works, like “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” his words never let his fans down. In his songs, like “Mama Tried” and “Misery and Gin,” Haggard delivered everything his listeners wanted, whether they wanted to waltz or just sit down and cry.
Because Merle Haggard’s music is personal, everyone has an album that feels like it is theirs. For me, that album is “Live at Billy Bob’s Texas: Motorcycle Cowboy,” which Haggard released in the summer of 1999 when I was 18 years old. Over the years, the songs from that album have served as the background music for my laughter and my tears, and I’m carried back to the past every time I hear Merle Haggard sing those songs.
Merle Haggard has left us with as many songs as he gave us years. In each of those songs, he has left us a little bit of himself, and when we hear his songs, we are reminded of the hearts and places where we have left little bits of ourselves. While we’re going to miss him, we have to remember what he promised us.
“The best of the free life is still yet to come
The good times ain’t over for good”
[Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP Images]