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What does that mean? Not much, in the grand scheme of things, unless you’re a fan of pure, unadulterated art that has been stripped bare of any nicety, artifice, comfort or margin of safety.
Like that easy-to-digest, heavily produced, in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, radio-friendly, country music? Merle was probably not your guy.
Do some time in San Quentin? Know somebody who did a similar stretch? Ever do something that, without a couple of there-but-for-the-grace-of-god breaks, would have landed you behind bars? Ever hold down a crappy job with a jerk for a boss? Then you no doubt know all about Merle Ronald Haggard, the poet of the common man who was borne out of the Tulare dust and left us yesterday on his 79th birthday.
I am not a Hag scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but I am definitely a fan. By virtue of living in Redding for the past 31 years and doing a fair bit of reporting on arts & entertainment in the area, I was lucky enough to catch quite a few of his shows. I can honestly say I was never disappointed.
(I’m a fan, but I’m not delusional. More than a few people have related accounts of Merle taking the stage while drunk, but his drinking days were largely behind him when I first started following his career.)
What I do know is this: Shasta County, and the world, lost a giant of country music. Merle Haggard was a heartfelt songwriter who possessed a resplendent baritone singing voice that could give chills to the most hard-hearted of listeners. I suspect he forgot more about country music than 99 percent of today’s artists will ever know.
How could they?
Not many recording artists in Nashville can claim as hard a life as Haggard’s. He spent his earliest years scrabbling through the Great Depression, living in a renovated boxcar on the outskirts of Bakersfield and running afoul of the law enough times that he landed in reform school and, ultimately, state prison.
It was while Haggard was incarcerated in San Quentin on a burglary charge that a friend of his escaped and was recaptured, but only after fatally shooting a state trooper. That friend was condemned to death in the gas chamber and inspired Haggard’s classic death-row ballad, “Sing Me Back Home.”
San Quentin also was the venue in 1958 where Haggard had a front-row seat for Johnny Cash’s first-ever prison concert. Haggard was paroled in 1960 (and granted a full pardon in 1972 by Gov. Ronald Reagan) and he has told several interviewers that seeing Cash’s performance helped launch him on a career that saw 38 of his singles reach No. 1 on the Billboard country chart.
After helping to develop the hard-driving, no-frills, twangy “Bakersfield sound,” Haggard migrated north and settled on a ranch near Palo Cedro, not far from his beloved Shasta Lake.
I never saw the legendary vessel myself, but I loved hearing the story about Merle’s three-story houseboat that ran afoul of Forest Service regulations for height and width. My favorite part involved the circular well in the middle of the living room that allowed guests to fish for bass while seated on a couch.
If that isn’t a Shasta County rock star move, I don’t know what is.
I also was impressed with the fact that Haggard had no problem rubbing elbows with President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony on one night, and a day or two later he is back home enjoying some pancakes at Lulu’s.
Haggard connected with fellow country stars like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Kris Kristofferson, but also with people from all walks of life.
Donna Bridewell, a longtime friend and colleague (from back in the early 1980s when we both toiled at the Daily Democrat in Woodland), wrote in a Facebook post and eloquently described what Haggard meant to her and, I’m sure, thousands of others:
“I am bereft. Truly. I’ve never felt such a personal loss from a celebrity’s passing before. There are perhaps not many people who will understand this, and if you don’t, I would never be able to adequately explain it. I’ve had to go to some dark places in my life, and he went there with me. And there have been times I’ve been unspeakably happy, and he was there for that, too.
Some people think of him, mistakenly, as just a redneck. Those folks would be surprised to know about his concern for the environment (“Rainbow Stew” is the first song that comes to mind), and for ordinary people, especially workers (“Workin’ Man’s Blues,” “Big City”), and the poor (“Uncle Lem,” “They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down,” “If We Make It Through December”). In “Irma Jackson” and “Go Home,” he sings about interracial couples. In “Are the Good Times Really Over?” he seems to, still, carry the sadness of Vietnam. (Not to mention, he supported Hillary Clinton in 2008.)
Like other traditional country artists, he cared deeply about family (“Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” “Grandma Harp”). He tackled love, loss, sex, grief, drinking and dying, all with a poet’s heart. He sang about “rowdy afternooners,” and making love in the hallway. He memorably, poignantly, memorialized his father in Iris DeMent’s “No Time to Cry” and celebrated him in “Okie from Muskogee.” He wrote about places in his life that had meaning for him. Kern River made an appearance (“it was there that I met her, it was there that I lost my best friend”), as did Lake Shasta, Bakersfield, Modesto, Tulare, San Francisco.
For my money, Merle had the most beautiful voice in country music — ever. Even as he aged, its evocative powers were unmatched. For one example, listen to his cover (with Willie Nelson) of McCartney’s “Yesterday.”
Haggard died in his home, surrounded by his family. His son Ben, an up-and-coming country musician in his own right who toured with his dad as a member of Haggard’s legendary band, The Strangers, took to Instagram Wednesday morning to share the news of his dad’s passing:
“A week ago dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn’t wrong. An hour ago he took his last breath surrounded by family and friends. He loved everything about life and he loved that every one of you gave him a chance with his music. He wasn’t just a country singer. He was the best country singer that ever lived.”
Rest easy, Merle, and thanks for the music.