Remembering Merle Haggard, Palo Cedro’s Musical Gift to the World

By Jeremy Luke Roberts (jeremylr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Jeremy Luke Roberts (jeremylr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Merle Haggard died Wednesday.

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.

Jon Lewis
Jon Lewis is a freelance writer living in Redding. He has more than 30 years experience writing for newspapers and magazines. Contact him at jonpaullewis@gmail.com.
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12 Responses

  1. Beautiful tribute, Jon.

    His was a monumental career, and Haggard tunes did what the very best songs do: They told the truth.

  2. Avatar CoachBob says:

    Yeah, like Willie always said about country music: 3 chords and the truth! I sing 4 of his songs on a regular basis, my favorites, and all have special meanings. Poet for sure.

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    I was alway happy to brag to friends that one of the “Mt. Rushmore” icons of outlaw country was my neighbor in Palo Cedro.  I also appreciated what a regular guy he was—I often saw him doing his own shopping at Holiday Market in PC.  (He seemed to prefer organic produce when it was available, by the way.)  And I always loved Merle’s politics, which came through in so many of his songs—his deep love for America, but his clear-eyed understanding of what it was like to be born on the wrong side of town in this country and his compassion for those who didn’t manage to escape, as he did.

    I heard that his funeral service on the ranch will be led by Marty Stuart, and that Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and others will sing songs of their choosing.  What an honor for Merle to have those folks serenade him into “the great unknown in the sky,” as his friend and recent Palo Cedro visitor Sturgill Simpson puts it.

  4. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    Poet in every best sense of the word, but not only of the word but of the music too. His genius, and I do not use that word lightly, was being able to take ordinary words, ordinary themes, ordinary chords and melodies, and put a twist, or kink in them by using just the perfect and unexpected turn in just the perfect spot. Kinda like precious stones dropped along the pathway of a song. Part of the genius was that it was so artless, meaning that it wasn’t studied or contrived. It was simply the way his mind and ear functioned.

    And then there was that voice . . . . .

     

  5. Avatar Ginny says:

    Thank you for a very well written piece on a one of a kind man.

  6. Avatar Angie says:

    Great writing as always!! Thanks for sharing you thoughts with everyone.

  7. Avatar Peggy Elwood says:

    Thanks for the tribute Jon. I ran into Merle at Orchard Nutrition once several years ago…he was so friendly and gracious..I always thought he almost invited me out to the ranch!. I love the old country western artists so much more than the current ones….and Merle was such a good story teller, I could understand all the words, and what a voice! Such a loss…condolences to his family.

  8. Avatar Mike says:

    Palo Cedro’s musical gift? I don’t believe that to be accurate.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      He lived in Palo Cedro for 40 years, which was just a tad more than half his life.   If you’re feeling argumentative, I can see how you can argue against him being “Palo Cedro’s musical gift.”  I just don’t know why you’d make a point of it right now.

      • Avatar Ross says:

        Can someone tell me when he actually purchased the property in Palo Cedro? I lived in Redding 78-81 and was told then he lived there..thanks

  9. Avatar Rod says:

    Merle captured my love for his voice and dialogue before he moved here to Shasta County.  His greatest hits albums will always be in my stack of favorites to play.

     

    Jon, you have referenced Merle’s use of alcohol.  It was at times excessive.  But, you omitted any facts concerning his love for marijuana.  Why would you intentionally do that?  “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”  Nobody missed the point when he recorded that line.  He did however, while living in Shasta County, smoke a lot of our best herb.

     

    While we honor the man and his gifts of poetry set to rowdy and footstomping music, let’s remember he died an old man relaxing in the arms of marijuana.

     

  10. Avatar Ole Brierbush says:

    I just could not leave this one alone.

    A commentor on the web said; Merle is on a box car train headin some where he didn’t know.

    this is my belief.

    I hear that train a comin it’s rollin round the bend

    It’s come down to earth and it’s heaven bound again

    and Merle is on it     headin for Glory land

    I hear that train a rollin and I hear that gospel band

    I hear that fiddle playin and that rythm guitar

    I hear country music in that fancy dinnin car

    and Merle is on it headin for Glory land

    I hear that train rollin and I hear that Gospel Band.

    HAPPY ETERNAL LIFE Merle