Thursday, 7 April 2016

RIP Merle Haggard - the sound of authentic, patriotic, hard-as-nails, blue-collar America: even his name was tough

Here's the original recording of my all-time favourite Haggard track (underpinned by the sort of understated, propulsive guitar riffs that made James Burton Elvis's guitarist of choice in his comeback phase):
But I didn't hear that 1969 single for many years. The first one that came to my attention was this famous anti-hippie anthem, released the same year:

Not one of his best songs, maybe, but, even though I was affecting hippyish clothes and and long hair and listening to - and loving - hippy music at the time, Haggard's paean to traditional conservative values struck a chord with me. (It's been resonating ever since.) Maybe the fact that the uncompromisingly traditionalist message was being delivered by a tough-looking little guy with a film-star presence and a knowing air about him rather than by some ponderous middle-aged politician helped (I'm reminded of Richard Nixon going walkabout amongst student protesters in Washington and trying the break the ice by asking them how their college football teams were doing that year - I'd have stayed in the White House and ordered the National Guard to disperse the goofy little ingrates by sundown).

But back in the '60s, Haggard was mainly about hard times and criminality. He'd spent most of the '50s in and out of prison in California - he claimed the idea of a career in music came to him after attending a Johnny Cash concert during a two-year stint in San Quentin, which ended in 1960. Later, it was Johnny Cash who convinced Haggard that publicly owning up to his criminal past wouldn't harm his career, and might even enhance it (which it did):

As for the lovely "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive", the line "While Mama used to pray my crops would fail" gets me every time:

And if you want to enjoy this excellent version of "Branded Man", I suggest you start 40 seconds in to avoid the abysmal presenter, who was evidently coached by Ed Sullivan:

I only really got to know those great songs in the late '70s when I bought a Merle Haggard greatest hits compilation. I'd returned from a long trip across the US and back laden with Outlaw Country albums (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, David Allan Coe etc.), and kept reading that one of the seminal influences on this grittier, more authentic brand of long-haired redneck country music - a reaction against the smooth Nashville sound perfected by producer Chet Atkins - was Merle Haggard, who was still around and still having hits. Dang, he was good! (It was only when I became enthused by the New Traditionalist country music movement in the mid-'80s - Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam etc. - that I finally caught up with the similarly hard-edged Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens.)

Funnily enough, I can barely bring myself to listen to most Outlaw country these days - all that stuff about cowboys and ladeez and being on the road soon began to sound as anodyne and "establishment" as the easy-listening radio-fodder it had replaced. But I've never got tired of listening to those classic Merle Haggard '60s songs. And some of his later stuff wasn't too dusty, either: here's "Big City" from 1981:

I'll finish with his 1983 No. 1, "That's the Way Love Goes", written by Sanger D. Shafer and the great country singer, Lefty Frizzell, of whom Haggard was a fan. I'm not usually too fond of sentimental love songs - but this is beautiful:

BBC Four broadcast a tremendous 90 minute documentary, Merle Haggard: Learning to Live with Myself in 2010. If they've still got the rights, I hope the BBC mark his death with another showing. But, if you don't want to take a chance of them doing so, someone just posted the documentary on YouTube: no idea how long before it's pulled, but here it is, for now:

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