Merle Haggard

TrackAlbum
Swinging DoorsSwinging Doors
The Bottle Let Me DownSwinging Doors
Sing Me Back HomeSing Me Back Home
Today I Started Loving You AgainThe Legend Of Bonnie & Clyde
Hungry EyesA Portrait Of Merle Haggard
Workin' Man BluesA Portrait Of Merle Haggard
Okie From MuskogeeOkie From Muskogee
If We Make It Through DecemberIf We Make It Through Dec...
FootlightsServing 190 Proof
Kern RiverKern River
Wishing All These Old Things Were NewIf I Could Only Fly
How Did You Find Me Here?I Am What I Am

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

Want to learn how to write songs? Listen to Merle Haggard” Tom Waits

With the editor’s approval, this is a Topper 12. Where to start with Merle Haggard? A giant figure in American music for more than half a century, one of a handful of living country artists with a credible claim to being the greatest writer in that genre since Hank Williams, a fine singer and a superb bandleader (whose backing musicians have included people of the calibre of the great James Burton, Phil Baugh, Roy Nichols, Norm Hamlet and Glen Campbell), Haggard was also, along with Buck Owens, one of the crucial figures in establishing the ‘Bakersfield Sound’, as it became known. In doing so, they created a country music tradition in California, which was generally rougher edged than its Nashville counterpart and was to be carried on by a later generation of country and country-rock musicians (Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakam being the most notable examples). Their style was also to be a formative influence on the ‘outlaw’ country songwriters of the early 1970s and on later more rock-oriented artists like Dave Alvin.

Haggard’s own background seems, in many respects, to be an ideal one for an aspiring country songwriter. The son of Oklahoma migrants who had gone to California during the Great Depression, his childhood had been a relatively secure one up until his father’s death when he was only nine years old. In later years, Haggard was to write some of his very finest songs (including Hungry Eyes, which I have included here, and the great combination of Tulare Dust/They’re Tearin’ The Labor Camps Down from his 1972 album, Let Me Tell You About A Song) about the hardships which his parents endured after their move west. After his father’s death, the young Haggard went off the rails for a number of years, running away from school at every possible opportunity and engaging in petty crimes. As a result, he was eventually to graduate from short stays in juvenile detention centre and reformatories to a one to fifteen year sentence for his part in a bungled armed robbery, part of which was spent in the notorious San Quentin prison.

During his time there, Haggard had a life-changing experience, after being placed in an isolation unit as a punishment for having got drunk on home-brewed beer. While there, he became friendly with some of the inmates of the prison’s death row, which was next to the unit in which Haggard had been placed. Haggard later admitted that, as a result, he began to fear that, if he did not turn his life around, his own future might lie in the same direction. Already having an interest in music, he began to view it as a possible alternative career, which might provide him with a livelihood after he had been released from prison.

On his release after three years inside, Haggard again found himself in a situation which could very well have formed the basis of a great country song – he discovered that his wife Leona had had a child by another man while he was inside. Determined to go straight after his release from prison, Haggard decided that they would raise the child as their own. Over the next few years, he worked at a variety of low-paying jobs before securing a place as a bassist in the Texan country musician Wynn Stewart’s backing band. Haggard has often cited Stewart as being one of the key influences on his own later style and his own first single, Sing A Sad Song, released in 1963, was to be a cover version of a song that the older man had written. Its relative commercial success (it reached No.19 on the Billboard country chart) gave Haggard the confidence to commit himself to a full-time musical career. However, it was with the release of his fourth single, (My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers, that Haggard really established himself as a major artist in his own right with a distinctive voice of his own. In particular, that song was marked by a hard and abrasive edge which was unusual in country music. Again, as in much of his later work, the central character in that song appeared to be a loner, who combined a steely resolve with a fatalistic acceptance that his best days were, most likely, far behind him.

Strangers also marked the beginning of a long period where Haggard managed to combine sustained commercial success with the maintenance of a high standard of artistic excellence. Indeed, it could be argued that this period lasted from the release of the first album Strangers in 1964 through to the release of If We Make It Through December in October 1973. The singles he released in those years were of such a consistently high standard that it proved extremely difficult to choose between them. My most glaring omission here – Mama Tried – is so clearly a classic (see video below), I have decided not to list it in order to leave room for one or two of Haggard’s lesser known more recent songs.

…a genuine songwriter, who’s as good as anybody around, his name is Merle Haggard. He has the possibility of being today’s Hank Williams, who is still the foremost songwriter.” Phil Ochs, 1970

My first two choices here are two classic honky-tonk songs – Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down – which Haggard recorded in 1965 and in 1966 respectively. In my opinion, these stand comparison with the very best songs ever written in the genre and I am including those written by giants in that field of music, like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell in this statement. These two tracks also show one of the greatest backing bands in the history of country at the peak of its powers (take, for example, the brilliant pedal steel at the beginning of Swinging Doors by Ralph Mooney or the great guitar playing on The Bottle Let Me Down by the peerless James Burton).

My next choice, Sing Me Back Home, is one of the greatest ‘death row’ songs ever written. It is also the most powerful of the songs which Haggard wrote on the basis of his prison experiences. His empathy with the plight of prisoners and, indeed, with those who would nowadays be described as the working poor also distinguish Haggard from many of those modern American Conservatives who would like to claim him as their own.

Today I Started Loving You Again, my next selection, is Haggard’s greatest vocal performance. It also shows his ability (one matched by only the greatest of country singers such as Patsy Cline, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell and Randy Travis) to take a lyric, which appears rather banal on paper, and imbue it with an emotional depth which, at first glance, it did not appear capable of sustaining. He did so through the smallest of hesitations and the subtlest of vocal inflections and, through this magnificent performance, established himself as one of the great masters of country music singing.

My next two choices are from Haggard’s excellent 1969 album, A Portrait Of Merle Haggard, which also included the classic ballad, Silver Wings, a song that I would have liked to include and was the subject of a fine cover version by the rather unlikely pairing of Roseanne Cash and Rufus Wainwright on the former’s excellent The List (2009). The two songs I have chosen here are strongly contrasting ones; the rockabilly strut of Workin’ Man Blues (with the great twin guitars by Roy Nichols and James Burton) being complemented by the bitter-sweet nostalgia of Hungry Eyes.

And so we move on to Okie, the song which, more than any other, first established Haggard’s credentials as a profoundly conservative, flag-waving, anti-hippie cultural warrior. In doing so, it made him a standard bearer for what could be seen as traditional American values against the challenges which had been posed to the old order there by the Greenwich Village protest song movement, the anti-Vietnam war campaign and the Hippie ethos which was becoming increasingly fashionable in many parts of that country in the late 1960s. While Haggard was later to argue that the song had been intended ironically, the intensity of his live performances of it in the late 1960s/early 1970s belied this (an example can be seen here and his audiences also showed little sign of viewing it in that light. Nevertheless, in retrospect, the song’s wit as displayed in lines like “football’s still the roughest sport on campus” and “leather boots are still in style for manly footwear” and its brilliantly catchy melody save it from being too stridently partisan (this unfortunately was not the case with Haggard’s follow up single, the musically biting but lyrically unsubtle The Fighting Side of Me). Although Haggard’s political opinions are far to the right of my own, there is a kind of flinty integrity to his political songs which I find appealing and he also has displayed a willingness to admit his mistakes in that regard (as, for example, in relation to the Vietnam war), which is refreshing.

Interviewer: “Who was greater, Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell?
Buck Owens: Who’s better? I tell you who’s better: Merle Haggard

Haggard’s continued empathy with the plight of blue-collar workers who were suffering hard times was again displayed in his brilliant 1973 single, If We Make It Through December. It was one of the first anti-Christmas songs, as it were, and it also featured some typically deft guitar playing by Roy Nichols. As the critic, Dave Marsh, has pointed out, it is also one of the best country songs to address the plight of those people for whom “revolution is not an option”. The single also, perhaps, marked the end of Haggard’s golden period as a commercial artist, that time when he had effortlessly combined the highest of musical standards with mainstream chart success. In the years that followed, his recordings became more hit and miss and his own songwriting less consistently excellent. Like many other successful country singers (notably George Jones, with whom he maintained a close friendship for close to half a century), he also went through various well recorded personal difficulties at this time. Despite this, however, Haggard continued to make a great deal of very fine music at this time and a few of the albums he made in this period (notably the classic Serving 190 Proof, which was first released in 1979 and which he claimed dealt with the ‘male menopause’ and the excellent Big City, released in 1981) were as good as any other work he had done up to that point. I have included Footlights from the former, as it is perhaps the finest song ever written about a working musician’s disillusionment with life on the road.

Although Merle Haggard is undoubtedly a country artist, a refreshing feature of his career has been his regular willingness to cross musical boundaries (one particularly fine example is his classic live album of Dixieland jazz, I Love Dixie Blues, recorded before a particularly raucous audience in New Orleans in 1973). In this respect, with the haunting Kern River, the title song of the album of the same name first released in 1985, Haggard wrote the finest folk-styled song of his career. It is for this reason that I have included this great song here.

My last two choices both come from the albums which Haggard has made in the years since his career underwent an extraordinary revival with the release of the superb If I Could Only Fly in 2000. It bears comparison with any of his earlier work and, as with Bob Dylan’s later works, its greatness is closely linked to its creator’s extraordinary knowledge of the history of American popular music. The influences on its songs range all the way from early Dixieland jazz (Honky Tonk Mama) through the Bing Crosby-esque (Think About A) Lullaby to the late style Willie Nelson flavoured Listening (To The Wind). The track I have selected though is Wishing All These Old Things Were New, remarkable for its bravery in that it is one of the few modern country songs to deal honestly with drug addiction. All of the albums that ‘The Hag’, as he is known to his American fans, has made since then are well worthy of investigation.

My final selection How Did You Find Me Here? comes from one of the best of these, I Am What I Am, first released in 2010. Again, it is a brave song which deals with Haggard’s response to a recent near-death experience It also features superb guitar playing by Scott Joss and Haggard himself.

To conclude, the intention of this list has been to serve as an introduction to the work of this great songwriter. Feel free to delve deeper, as ‘The Hag’ is one of that very select group of country songwriters whose best albums are made up of consistently good songs. These records contain many more gems which I have not been able to include here but which are well worth further investigation.

Finally, here is a list of Merle Haggard’s ten best covers/versions of songs by other songwriters, as it struck me when completing this list, that omitting any reference to his magnificent 1969 album, Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers – one of the greatest tribute albums ever recorded and a superb vehicle for some of James Burton’s finest dobro playing – would represent a major disservice to his work:

(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers (Liz Anderson) Strangers
I’m A Lonesome Fugitive (Liz Anderson) I’m A Lonesome Fugitive
My Rough And Rowdy Ways (Jimmie Rodgers) … Lonesome Fugitive
California Blues (Jimmie Rodgers) Same Train, A Different Time…
Train Whistle Blues (Jimmie Rodgers) Same Train, A Different Time…
Stay A Little Longer (Bob Wills) A Tribute To The Best Damn
Fiddle Player In The World

When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again (Walker & Sullivan)
Ramblin’ Fever
Always Late (With Your Kisses) (Lefty Frizzell) Roots Volume 1
I’ll Sign My Heart Away (Hank Thompson) Roots Volume 1
It Always Will Be (Willie Nelson) Chicago Wind

 

Merle Haggard (1937–2016)

 

Merle Haggard Official Website

Merle Haggard biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #381

7 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 12, 2014

    Super list. Those Capitol two-fer CDs are a great way to get into Merle, none finer than Strangers/Swinging Doors and Lonesome Fugitive/Branded Man. If you feel the need, folks, do pick them up. His first four albums for hardly any cash.

  2. David Lewis
    Nov 12, 2014

    Even with 12, I have a couple of ‘wot! No?’s.’The Fighting Side of Me’, which is essentially Merle’s manifesto – ‘now I don’t mind them changing sides and standing up for things that they believe in/ but when you’re running down my country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.’ Also, Mama Tried, which takes the issue of poverty and some of its effects, and turns it into a great song. The fact I can think of 2 alternatives shows of course what a great act Merle is. I know it was a tough one to do.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Nov 13, 2014

    Thanks for these comments.
    Keith – agree on the twofers. You can also get many of his later albums in a similar format, going right up (with a few gaps) to the albums ‘The Hag’ made for Epic in the mid-to-late 1980s.
    David – did mention ‘Mama Tried’ here in dispatches. Agree that it is a great song… As for ‘Fighting Side’, I like it musically, but have always had a problem with its lyric. ‘If you don’t love it, leave it’ doesn’t seem like much of an argument to me… So while people like Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Kris Kristofferson could cover ‘Okie’ for its wit, I can’t see anyone to the left of ‘Hag’ covering it.

    • Keith Shackleton
      Nov 13, 2014

      It is a short step from “Fighting Side” to Toby Keith’s “Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”, and his ugly feuding.

  4. Matt Carlson
    Nov 13, 2014

    Terrific job. I cannot imagine distilling Merle’s catalog down to just 12 songs. You’ve done remarkably well. The piece also does a terrific job of placing him in context with the rest of country music and the roots music that came before. Very impressive work. Thanks!

  5. Andrew Shields
    Nov 14, 2014

    Am with Keith (Shackleton, that is, not Toby) on this one. For my money, there is almost a McCarthyite edge to ‘Fighting Side’ – the kind of ‘We believe in free speech, so you shut up’ mentality… Merle’s own political position seems also to have shifted somewhat in more recent years, given that he opposed the Iraq war and, apparently, was impressed by Obama in his first presidential election.

  6. David Lewis
    Nov 14, 2014

    I see what you’re both saying, and I disagree with attitudes such as ‘love it or leave it’. But as Voltaire didn’t say, I’ll defend to the death your right to disagree with me. Same with Merle. And I’d rather have an honest song, than be like Certain acts who portray views closer to mine, but don’t actually mean them. I won’t give any examples for they might The Clash with your preconceptions. (Although I do enjoy very much the music of strummer and jones et all. Just thought I’d mention that for no reason.) It is a small step to Toby Keith’s nonsense, but the gap is honesty, I think.

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