I hesitate doing another blog about a death, but the passing of Merle Haggard is something special and must be noted. Merle Haggard was a great American artist. His field happened to be country music.
And it gives me the purely selfish opportunity to collect in one place links to my favorite YouTube clips of Hag, so that I can go back and watch them easily whenever I want to. Scroll down now for links to more than TWENTY of Hag's greatest songs, almost all of them in killer live versions. I could have listed a hundred.
Hag is one of my "pantheon" recording artists (to borrow a nice critical categorization from Andrew Sarris, the late great film critic). If I had only one country artists' work to take with me to a Desert Island, it would be a toss-up between Hag and Emmylou Harris. I've been listening to Merle's music since 1969 and am not the only person who considers him to be the greatest single figure in country music history.
Hank Williams may be the soul of country, Kris Kristofferson might be a better songwriter, George Jones might be a better vocalist, there are many better guitarists, but no one combines the required skills (songwriting, singing, bandleading, general music-making) like Merle Haggard. No one has produced ever so much good, high-quality country music for so long. And he wrote about something. He was "the Poet of the Common Man." Not a very smooth nickname, but accurate.
Merle was not a happy guy, and you could see it in the lines in his face as he grew older. Born in Bakersfield, California, to Oklahoma-born parents fleeing the Dust Bowl, Merle had a hard life. His father died when Merle was nine years old, an event that scarred him for the rest of his life. He had a restless youth of petty crime and juvenile detention.
After a string of burglaries and other offenses, he wound up in San Quentin prison on a fifteen-year sentence. It took quite a few attempts and false starts, but what finally straightened out his life and made him dedicate himself to the music career that always beckoned him was a 1958 performance by Johnny Cash for the inmates of San Quentin. The fact that Merle's band was called "the Strangers" says something about his sensibility. Of course, the name was derived from his first hit single "(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," but it's reflective of his very sober view of life.
Merle scored thirty-eight Number One songs on the US country charts and won countless awards including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors. He was married five times, but apparently stayed on good terms with all his ex-wives. He was pardoned for his crimes in 1972 by then-Governor Ronald Reagan, probably the only good thing Reagan ever did.
But it's all about the music – and the songs. So many great songs! Merle said that he wrote 10,000 songs. I don't have that many, but I have lots of his music. My first album of his was the live "Okie From Muskogee" album in 1969. I eventually bought many of his other great albums of that era including "Pride In What I Am," "Someday We'll Look Back," and his superb tribute albums: "Same Train, Different Time" for Jimmie Rodgers and "A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World" for Bob Wills, for which Hag learned how to play fiddle.
I duplicated many of those albums in the CD era and got lots of his new music. (Hag never stopped releasing music, and some of his later work is very, very good. In 2000, he release "If I Could Only Fly," which sparked a comeback of sorts.)
I have the box set DOWN EVERY ROAD, which I highly recommend except for the fact that it ends in 1994, and Merle had lots of great music in front of him. I also have nine bootlegs: country artists are not widely bootlegged, but what I have is excellent. Hag was great in concert, and the Strangers were a tight, versatile band, usually with brass and always with lots of swing.
It's a shame that his most famous song "Okie From Muskogee" is distinctly second-tier Hag. He seldom wrote a worse lyric than "Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear." And it distorted people's perception of his politics, which were more populist and inclusive than nativist and intolerant.
I saw Merle live only once, in the mid-90s at the House of Blues in Hollywood, but it was a great show. I think I saw him in prime form. It was a standing-only audience, with people dancing, the kind of show that Hag liked to play most. I got down real close – maybe fifteen feet away – and watched a master at work. From the original Strangers, he still had Norman Hamlet playing steel guitar for him. I didn't think of it at the time – after all, I was younger -- but that was a Bucket List show for me. I'm very glad that I saw this great artist, if only once. I know that I'll listen to his music for the rest of my life.
In fact, "If I Could Only Fly" might be on the list of music I want the TG to have played at my funeral.
Here are some GREAT Hag clips. Enjoy!
Hag is inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame – by Emmylou Harris,
Hag wins Kennedy Center Honors in 2010 – with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert, etc., in tribute
Hag doing impressions (Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash) on Glen Campbell's TV show – and Buck and Cash show up!
"Misery and Gin" – live and great – with some of Hag's fine picking
"Ramblin' Fever" – live, young, and strong
"Today I Started Loving You Again" – live, 1989 – Merle's most-often covered composition
"I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am" – live, young
"Miss the Mississippi and You" – Jimmie Rodgers' great song, live from Wembley, 1988
"Silver Wings" – early, live, and sweet
"(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" – the song that gave his back-up band its name
"That's The Way Love Goes" – Lefty Frizzell's great love song -- live
"Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star" – Hag's last #1 solo hit – live
"Mama Tried" – live -- super-young Hag!!!
"Kern River" – live with just two guitars -- magical
"Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" – live and sassy from 1968
"Workingman's Blues" – live Austin, 1978
"I Think Just Stay Here and Drink" – live and loose
"Trouble In Mind" – Bob Wills' hit – Hag's studio version -- I couldn't find anything live, but I love this song
"Big City" – live at Billy Bob's -- 1983
"What Am I Going To Do (With the Rest of My Life?) – live 1984 – Fairfax, VA
"It's Been a Great Afternoon" / California Blues – live 1984 – Fairfax, VA
"If I Could Only Fly" – live and beautiful – the song starts at 1:18
And I've left out another hundred great songs!!!
Long live the work of Merle Haggard.
And thanks once again to all the scientists and engineers for the miracle of recorded music.