Old Hag

A Merle Haggard boxed set serves as a welcome reminder that country music can be dangerous.

At the Academy of Country Music awards presentation in late April, a slew of country stars were rounded up for a tribute to Merle Haggard, the designated recipient of a lifetime achievement statuette. Clint Black, wearing his trademark chapeau, introduced the segment with heartfelt superlatives that were echoed by several other celebrities, including Johnny Cash, whom Haggard first saw perform while serving an extended stretch at San Quentin. Still, there was one important person who neglected to weigh in with appropriate comments: Haggard himself. Buck Owens--whose work, like Haggard's, was nurtured in the California desert community of Bakersfield--accepted the bauble in Merle's place. And although Owens offered his own praise of Haggard, he didn't explain why the honoree hadn't bothered to show up. The implication behind Owens's omission was obvious: Apparently, Haggard had stayed away from this shindig for no other reason than that he didn't want to be there.

Such orneriness lies at the base of Haggard's appeal. While he has been embraced by the Nashville establishment, he's never truly been a part of it. From the beginning, he was more than just an outsider--he was (as Willie Nelson noted during the ACM salute) literally an outlaw. Craggy, contradictory, deeply troubled and yet deeply compassionate, he's well-named; after all, Webster's defines "haggard" as "unruly, untamed." As such, he's instinctively wary of praise. Most artists would be thrilled by the appearance of a boxed set as thoughtful and impressive as the four-CD Capitol release Down Every Road: 1962-1994, and maybe Haggard is, too. But he's not going to show it. Hell, Haggard didn't even bother to give an interview to Daniel Cooper, a Country Music Foundation bigwig who wrote Road's effusive liner notes. Hence, Cooper was forced to cobble together quotes from earlier articles--ones that celebrated Haggard the living, breathing troubador rather than enshrining him as an exemplar of an earlier, better era of country music.

Unfortunately, this package doesn't make an especially strong argument for Haggard's greatest days being ahead of him; the Road pieces from the Eighties and Nineties are above average, but they don't reverberate with the effortless panache that marks the majority of what preceded them. In addition, there's more than a smidgen of evidence that the across-the-board success of "Okie From Muskogee," the cheerfully reactionary 1969 anthem that stamped Haggard with a persona he still wears, led to a certain self-consciousness that limited his subsequent effectiveness. Nevertheless, Haggard remains a defining C&W figure. His imitators are legion, but they pale before their model because they lack Haggard's secret ingredient: authenticity.

Hard times were Haggard's birthright. When he came along in 1937, his parents, transplanted Oklahomans James and Flossie Haggard, and two older siblings were living in a converted boxcar in Oildale, California, just outside Bakersfield. Nine years later, James--a fiddle player who hung up his instrument when he moved his brood from dustbowl Oklahoma to California--died of a stroke. Merle's mother was forced to work full-time, leaving her youngest confused, angry and largely unsupervised. As a result, his teen years became a blur of musical discovery (he fed on a steady diet of Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell) and juvenile delinquency. At age twenty--married with child (and a second on the way)--he capped his criminal career with a transgression of astounding stupidity. He and a buddy, both stewed on booze, tried to bust into a restaurant at what they thought was about 3 a.m. In actuality, it was 10 p.m., and the restaurant was still open.

Three years in the Big House gave Haggard an appreciation for time; when he emerged from San Quentin, he began living as fast as he could. His prodigious energy also helped him gain a musical reputation among Bakersfield's C&W crowd. The sound that emerged from this community rocked more persuasively than the standard Nashville brand of music that was popular then, but it wasn't rock and roll. Instead, it harked back to an earlier tradition: The prominent guitar riffing and generally astringent arrangements were melded to swooping backwoods vocal lines that bore the influence of Jimmie Rodgers and his brethren. This approach suited Haggard; his voice was capable of both punchy accents and a surprising delicacy that became especially poignant at higher registers. In short, he could effectively portray toughness and tenderness, and he often chose to do so in the same song.

"Skid Row," the initial cut on Road's first disc, was written by Haggard when he was just fourteen, but even this early effort rings with an empathy for the common man that's still one of his most notable attributes. It also demonstrates his skill at wringing fresh thrills from subject matter that was already timeworn in the Sixties. "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can," from 1965, might have seemed like a commonplace revenge fantasy in other hands, but in Haggard's it becomes a saucy charmer. Likewise, "Swinging Doors" and "The Bottle Let Me Down," recorded during the same period, employ standard-issue booze imagery that satisfies primarily because it's abundantly clear that Haggard isn't dealing in abstraction. Even if the lyrics aren't specifically autobiographical, he's still telling his own story. "Branded Man," a classic ex-con's lament, is even more vivid, because it's closer to the truth. And while the words that make up 1968's "Mama Tried," on disc two, contain a bit of hyperbole (Haggard did turn 21 in prison, but he wasn't sentenced to "life without parole"), they capture in plainspoken language Haggard's essence. On these ditties, his romanticizing of past troubles seems completely natural. Quite simply, Haggard was using the raw materials he had at hand as the basic ingredients in his workingman's art.

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