Merle Haggard died today, on his 79th birthday. Even though I’m Massachusetts born and raised, country music has always been a part of my life. My dad was from Anderson, South Carolina, and I learned to appreciate the twangy, “high, lonesome sound” at an early age. Later in life, I spent five years living in Louisiana’s bayou country, and you couldn’t find a jukebox in any honky-tonk joint around that didn’t have at least one Merle Haggard tune.
Many country musicians claim to be “outlaws”, but Merle was the real deal. His father died young (like mine), and as a teen Merle was always in trouble with the law (yep, me too!). He was arrested for burglary and bad checks, fighting and shoplifting, and wound up more than once in juvenile jail. At age 20, he did time in San Quentin for attempted robbery. When he was released, Merle channeled his energy to country music. His first #1 country hit was “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”, but it was 1969’s “Okie from Muskogee”, the anthem of the Silent Majority, that catapulted him into America’s consciousness:
Merle’s music wasn’t just for squares, though. Rock musicians like Gram Parsons and the Grateful Dead covered his tunes. He did some films, too, making his debut in the low-budget horror comedy HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE, with genre greats Lon Chaney Jr, Basil Rathbone, and John Carradine. He played a sheriff in AIP’s BONNIE & CLYDE rip-off KILLERS THREE, with none other than Dick Clark as one of the three (guess AIP thought if two outlaws were good, three would be better. They were wrong). He was the Balladeer in 1981’s bomb LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER, and even sang a duet with Clint Eastwood in BRONCO BILLY:
“Workin’ Man Blues”, “Fightin’ Side of Me”, “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink”, “Misery and Gin”, “Pancho and Lefty” (with Willie Nelson)- Merle Haggard was an American original, and his brand of country sure beats what passes for “country music” today. Raw and authentic, Merle Haggard will be remembered as one of the giants of country and western music. I’d like to leave you with two of my favorites. First, here’s “Mama Tried”:
Lastly, one of Merle’s latter-day songs, one I’m sure many can relate to, “Are the Good Times Really Over”. RIP, Merle. You’ll be missed.