It’s occasionally tough to put well-liked musicians in a bigger cultural context, and this was once now not the objective of Marc Eliot’s The Hag, an impressively thorough biography of nation song icon Merle Haggard. Alternatively, with the pursuits of Legislation & Liberty readers in thoughts, I’m going to enlarge upon Eliot’s respectful (however now not hagiographic) remedy of the prolific singer-songwriter, who died in 2016 on his 79th birthday. Lovers of Haggard or nation song usually will revel in The Hag as a party of Haggard’s contribution to the “Bakersfield sound,” a particular variation of a style generally related to Nashville. Readers might flinch at Eliot’s comparability of his matter to Robert Frost, Frank Sinatra, Bob Wills, and Bob Dylan, however they’ll emerge with a deeper appreciation for a musician who’s steadily undeservedly overshadowed through “crossover” artists reminiscent of Johnny Money, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings.
Haggard was once undeniably unique. His folks have been “Okies” who fled the Despair-era Dustbowl for California’s decrease San Joaquin Valley. Left fatherless at age 9, Haggard grew up deficient in a transformed railroad automotive along educate tracks in a the city close to Bakersfield. All the time a rise up and not a excellent pupil, Haggard was once a prolonged truant and serial runaway. Starting as a boy, he would “experience the rails” through hopping passing freight trains. A self-taught guitarist who most popular song to books, Haggard cherished paying attention to Lefty Frizzell, Jimmie Rogers, and Bob Wills. Sadly, a rash mood and deficient impulse regulate resulted in many encounters with regulation enforcement—and classes of incarceration—whilst a juvenile. By means of the age of 20, he was once a convicted felon, serving time in San Quentin jail for armed theft.
Many nation musicians would pose as “outlaws,” and Money famously carried out at San Quentin (with Haggard within the target audience), however Haggard was once the true factor. Regardless of those inauspicious beginnings, inside of years of his liberate on parole from San Quentin in 1960, Haggard modified course and become probably the most a hit nation musicians within the nation. (California Gov. Ronald Reagan issued Haggard a complete pardon in 1972.) Within the following a long time, Haggard launched over 100 albums, recorded greater than 600 songs (250 of which he wrote), a lot of them hits, toured widely, and received a large number of awards, together with a Grammy Lifetime Success Award in 2006 and the Kennedy Heart Honor in 2010 (along side Paul McCartney). Haggard even made the quilt of Time mag in 1974, the primary nation musician to be so featured.
Within the overdue Nineteen Sixties, Haggard’s gritty, unadorned option to songwriting—by contrast to the extra mainstream “countrypolitan” sound then popping out of Nashville—attracted the eye of influential musicians reminiscent of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons.
By means of 1969, The us was once fraught with cultural turmoil. The so-called hippie motion was once in complete bloom, as have been anti-Vietnam Struggle protests and campus unrest. The “Psychedelic Nineteen Sixties” or “Age of Aquarius” peaked with the Woodstock competition. By no means prior to had one technology been in this kind of state of revolt in opposition to its elders. “Don’t agree with someone over 30,” Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman warned.
Following within the trail blazed through fellow Bakersfield denizen Dollar Owens (whom he in the end eclipsed), Haggard appealed to an target audience made up essentially of middle-class adults with blue-collar or rural roots. This target audience—occasionally described as “rednecks”—was once patriotic, conservative, and out of date. In 1969 Haggard launched his (arguably) most famed track, “Okie from Muskogee,” which become the anthem for The us’s embattled Silent Majority and endeared him to President Richard Nixon. Haggard claimed that the track was once a tribute to his father, a failed farmer who grew up close to Muskogee, however the lyrics resonated extra extensively:
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our journeys on LSD
We don’t burn our draft playing cards down on Major Boulevard
We adore livin’ proper, and bein’ loose
We don’t make a birthday celebration out of lovin’
We adore holdin’ arms and pitchin’ woo
We don’t let our hair develop lengthy and shaggy
Just like the hippies out in San Francisco do
I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A spot the place even squares may have a ball
We nonetheless wave Outdated Glory down on the courthouse,
And white lightnin’s nonetheless the most important thrill of all
Haggard doubled-down the next yr with the similarly pugnacious hit, “The Fightin’ Facet of Me,” which warned:
They’re walkin’ at the fightin’ aspect of me
Runnin’ down an approach to life
Our fightin’ males have fought and died to stay
For those who don’t like it, go away it
Let this track that I’m singin’ be a warnin’
Whilst you’re runnin’ down our nation, hoss
You’re walkin’ at the fightin’ aspect of me.
Haggard was once some distance from a one-trick pony. He had 38 Billboard No. 1 hits. His catalog of songs over time covers the gamut of everlasting nation topics: consuming (“The Bottle Let Me Down”), exhausting dwelling (“Swinging Doorways”), jail (“Sing Me Again House”), unhealthy possible choices (“Mama Attempted”), romance (“Lately I Began Loving You Once more”), loss (“Silver Wings”), poverty (“Hungry Eyes”), trains (“No Extra Trains to Experience”), combat (“If We Make It Thru December”), and odes to the operating guy (“Workin’ Guy Blues”), rural existence (“Large Town”), and loose spirits (“Ramblin’ Fever”). His duet with Willie Nelson protecting Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” is an all-time vintage.
But, in spite of excellent appears to be like (Haggard bore a hanging resemblance to James Dean as a tender guy), an exquisite making a song voice, instrumental talents, degree presence, and prolific songwriting, Haggard by no means generated the vast attraction of different artists, reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s film luck, the tv target audience of Johnny Money, Glen Campbell, or Roy Clark (by the use of Hee Haw), or the multi-generational acclaim for Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, country-rock teams such because the Eagles, or even Dolly Parton. Eliot does now not explicitly spell out an evidence, however the reader can shape some conclusions from the abundantly detailed factual recitation in The Hag. Many artists are haunted through demons, which encourage their creativity, and this was once no doubt the case with Haggard, however those self same demons occasionally hindered his luck.
A number of elements will have contributed to Haggard’s restricted attraction. Haggard’s middle-class/blue-collar id cemented his recognition with that demographic, whilst alienating him from a broader, more youthful target audience at a important level in his profession. He later toured now and again with Bob Dylan and gave the impression at fairs with Willie Nelson, however he all the time retained his symbol as a traditional nation song artist somewhat than a hybrid or “outlaw” (even though he was once as soon as an outlaw). He by no means grew his hair lengthy a los angeles Willie Nelson, and his beard, by the point he sported one, was once now not unusual amongst nation musicians.
His degree presence didn’t translate to the film (or TV) display screen, even though he attempted. He was once headstrong and self sufficient sufficient to refuse a call for participation to look on The Ed Sullivan Display in 1970 because of his war of words with the layout. He additionally declined a job within the 1977 blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit.
Haggard’s profession was once now not enhanced through an undisciplined and tumultuous non-public existence. An inveterate philanderer, he was once married 5 instances; to the level that his songs addressed dishonest and heartbreak, he was once projecting. He additionally drank, gambled, smoked cigarettes (most likely contributing to his eventual center illness and lung most cancers), abused cocaine throughout the Eighties, and a minimum of through the overdue Seventies was once a closet marijuana consumer—claiming that his physician really useful it! Mockingly, his legal file was once off-putting to a couple conventional nation lovers, whilst—in contrast to Willie Nelson—he saved his drug use non-public for a few years even supposing it is going to have widened his adolescence attraction.
Early on, Haggard had selected his cultural “lane” and needed to reside with that. He was once “old-fashioned,” and cherished conventional nation song carried out through conventional-looking musicians. Haggard declined to play at the Nitty Gritty Dust Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken? undertaking as a result of they have been “long-hair hippie sorts.” Haggard by no means controlled to bridge the “technology hole,” and infrequently attempted.
Haggard was once a posh determine. He cherished touring on his bus, which reminded him of driving in a freight automotive. (He had a life-long fascination with trains.) Not like many different main nation artists, he have shyed away from dwelling in Nashville; he valued his privateness and most popular dwelling in far off portions of California—occasionally on a houseboat. He was once a loner, in spite of his a large number of marriages. Even his band was once known as “The Strangers.” Cussed and independent-minded, he was once now not temperamentally supplied to be “directed,” as Colonel Tom Parker had performed for Elvis and as Brian Epstein did for the Beatles. He had restricted trade acumen and made his percentage of unhealthy selections, leading to IRS issues and a chapter in 1992. However, Haggard—contradictions and all—was once true to himself and controlled to succeed in outstanding (albeit cyclical) luck in spite of his humble origins, stricken previous, and self-inflicted hindrances.
Eliot, who in the past wrote a best-selling biography of the Eagles, The Restrict (1998), amongst many different books on pop culture figures, shows really extensive familiarity with the song trade, and his detailed ebook will probably be of serious pastime to lovers of Merle Haggard or the rustic song scene within the a long time from 1960-2000, the arc of Haggard’s profession. Additionally, the existence and instances of “The Hag” are illustrative of bigger cultural topics that formed The us throughout that period. He was once the voice of blue-collar The us throughout a troublesome, disruptive epoch, the casual poet laureate of the country’s center category—the operating guy’s Robert Frost.
The duality between Haggard’s out of date track lyrics and his stricken, libertine non-public existence might strike some as hypocritical, nevertheless it displays the tensions inherent within the generational war that roiled the country throughout that length. Poets invoke the readers’ deeply held sentiments and attitudes. Artists put across pictures and don’t faux to be exemplars. Storytellers entertain the target audience with myths and fables. Haggard was once a poet, artist, and storyteller—now not a preacher. He gave voice to what center The us was once feeling with out pretending to be a fashion citizen himself. Musicians are hardly saints, and Haggard was once no exception. Many nation musicians died younger of alcohol abuse or drug overdoses, together with Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Keith Whitley, however Haggard was once a survivor.
That the son of an Okie and an ex-con who served time in San Quentin may depend as lovers U.S. Presidents as various as Nixon and Barack Obama demonstrates the ability of redemption on this resilient nation. Most effective in The us.