Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day, 1953. He was not yet 30 when he passed away in the back of a Cadillac. The circumstances of his life and death created the legendary aura that surrounds Williams and virtually guaranteed that he would be the subject of many songs as well as a writer and singer of them.
On the sixth anniversary of Williams’ death, another country legend was born at San Quentin State Prison in California. Merle Haggard actually entered the world in 1937, but the course of his life was altered on the first day of 1959 when he attended a Johnny Cash performance at the prison. The show reinvigorated a desire to play and sing country music that was present at least from age 16 when he mounted the stage during a Lefty Frizzell show, at Frizzell’s request, and sang a few songs.
The sort of experience that is good for a country music career is bad for a successful life, and Haggard lived with a lot of pain in his early years. His father died when he was nine. As a 14-year-old, he served his first time in jail, on suspicion of armed robbery. He spent a lot of time in reform school and jail over the next few years before the crowning moment in his brief criminal career. At the age of 20, about to be a father for the second time, Merle Haggard engaged in a pitiful act of drunken fecklessness. He and an accomplice, under the influence of red wine, attempted to burglarize a highway restaurant at three o’clock in the morning. But red wine can play tricks on the eyes: it was actually ten in the evening and the diner was still filled with customers and employees. Haggard’s next stop was San Quentin.
Merle Haggard’s singing career has been forged by several factors. He was born in Oildale, California, in 1937, to parents who had participated in the great migration of Okies escaping the Dust Bowl. The California of his youth was filled with refugees from the Southwest, and like those Southerners who migrated to Chicago and “Detroit City,” they did not abandon their roots when they moved. Bakersfield had a vibrant country music scene in the 1950’s and 60’s, featuring artists like Buck Owens, Ferlin Husky, and Tommy Collins, who wrote many songs for Haggard. Haggard would pay tribute to Collins years later with “Leonard,” a short biographical sketch titled after Collins’ real name, Leonard Sipes: “He laid it all aside to follow Jesus / for years he chose to let his music go / But preachin’ wasn’t really meant for Leonard / But how in the hell was Leonard supposed to know?”
To commemorate Haggard’s career, a four-disc boxed set, Down Every Road, was released in 1996. The chronologically arranged set is filled with evidence of Haggard’s greatness and importance as a country singer. It begins with his first single, “Skid Row” (1962), and concludes with “In My Next Life” (1994). Merle Haggard is a multifaceted songwriter and storyteller, and Down Every Road reflects many facets of his talent. Haggard drew on his experience as a prisoner several times early in his career with recordings like “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Mama Tried.” These songs convey empathy for the ex-convict who is “branded with a number on my name,” or for the condemned man led “down the hallway to his doom,” without attempting to absolve him of his ultimate responsibility for his acts: “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied / That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.”
Haggard has referred to his musical style as “country jazz,” and it can indeed sometimes sound more jazz than country. His bluesy renditions of “Loneliness is Eating Me Alive” and “Trouble In Mind” have more in common with the sounds of black performers like Charles Brown or T-Bone Walker than with George Jones. But he respects traditional country sounds. His music is strong on traditional elements like the fiddle and steel guitar. Even when the fiddles melt into “strings” on Haggard’s versions of “Carolyn” and “Misery and Gin,” the country flavor is maintained largely on the strength of Haggard’s voice and the subject matter (cheatin’ and drinkin’).
The signature song of Haggard’s career is the 1969 classic, “Okie From Muskogee.” Its inflammatory lyrics provoked a controversy and a lingering debate over how seriously its message was intended to be taken. Lines such as “Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear” are difficult to hear today while maintaining a straight face, but it matters little if the song was recorded with tongue in cheek. It was not received that way, either by rednecks or hippies.
“Okie From Muskogee” is only one of Haggard’s excursions into the Culture War featured on Down Every Road. “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Fightin’ Side of Me,” and “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)” are also included. In the last song, Haggard recalls his fond memories of the days “before microwave ovens, when a girl could still cook, and still would.”
The apparent jingoism of songs like “Fightin’ Side of Me” is probably what moved California Governor Ronald Reagan to grant Haggard a pardon in 1972. But the totality of his recorded work provides little succor to the band of Wilsonian universalists, subsidized moralists, and economic determinists who make up the respectable right. Virtue czar Bill Bennett would collapse with the vapors from Haggard lyrics about “bummin’ round Chicago in the afternoon,” or “Living With the Shades Pulled Down.” Haggard’s many songs about economic hardship, especially “If We Make It Through December,” are not consistent with the banal supply-side optimism of the Republican Party or with the wonders of a global economy in which any corporation may move your job out of the country, leaving you to explain why “daddy can’t afford no Christmas here.” And Haggard’s recent appearance on the cover of Hemp Times, where he vented his anger about our loss of constitutional rights and environmental destruction in the Southwest, will further complicate anyone’s efforts to put him in a neat ideological box.
Fortunately, Merle Haggard did not become a p.r. flack for the Heritage Foundation or a syndicated columnist. He has devoted most of his material to time-honored themes of country music, including the widespread fantasy (at least among men) of dropping out and hitting the road, or simply, “ramblin’.” It is not surprising that a man who wasted a good portion of his youth in jail and reform school devotes a number of songs to the theme of escape. It is occasionally compelled by the need to flee the law, as in his cover of “The Fugitive” and in the obscure “Huntsville.” In the latter. Haggard narrates the chilling tale of a convict who is “bringin’ in a load of time.” He does not moralize about the crimes of the song’s narrator. Instead, he tells the story of a man with nothing left to lose:
They got me chained in leg irons
I guess they got a good excuse
They know I’m gonna run the first chance I get
Cause they’re never gonna set me loose.
And I really don’t care if they shoot me down,
I’ll never be free again
I got two long life terms to do
both running end on end
It ain’t so far to Mexico that I can’t find my way
They’re takin’ me down to Huntsville,
but I’m not gonna stay.
One of Haggard’s strengths is his versatility as a songwriter. He has written brooding ballads about the lives of prisoners and hobos that are worthy of the lofty title “folk music,” and he has drawn upon his personal experience to great effect. But his ability to give new life to familiar themes and images should not be overlooked. Probably a million country songs have prominently featured a jukebox, but in “Someone Told My Story” the narrator drops his dime only to hear his own story being told: “The writer . . . told of swingin’ doors and a jukebox, and he even knew I almost lost my mind.” In an added twist, the song on the jukebox—”Swinging Doors”—is also by Haggard. Likewise, there have been a multitude of songs about lost love, but in “I’m Looking for My Mind,” the narrator is not worried about his broken heart. He tells his ex that “I lost my mind the day I lost your love / I’m not crazy but sometimes I wish I was / If you turn around and see me crawling close behind / It’s not you I want, I’m looking for my mind.”
Down Every Road could not have been released at a better time. Country music is in a time of crisis. More popular than ever, it is also becoming homogenized and losing its regional character. Country threatens to become the soundtrack of the global economy. This phenomenon, in fact, was the subject of an approving cover story in the New Republic, complete with quotations from insipid lyrics of angst-ridden suburbanites like Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Garth Brooks. While Haggard cut his teeth imitating Lefty Frizzell and recorded tribute albums to Jimmy Rodgers and Bob Wills, Garth Brooks owes more to the influence of Billy Joel. Although Brooks (unlike Haggard) actually hails from Oklahoma, the New Republic notes that the distinguishing feature of his Tulsa is that it is “the most demographically ‘typical’ city in America.” Nobody could ever say that about “Muskogee, Oklahoma, U.SA”