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Merle Haggard: Born an Outsider, Died an Icon
Sometime in the 1970s, when country artists still frowned upon overdubbing their recordings, Merle Haggard went into the control booth after a performance to consult with Jim Williamson, who engineered the bulk of Haggard's sessions for roughly 15 years.
Williamson, now deceased, told Haggard that one of the musicians had muffed their part and they'd need to rerecord it. "Hag" cocked his eyebrow, then rebuffed Williamson. People didn't buy records for the background parts.
"They buy them for the singer and the song, and that's the best I'm going to sing that," Haggard allegedly told Williamson. "That's the take."
Hag, who died April 6 after a four-month battle with pneumonia, was amused by that story when it was repeated to him during an interview for the Billboard Country Update last July.
"I don't remember that," he said, "but it's probably true."
And it told much about what made Merle Haggard successful. A remarkably smooth singer with rich lower tones, a fluid guitar player with a strong sense of melody and a concise songwriter able to reduce life's complexities into simple conversational phrases, Haggard was a no-brainer inductee in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. He didn't invest his phrasing with the dramatic embellishments of a George Jones or the staggered phrasing of a Willie Nelson. He didn't shred guitar with the breakneck speed of a Brad Paisley. And he didn't write songs with the wit of a Cole Porter.
Instead, Haggard went after all the elements of his trade with an exacting, straight-forward dedication. He perfected simplicity, and it's a big reason he was often referred to as the "poet of the common man."
Part of his commonality with his audience might be found in his biography. Most people fake their way through life feeling like an outcast from all but a few friends, never quite sure they know for certain what they're doing, hoping that they're never revealed as a fraud. The outsiders, as Eric Church would dub them, typically feel pushed down by the establishment, misunderstood by their peers, sometimes rejected by their families.
Haggard's biography set him up to understand that kind of status. Born in a ramshackle home -- a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, Calif. -- Haggard and his family were stuck in poverty, and when his father died before he turned 10, his mother was forced to work to keep the finances going. Haggard went down several wrong paths, ultimately doing prison time in San Quentin, where he would witness one of Johnny Cash's fabled concerts. After his incarceration, as Haggard began to ascend to national prominence, it was Cash who counseled Haggard to come clean publicly on his checkered past, and it helped him to be a fully integrated artist, one whose public message seemingly matched his private personality.
His outsider viewpoint informed the marked ex-convict in "Branded Man," the aging rebel in "Big City," the unemployed family man in "If We Make It Through December," the disgruntled patriot in "Are the Good Times Really Over," the scorned lower-class kid in "Mama's Hungry Eyes" and the enslaved laborer in "Workin' Man Blues." In his arguably greatest recording, "Mama Tried," Haggard embellished his criminal past -- he really did turn 21 in prison -- while conveying the regret he felt for disappointing his family. It's that honesty, conveyed from the moment the song was conceived, that served Haggard for more than 50 years.
"You don't think about the check that you might get, you don't think about the popularity that might be coming or you might not think about the criticism," Haggard said in 2015. "When you're writing a song, you just try to stay on the subject and get through with it, and put it on something where you can remember it the next day."
In his later years, Haggard was mystified by what country had become. The hip-hop phrasing and arena-rock chords that play a role in the modern format were anathema to his tastes. But making the music evolve was quite familiar to him. He was often compared to honky-tonk vocalist Lefty Frizzell at the start of his career, but Haggard played Chuck Berry rock'n'roll cover songs in the Bakersfield clubs in his formative years, was a dedicated fan of R&B-influenced hillbilly cat Elvis Presley and paid extraordinary attention to western swing and traditional pop.
"I was probably influenced more by [The Texas Playboys' lead vocalist] Tommy Duncan and Bing Crosby than anybody on earth," Haggard told me in 2005, seated in a lounge at the Capitol Recording Studios in Los Angeles, the same facility where he cut some of his biggest recordings.
At that point in his career, Haggard had evolved past the outsider. He had become an icon for most country performers who would follow, although he never wanted to be constrained by format.
It was Haggard's goal to "create something like Bob Wills had and something like Elvis had, which was their own kind of music that crossed the boundaries and was accepted in all corners," said Haggard. "That's my dream ... [for people] to just say, ‘Hey, that's Merle Haggard music.' ‘Well, that don't sound like country.' Well, it's really not country, but they play it on country stations."
After that interview, Haggard went out to the Capitol Studio floor to do a soundcheck for an industry party. The Strangers ran through one or two songs, and at the end, Haggard ripped into the engineer, who had made some adjustments to the sound that were contrary to his instructions. The sound guy had an explanation, but Haggard brushed him off. He was the singer, he had been doing it for -- at that time -- 40 years, and it would be done his way.
The unspoken implication in the argument was that Haggard knew how to connect. His songs were what allowed him to transform himself from an outsider to an accepted -- even revered -- part of culture. He knew the emotional corners where the songs came from, and he knew from experience how best to present them.
The live concerts are gone, but those classics -- "Silver Wings," "Today I Started Loving You Again," "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" -- still convey Haggard's humanity. His honest representation of his own journey helped so many others directly examine their own.
"That's about the only thing a person really knows about ... his own life," Haggard said in 2015. "I've had an interesting life, to say the very least. It leaves a lot to write about."
Merle Haggard has left us. But because he wrote it down, so honestly, so simply, he left us with a lot.
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.