2016: The Year in Charts

Merle Haggard: From the 'Outlaw' Movement to Real Action

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Merle Haggard photographed on stage in 1970. 

The late singer epitomized country's 1970s outlaw trend even as he transcended it.

The term “outlaw country” had surely shed most of its meaning by the time mainstream country stars like Justin Moore were recording songs with signifier titles like “Outlaws Like Me” in the 21st century. Some would tell you the whole thing was a marketing term, even when the term first came into vogue in the 1970s. If that’s what it was, it certainly worked: A collection of mostly old material from Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser that was slapped together into the 1976 compilation album Wanted! The Outlaws became country music’s first platinum album, and suddenly mamas everywhere wanted their babies to grow up to be cowboys. Impolite cowboys.

To the extent that it applied to Merle Haggard, though, “outlaw” was far from any PR ploy (or even a tag he readily embraced). It fit who he was to the core, before and long after the period when he actually lived outside the limits of the law.

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Johnny Cash was the one almost everybody in America figured had done real time in the state pen. But when Cash played San Quentin, it wasn’t as a returning jailbird, but a sympathetic tourist. In the audience at one of those prison gigs, meanwhile, was a young Merle Haggard, a former juvenile delinquent who finally broke the cycle after joining a prison band. The Man in Black helped save Haggard from being the Man in Stripes.

Although he wrote about those days in his memoir, that image seemed to hold more sway for others than it did for himself. When I met Haggard in 2005, he was out on tour opening for Bob Dylan, and had some funny stories about his tourmate’s interest in his life of crime. “Bob comes up to me at one point and says, ‘So, uh, I’ve been reading your book, and uh, you stole a lot of stuff… You’re gonna have to teach me how to hop a freight someday. I want you to teach me how you stole cars.’ I said, ‘Well, Bob, I haven’t stolen a car in a long time, you know.’” Soon, Haggard was teasing Dylan in front of their joint audiences. “Bob Dylan invited me on his show,” Haggard told one crowd, but he’s afraid to have me on his fuckin’ bus, ‘cause he’s afraid I’ll steal something!” (Maybe that minor taunt had something to do with why, years later, Dylan took a weird shot at Haggard in his MusiCares acceptance speech.)

If a country star made that leap from inmate to platinum outlaw today, they’d play their sordid past up for all it was worth. But Haggard hardly fit the macho mold of today’s “outlaws.” If he was surly, it was a wry kind of surly. And his voice was so tender, it was a nearly feminine-sounding instrument. When he sang “Mama Tried,” his take left you thinking at least as much about mother’s actual disappointment as how awesome it is to be incorrigible.

Where he never stopped being lawless was in not following trends, although at least twice he was incidentally the beneficiary of fitting in with them. He and Buck Owens were the most public faces of the honky-tonk-oriented Bakersfield sound in the ‘60s, and by the mid-‘70s, his hardboiled lyricism and reluctance to cotton to slicker countrypolitan sounds put him squarely in the outlaw camp along with Jennings and his Pancho & Lefty partner, Nelson. An element of the waning counterculture that might once have seen songs like “Okee from Muskogee” as anthems of the enemy realized that Haggard was one of them, even if he didn’t grow his hair out half as long as Waylon’s or Willie’s. He played what came to be known as hard country… but the elements of jazz and string-band swing he brought into the music put him at the opposite end of the outlaw scale from a swaggering David Allan Coe. Even within the outlaw movement, he was a musical outlaw.

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Hard to peg? Blessedly so. “My mother summed all that up with one word,” Haggard told me. “She said somebody asked her, ‘Can you describe your son in a paragraph?’ And she said, ‘I can describe him in one word. Unpredictable.’ And I come by it honestly. But I also plan it. I intend to be taking a different route this morning to wherever I’m going than I did yesterday morning, and I’m not gonna leave at the same time. And I’m not gonna worry about the show I’m doing this weekend till I get on stage. I just have always been that way. I think it’s the best way to protect yourself against a robbery.” He chuckled. “And you might even trick the devil once in a while, if nobody know what you’re gonna do.”

That unpredictability made everybody want to embrace him, and even think he was one of their own — establishment or hippie, liberal or conservative, mainsteam or alt-country. “Merle Haggard was the original angry American, and ‘Fightin’ Side of Me’ was the original angry American song,” Toby Keith told me. Rodney Crowell, on the other hand, insisted, “I think if you explore Merle Haggard, you’ll find a liberal.”

“Well, I am one of all of them,” Haggard said in response to these sometimes contrary claims on him. “I represent all of them with their hearts and their souls, and I’ll leave their politics and religion to them. I have my politics and my religion… There are things I go for on both sides of the fence. I can’t be called one or the other. Both of ‘em disappoint me. America is being sold out right beneath our feet. Our way of life is going away. Each attempt is named something. Now it’s the Patriot Act. How many years should this thing go on, until we go back to being real Americans? I feel sorry for my kids and grandchildren. The brand of freedom they’re settling for is different from the kind we had.” (He could sound a little Rand Paul-ian when you got him going.)

But how outlaw was “Okie,” really? Outlaw enough. Sometimes he’d seem to embrace the conservative lyric, sometimes to be mocking it. No doubt he meant it either way. “Not every song is about the guy who’s singing it,” he said. “That song was really about somebody like my dad, who got up at 5 in the morning to go to work and came home and ate supper and went to bed and did the same thing the next day and had noting to look forward to. And was happy with a Sunday afternoon together with the family and church. This whole country was full of people like that. The little hippie thing that was occurring in the big cities did not reflect the majority of America…. My dad had been dead for several years, but I thought, if he was alive, he’d like this song. It was kind of for my dad, because he was the Okie from Muskogee. He came from Oklahoma to California, and I was born out here, sort of an afterthought in our family.”

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On tour with Dylan, the song got huge whoops every night from the children of Woodstock. “I think everybody has finally embraced the positive message in that song, which is: Whatever you are, be proud to be it. ‘Muskogee’ doesn’t put anybody down. It doesn’t say ‘They don’t.’ it says ‘We don’t.’ And we don’t smoke any marijuana down there in Muskogee, you know!” The smell wafting from Haggard’s bus let you know he definitely wasn’t in Oklahoma anymore.

Haggard had a sorry/not sorry attitude. “Well, I hope I didn’t say something to piss everybody off,” he told me in 2005. And, in almost the same breath, at the peak of the George W. Bush years, he let loose with: ““If they took a poll of the top three assholes of all time, who would they be? It’d have to be Hitler and Nixon, and then G.W. would be in there right under ‘em.” His rationale for the loose talk, at the time: “You know, I’m 67, and I’m supposed to be dead when I’m 70—so, hell, so be it, you know.”

Happily for post-mainstream country fans, Haggard was not dead by 70, going on for more than another decade of touring and record-making before finally passing away on his 79th birthday. Maybe it’s true what they say: only the in-laws die young. Haggard’s was the kind of sedition that will live forever.