Jason Isbell on Merle Haggard's Gift: He Was 'Always Able to Live Inside His Songs'

Jason Isbell
David McClister

Jason Isbell

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Jason Isbell shares the secrets of Merle Haggard's greatness: empathy.

Merle Haggard was the best country songwriter there ever was. You always felt like he had experienced the things that he was writing about, and he used the kind of language that country people use in conversations, even if he didn’t necessarily always agree with that point of view. When I was in The Drive-By Truckers, we used to talk a lot about “Okie From Muskogee.” From what I understand, the perspective in that song was really Merle’s father’s more than it was his own, but still he was able to write it in a really natural way. That’s when I realized really how great Merle was.

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My dad listened to Merle religiously when I was growing up. He would come home from work -- he had been doing construction all day -- and he would put on his headphones, plug them into the record player and sit on the couch for an hour before he did anything else. That was the time I knew not to bother him. When I started listening to those records on my own, I remember thinking about how a lot of Merle’s songs were really about a way to escape that life, from working that hard and not having a lot to show for it. He wasn’t giving you a way out in the sense of “you should make your life better,” he was giving you a way of imagining that you’re somewhere different, that you have a life out fishing and hunting in the woods, or roaming free somewhere in the West, rather than having to get up and go to work. Merle was always able to live inside his songs, whether it was his own story or somebody else’s.

-- As told to Ray Waddell

This story originally appeared in the April 16 issue of Billboard.

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