Losing an Original Like Merle Haggard Makes Us All a Little Poorer

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Monday, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood told The Guardian the band had been back in the studio, mostly recording old blues and R&B tunes by artists like Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf, but some new stuff, too. They could have a new album out by the end of the year, Wood said. Seems the septuagenarian rockers have locked into a pretty good groove from all the touring they’ve been doing, and are on something of a roll. Besides the prospect of the first new Stones album in 11 years (even if it is mostly or all covers), the subtext was pretty clear: these guys are probably going to keep going until they drop.

So did Merle Haggard, until he was sidelined by the pneumonia that ultimately took his life Wednesday. Even though he was in his late seventies, there was every reason to believe The Hag would get better; his scheduled June 16 date at Houston’s Arena Theatre stayed on the books right up until he was gone. Haggard opened some Stones shows back in 2006, a time when some people were already suggesting that both acts might be better off hanging it up. That was a decade ago.

The combination was odd enough to earn a spot on an Ultimate Classic Rock list of “Strangest Rolling Stones Opening Acts” in 2013, although it shouldn’t have. Haggard was a survivor, just like the Stones are. He lived to play music, with no real ulterior motive than just that, and kept doing it until his body gave out on him. We should all be so lucky.

Along with Bakersfield compatriots like Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, Haggard helped open a Western front in country music. The beer joints and honky-tonks where they played were loud, and the electric guitars and drums they used in order to be heard created a stark alternative to the prevailing Nashville sound at the time, which was dominated by strings and other suffocating production. The energy that crackled through the songs also appealed to many rock fans, including the Beatles. The people Haggard and his fellow musicians met there were often down on their luck and either ignored or outright shunned by respectable mainstream society; his sympathy with them is obvious in songs like “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers” (which gave his longtime backing band its name) and “Swingin’ Doors.” Haggard’s gift was in how he could make a song like “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” or “Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink” sound poetic in just a few lines.

Could be holding you tonight
Could quit doing wrong, start doin' right
You don't care about what I think
I think I'll just stay here and drink

Haggard’s gifts as a storyteller went well beyond barrooms, though. He needed to look no further than his own background for some of his biggest hits, songs like “The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” “Mama Tried,” “The Fugitive” or “Branded Man.” Haggard’s vast catalog spans both sides of WWII, a deep knowledge of country pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, popular legends like Bonnie and Clyde, the prisoner’s dying wish of “Sing Me Back Home” and “Okie From Muskogee,” maybe the most misunderstood song in country-music history. Though it was often taken as satirical (it wasn’t), his taking a “square” point of view in counterculture-dominated 1969 resulted in a song that helped define an era and remained one of Haggard's most popular long after the Vietnam War ended.

But whether or not Haggard based a song on his own personal experience, only a handful of other artists in this country’s history have spoken up for the bottom rungs of American society as consistently and convincingly as he did. Even on 21st-century songs like “That’s the News” and “I’ve Seen It Go Away,” he continued holding the wealthy and powerful accountable when most of his fellow musicians were simply trying to join their tax bracket. And few entertainers have been more acutely aware of the steep cost of their chosen profession than he is in “Footlights.”

I live the kinda life most men only dream of
I make my livin' writin' songs and singin' them
But I'm forty-one years old and I ain't got no place to go
When it's over
So I hide my age and make the stage and
Try to kick the footlights out again.

But Haggard, who was married five times (the last one for the past 23 years), also spoke equally eloquently and memorably about a subject people of all economic stations and political positions can relate to. His love songs could be angry (“I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can”), confused (“I’m Looking For My Mind”), controversial (“Irma Jackson”) or downright lonesome ("Silver Wings"). Or, as on “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room” or “It’s Been a Great Afternoon,” they could be downright whimsical. On “Today I Started Loving You Again,” the tempo and tenor are much more in line with one of Haggard’s heartbroken ballads, but nothing could be further from the truth. And as a crooner, as he was on “Easy Come, Easy Go” and “I Always Get Lucky With You,” The Hag was one of the best that music has ever seen.

I keep two strikes against me
Most all of the time
And when it's down to a phone call
I'm minus the dime

There's been good days and bad days
But when the day is all through
Hey I always get lucky with you

This has not been an easy year; the music world alone has already lost David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White in short order, and now The Hag. It’s only April. One day even the Stones will finally exit the stage for good, too. It’s hard to look around and see anyone out there who might one day take their place, because the kind of cultural values and work ethic that allowed someone like Haggard to become a star just don’t exist anymore. If anything hurts more than losing a legend like The Hag, it’s that.

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