Monday 16 July 2018

Obituary: Merle Haggard, Country singer

Born: April 6, 1937; died: April 6, 2016

Reformed: Merle Haggard was an inmate at San Quentin when Johnny Cash came to play, a performance that changed the then 21-year-old’s life.
Reformed: Merle Haggard was an inmate at San Quentin when Johnny Cash came to play, a performance that changed the then 21-year-old’s life.
Ed Power

Ed Power

With the passing this week of Merle Haggard, country music has lost one of its last true originals. Haggard was among the first country artists to sing about the darker side of the blue-collar American experience, his gothic twang conveying a multitude of emotions even as his lyrics blended heartfelt patriotism with a bleak humour. He died after a short battle with pneumonia on his 79th birthday.

Haggard was never a crowd pleaser and through his life steered a highly individualistic course. He could be chest thumpingly pro-American at times (Richard Nixon had him over to the White House) yet there was always an ambivalence swirling through his music. For Haggard, nothing was straightforward, except when he was singing about his life-long dalliances with booze, a topic which ironically brought out his sober and reflective side.

Along with contemporaries such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Haggard turned what had been a regional genre - classified by the Billboard charts as "Hillbilly music" until the seventies - into a serious art. Country music was regarded as the preserve of bumpkins and racists when Haggard got his start in the business in the late 50s. But he was a serious songwriter, with a quintessentially American story to tell, and was part of a generation that elevated a regional curiosity into something that demanded to be taken seriously.

This he did with enduring anthems such as 'Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down', 'Fightin' Side of Me' and 'Okie from Muskogee'. These songs communicated deep feelings in a straightforward fashion while also serving as a showcase for Haggard's folksy vocal style, suppler than Cashes and capable of a greater range than Nelson's (he of course collaborated with Nelson on the booze-soaked 1983 hit 'Pancho and Lefty').

And while never quite as famous as his great rivals, in the heartland he was held in higher esteem than either - much like Springsteen in New Jersey, Haggard was seen as articulating the world view of the average poor white guy in all its messy, self-involved complexity.

Married five times, he lived a life worthy of a Hollywood biopic. Haggard served time behind bars and, incredibly, was in the audience when Johnny Cash played San Quentin prison, north of San Francisco, in 1958 (he was later granted a pardon for his crimes by President Reagan).

His family had moved west along the Dustbowl from Oklahoma to California, where Haggard was born - in a converted boxcar - in 1937. Haggard's father died when Merle was just nine, and as a youth he was a tearaway with a vengeance. In hindsight, he believed losing a parent defined who he was for the rest of his years.

"What I've always looked for in life is my father's approval," he told GQ magazine in 2012. "I think that was the biggest thing I was robbed of. And it took me down many paths. It motivates you to do what I did... whatever you have to do, looking for approval. Always making a new record, always writing another song. Who knows? It may have inspired everything."

Aged 14, he left home and scraped a living from petty crime. He passed in and out of prisons and was soon a veteran jailbird ("You start off with a truancy problem, and they send you to jail with big-time criminals. Pretty soon your idols become Jesse James and John Dillinger".) At 21 he was banged up at San Quentin for burglary when Johnny Cash came by to play some songs. That performance changed something in Haggard and, upon release, he threw himself into music.

He became a regular in the bars and clubs around California's rural fringes, during which he found time to wed and divorce his first wife. Marital woes aside, life was starting to came together for Haggard and, in 1965, he was named best newcomer by the Academy of Country Music. As the hits stacked up, he achieved national recognition and was credited with helping create a new strain of country music - darker, more reflective of real life than the glossy sounds emanating from Nashville (not that this got in the way of his being elected, in 1977, to the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame).

His writing was growing more strident too. 'Okie from Muskogee' was embraced as an anthem by the small-town folks who constituted the bedrock of his fan-base. Meanwhile, the 'Fightin' Side of Me' saw the singer figuratively wrapped in the American flag and drew the admiration of President Nixon, who had him over to perform at the White House (Haggard was tempted to light a joint in the Oval Office bathroom but thought better of it).

"I sometimes feel like I'm standing up for the people that don't have the nerve to stand up for themselves," he told GQ. "I just enjoyed winning for the loser. I'd never been around anything except losers my whole life."

Always contradictory, Haggard did not seem sure how to respond to success. He was ambitious, yet recoiled whenever the spotlight drifted in his direction.

He certainly was not interested in the sort of self mythologising that enabled Cash and Nelson to take their fame to the next level. A "man in black" gimmick or a political cause such as marijuana legalisation was not for Haggard. If you wanted to know what he thought, you needed to listen to his music. He wasn't going to give you anything on a platter.

A life spent in the fast line inevitably took a toll and across the past decade he has been dogged by poor health. He was diagnosed with lung cancer eight years ago, returning to the stage after surgery. He performed in public for the last time in 2015 and by all accounts put in a torrid and determined turn - as if sensing that the end was in sight. He is survived by fifth wife Theresa Lane and by seven children from across his marriages.

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