Magnifying Glass: Merle Haggard
April 21, 2015
by Joshua Levine
When the legendary Merle Haggard first emerged from the equally legendary Bakersfield, Calif. country music scene in the 1960s, not only was his singing and songwriting voice refreshing, exhilarating, distinctive, and remarkably accomplished, from the outset of his career his work did much to push the well-defined boundaries of country music while staying true to its signature characteristics.
Blowing onto the national radar like the imminent and inevitable California breeze he was, Haggard followed in the groundbreaking, tradition-building footsteps of forebears — and not coincidentally, his early idols like Hank Williams, Sr. and Bob Wills — with early triumphs like “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can“ and “Swinging Doors.”
But Haggard was no overnight success nor was his ride into the spotlight easy or swift. His early life — in fact, from the dawn of his adolescence up until he first set foot onto a stage and a recording studio — was fraught with frequent run-ins with the law, including an infamous series of events beginning with a robbery that eventually led to a 15-year sentence in the notorious San Quentin Prison (he ended up serving nearly three years). Despite this cinema-ready outlaw backstory, he was no mere common criminal. Originating from a musical family in Oklahoma, Haggard honed his musical interests in prison, and after his 1960 release, he quickly made a name for himself in the emerging Bakersfield country music circuit, which at the time was making waves in the U.S. due to the commercial success of Buck Owens.
The West Coast Country sound was quite different than its Nashville counterpart — unafraid of loud, electrified instruments and amplification, and untethered to the hit-making sensibilities pervasive on Music Row, Bakersfield was free to soak up regional swing influences, but most importantly, develop an uncompromisingly and uncommercial (at the time) raw style that unflinchingly reflected the honky-tonks in which it was born.
By 1966, after only a few years of recording, Haggard had three Top 10 Country Hits in that year alone, but his more profound — and prescient — accomplishment that year were the two awards bestowed on him by the Country Music Academy, which showed how far his dangerous style had infiltrated the country music mainstream. Soon, Merle Haggard would completely remake that mainstream in his own image, while making significant inroads into the pop charts and rock audiences.
As the ‘60s drew to a close, Haggard used his continually growing popularity to expand the range of his musical vocabulary, adding elements of jazz and blues, while developing a far more personal lyrical stance, which would explicitly address his tumultuous past.
While his politics at the time were at odds with the youth culture of the day — “Okie From Muskogee,” from 1969 and perhaps his single most well known track was a vitriolic swipe at the hippie movement — his image proved exceptionally attractive to rock ‘n’ roll musicians seeking to be perceived as threatening, and his right-of-center thematic concerns struck a chord with disaffected working class Americans, alienated by the onslaught of social changes brought on throughout the closing decade. And his record sales reflected this in no uncertain terms — Haggard enjoyed an unprecedented run of 37 straight top ten chart hits during a decade-long run that began in 1967. 23 of these singles would reach the pole position of the country singles chart.
Haggard remained a country superstar into the mid-’80s; ironically, his commercial domination suffered its first major blow at that time when a young generation of country musicians, dubbed the New Traditionalists and vocal in their praise for Haggard, began to capture the attention of the nation just as their prime influence had done two decades earlier. But this only meant that Haggard’s almost-always critically acclaimed records were mere major hits and not record-breakers.
By the ‘90s and 2000s, Haggard settled into the role of elder statesman and one of the finest singer/songwriters of any genre ever committed to tape. He released one of his most critically praised albums, “If Only I Could Fly,” on the punk-associated label Anti Records in 2000, and the pop-standards collection, “Unforgettable,” three years later on EMI, consolidating his range of influence across the board and free of genre. His live performances — always incendiary, tender, blazing and poignant, more often than not simultaneously — continue to inspire awe wherever in the world the inimitable Merle Haggard finds himself. And lucky for Downtown Tucsonans, Haggard finds himself at Fox Tucson Theatre this week.
Merle Haggard is scheduled to perform at Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St., Thursday, April 23 at 7 P.M. More details can be found here.