Merle Ronald Haggard (April 6, 1937 - April 6, 2016) was a Country Music artist. One of the only country musicians from California, he helped pioneer what came to be known as the "Bakersfield sound" and was influential in the "outlaw" sound as well.
Haggard was quite the badass early on in his life, including stints in PSI and San Quentin Prison. After working some time with Lefty Frizzell, he actively pursued a music career in the mid-1960s after cleaning up his life. A modest Top 20 hit, "Sing a Sad Song" on the Tally label, brought him to the mainstream for the first time, but it wasn't until he joined Capitol Records' roster in 1965 that the hits started coming. Working with his band, the Strangers, he would chart thirty-eight Number One hits and several more Top Tens throughout his career. Awards aplenty came from the Country Music Association and Grammys, as well as a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2006 and induction into the country music Hall of Fame. He even got pardoned by then-California governor Ronald Reagan in 1972. Starting in the late 1970s, he switched to MCA Records, and then to Epic Records by 1981 and Curb in the early 1990s. Although he never hit the Top 10 again after 1989, he never gave up on recording.
Haggard's sons, Noel and Marty, also had minor success as recording artists.
Haggard passed away on his 79th birthday while recovering from pneumonia.
Tropes present in his work:
- Answer Song: A rather bizarre example not from The Hag himself but directed at him. Apparently, "Grandma's Homemade Christmas Card," an overly-sentimental filler track from his Christmas album, inspired Randy Brooks to write the Black Comedy classic "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer." Yes, really.
- Anti-Christmas Song: Of a sort. "If We Make It Through December" (1973) has a laid-off factory worker explaining to his daughter that "Daddy can't afford no Christmas here", even though he "wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl." It's one of his most fondly regarded songs, even getting included on two consecutive studio albums (1973's Merle Haggard's Christmas Present and 1974's If We Make It Through December).
- Antiquated Linguistics: The chorus of "Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)" uses the obscure term "French harp" to refer to a harmonica (which originated as the name of a specific 19th century harmonica model, and briefly achieved Brand Name Takeover as a generic American slang term for the instrument).
- Band of Relatives: "Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)", about a traveling band with parents and children performing together, with the Inspirationally Disadvantaged twist of the father being blind and his wife being deaf.
- Childhood Home Rediscovery: "The Roots of My Raising" is a young singer's first-person reflection of his childhood home and hometown, which he is visiting for the first time after several years away. In addition to seeing his father asleep in an easy chair and holding a photo of his wife (the singer's mother), he also rediscovers the old one-room schoolhouse he attended as a child, and the bank where people were able to take out loans simply on a verbal promise of repayment.
- Christmas Songs: He did three Christmas albums—Merle Haggard's Christmas Present (Something Old, Something New) in 1973 (the first side was originals, including "If We Make It Through December", the second side was Christmas standards), Goin' Home for Christmas in 1983 (a new Title Track along with re-recordings of all the originals from the first album, mixed with a new set of standards), and I Wish I Was Santa Claus in 2004 (mostly covers and standards, but "If We Make It Through December" and "Santa Claus & Popcorn" from Christmas Present get their third recorded renditions here).
- Chronological Album Title: Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album in 1974. He cheated a bit on the numbering, though, since it was only his 17th studio album, so to get to 30 he counted a duet album with his then-wife Bonnie Owens, four live albums (one of them devoted to Gospel Music), the aforementioned Merle Haggard's Christmas Present, two Greatest Hits Albums, and five instrumental albums by his band The Strangers that weren't really Haggard albums as such, but since they were released under his banner, he included them in the tally.
- Cover Album: The self-explanatory Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimmie Rodgers (1969), A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) (1970), My Farewell to Elvis (1977, though it has one original, "From Graceland to the Promised Land") and The Way It Was In '51 (1978), a joint tribute to two of his obvious influences, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, with two Haggard originals.
- Cover Version: While he was one of the genre's most accomplished songwriters, Haggard still typically did a few covers per album, and released a fair number of them as singles. He's notable for championing female songwriters. His Breakthrough Hit was Liz Anderson's "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers". Also, he was one of the first singers to cover a Dolly Parton song, recording "In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)" before she did her own version, then had a #1 hit with her "Kentucky Gambler" in 1974.
- Damned by Faint Praise: Happened in real life. Haggard had escaped from prison several times before going to San Quentin (in fact, that was part of reasoning behind him being sent there), and was immediately placed on the closest tier of custody there was, meaning if he wasn't at his job or a meal, he had to stay in his cell (the irony being that ending up in San Quentin had given him a reality check and made him decide to get out of crime). He would note in his autobiography that, given he was asked to go along with one of the few-ever successful breakouts, this was justified.I was almost amused, and yeah, a little flattered, that they would even consider me an escape risk. As it turned out, their fears were justified. I could have escaped. I had the opportunity and I could have made it.
- Dead Sparks: "Just Between the Two of Us"
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: "Okie From Muskogee" lists a bunch of things that good clean-cut folks don't do.We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee... we don't take our trips on LSD... we don't make a party out of lovin'...
- Drowning My Sorrows: "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" couldn't possibly fit the bill any better. It's strangely upbeat, however. "Misery and Gin" plays it perfectly straight.
- Epic Rocking: "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" notably was released unedited as a single in 1980 even though it was 4:31 in an era when country singles usually still hovered around the 3:00 mark. Still hit #1, though.
- Lyrical Dissonance:
- He tended to favor midtempo country songs in bright keys like C or D, sometimes with singalong choruses, which often contrasted strongly with lyrics about things like being in prison ("Mama Tried") or losing your job right before Christmas ("If We Make It Through December").
- Had he not made the music bouncy, with a rousing singalong chorus, "Okie from Muskogee" would've come across as self-righteous finger-pointing. Being as catchy as it is helped it become an ironic favorite among hippies.
- Maligned Mixed Marriage: Both his cover of Tommy Collins' "Go Home" and his own "Irma Jackson" denounce prejudice against interracial relationships. He was originally planning to release the latter as his next single after "Okie from Muskogee", but Executive Meddling nixed the idea. The song was eventually released in 1972.
- Maybe Ever After: "If We're Not Back in Love by Monday"
- Never Live It Down: In-work example with "Branded Man." A case can also be made for "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive."
- One-Man Song: "Leonard", a tribute to Haggard's fellow Bakersfield singer-songwriter and friend Tommy Collins, who was born Leonard Sipes.
- One-Woman Song: "Mary's Mine", "Irma Jackson", "Carolyn"
- Protest Song: "Okie from Muskogee," wherein he laments the hippie generation. The song was frequently misinterpreted across the American political spectrum, as it is a satirical composition expressing the views of a segment of the populace with whom Haggard seems to have somewhat, but not completely, agreed; the song seems to have been more intended as a lament that such people were unilaterally dismissed as reactionaries and "squares" than a complete endorsement of their views. (That said, Haggard gave conflicting statements about what he intended the song to mean, so it is difficult to know for sure how he intended it). Haggard later strongly distanced himself from the song, saying he "must have been dumber than a rock when [he] wrote it" both in concerts and in interviews. Despite this, he continued performing it to the end of his life. Interestingly, the song also became popular enough among the counterculture that Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs, The Beach Boys, and The Grateful Dead were known to perform it.
- "The Fightin' Side of Me" pretty much inverts this trope, warning against protesting America's involvement in wars. As with "Okie", Hag later denounced the positions he expressed in the song, but continued performing it to the end of his life.
- "Rainbow Stew" can be interpreted as one but, like many of his songs, is accessible to several interpretations. The song, if read at face value, contains protests against environmental degradation, war, and government corruption, amongst other things. One other possible interpretation is that Hag is challenging the idea that a utopia is possible, while nevertheless hoping that one will arise. However, there are several other possible interpretations as well.
- For a couple of completely straight examples, see Maligned Mixed Marriage above. "If We Make It Through December" has elements of this as well; see Anti-Christmas Song above.
- Self-Plagiarism: He wasn't too ashamed to reuse musical elements from his earlier hits in later songs. An interesting case is "If We're Not Back in Love By Monday" sounding like a rewritten "If We Make It Through December", since Haggard didn't write "Monday".
- Shout-Out: The song "No Show Jones" from his all duet album with George Jones is basically a series of these to (in order of appearance) Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Haggard himself, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, and Tammy Wynette.
- Snow Means Cold: The chorus of "If We Make It Through December".It's the coldest time of winter
And I shiver when I see the fallin' snow
- Something Blues: "Workin' Man Blues".
- "Somewhere" Song: "California Cottonfields".
- Son of a Whore: "Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp".
- The Stoner: "It's All Going to Pot".
- There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: Most of "My Own Kind of Hat" is this.
- Three Chords and the Truth: Like many of the artists of his generation, the Hag was known for his simple, raw songwriting and production and no-frills concerts. His son Ben, who played guitar for The Strangers in the last years of Haggard's life, once told his father he should speak to the audience in between songs, and Merle responded "Why? They came to hear me sing, not talk."
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: "Mama Tried." Haggard's father really did die young and Haggard really was a rebellious child who grew up to commit several crimes. But the resemblance ends there; the narrator "turned 21 in prison doing life without parole," which obviously didn't happen to Haggard, although he did spend a few years in jail.
- Wanderlust Song: "The Fugitive" (or "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive"), "Ramblin' Fever", "White Line Fever"
- Word Salad Lyrics: "We'll all be drinkin' that free Bubble Up and eatin' that rainbow stew" from "Rainbow Stew."note
- Working with the Ex: Merle was married to singer Bonnie Owens from 1965 to 1978; but even after the divorce, she continued to tour occasionally as part of his band.