The Last Roundup
MERLE Haggard is a commanding figure in late-twentieth-century American popular music, a country-music superstar whose career, documented in the new collection Down Every Road, has spanned more than one seismic shift in our recent cultural history.
Long overdue, Capitol Nashville's four-disc, hundred-song compilation is one of the few indispensable items in the CD-era glut of reissues and commemorative boxed sets.
Before he stiff-armed the counterculture in 1969 with his hippie-baiting anthem "Okie From Muskogee," Haggard was on his way to an unlikely apotheosis. Rolling Stone critics lionized him as an auteur and an unlettered poet transcending the limits of a trashy genre. The genre itself fascinated hippies. The Grand Ole Opry, Goo-Goo Clusters, Tammy Wynette--wow! To the children of affluence, this was surreal kitsch, exotic yet on native ground. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda rode out to discover America in Easy Rider. Merle Haggard was the son of Dust Bowl refugees and sang about it; he was an ex-con and sang about that, too. "I turned twenty-one in prison / Doin' life without parole." So what if the fellow wasn't a murderer? He was the real thing--ten times as real as Bob Dylan, that middle-class renegade.
But the real thing got nasty and bit the counterculture's hand. Whether or not Haggard wrote "Okie" as a joke (he's never been very clear about this), it showed the hippies where his heart lay: with the hardhats. With the crackers who blew Hopper and Fonda away. With white working-class America, not romanticized à la Marcuse but in its red, white, and hippie-stomping blue. With the crowds of crew-cut flag-wavers who cheered Merle on all across America, in the autumn of 1969: "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogeeee . . . "
Recoiling, the longhairs vilified Haggard ("the Spiro Agnew of music," one critic called him) and then forgot about him. Haggard shrugged and went on his way, singing for his faithful fans and slowly building what Down Every Road confirms is country music's greatest body of work since that of Hank Williams Sr.
Not that he is at the end of the road. Leading his crack ten-piece band, The Strangers, Haggard plied America's highways to play 107 shows last year--as charismatic a performer as ever at fifty-nine. This is poignant, because his records no longer climb the country charts. They hardly even make bottom-rung appearances. Those faithful country-music fans have proved fickle--or, rather, they've been swamped by legions of new fans to whom Haggard and his still-vital contemporaries Waylon Jennings (fifty-nine), Willie Nelson (sixty-three), and George Jones and Johnny Cash (both sixty-four) mean little. The new fans go for a hygienically improved type, a cowboy-hatted hunk tricked out in the trappings of his predecessors--hat, jeans, boots, even a southern twang--but singing a very different song.
MERLE Haggard is a man of prismatic creativity, a singer, songwriter, bandleader, guitarist, and fiddler--(everything but, as a recent brush with bankruptcy attests, a good businessman). He has written or co-written 346 songs, forty-five more than the legendarily prolific Willie Nelson. As a singer he has sent thirty-eight tunes to No. 1 on Billboard's country chart--more than Nelson and Hank Williams Sr. combined. He has released sixty-eight albums, not counting the bootleg cassettes and CDs one finds on drugstore racks.
Haggard's songbook includes remarkably few throwaways. Especially from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties he churned out classic after classic. He has written working-class anthems ("Mama's Hungry Eyes," "Workin' Man Blues," "If We Make It Through December," "Big City") and prison songs ("Sing Me Back Home," "Branded Man," "Mama Tried," and the searing "Huntsville," buried until now on a 1971 album). He has written road songs ("White Line Fever," "Ramblin' Fever"), jingoistic songs ("Okie From Muskogee," "The Fightin' Side of Me"), sad love songs ("Silver Wings," "Holding Things Together"), happy love songs ("Living With the Shades Pulled Down"), sad drinking songs ("The Bottle Let Me Down"), happy drinking songs ("Honky Tonk Night Time Man"), and sad drinking songs masquerading as happy drinking songs ("Swinging Doors"). He has written ecology songs ("Winds of Change"), anti-racism songs ("Irma Jackson"), showbiz-is-hell songs ("Footlights"), and odes to his own truculent, square-peg-in-a-round-hole individualism ("My Own Kind of Hat").
When I spoke to Haggard recently, I asked him which song best expressed him. He thought for a long time. "What came to mind when you said that was the song called `Leonard.' I wrote it about a friend of mine [the songwriter Tommy Collins, born Leonard Sipes]. I sometimes marvel at that one. I don't know how I did it. `Footlights' might describe my situation, or condition, more than any other song. `White Man Singing the Blues'--lately I've been thinking about how lucky I was to have written that."
"The poet of the common man," as Haggard is sometimes called, is at bottom an autobiographer, drawing again and again on his rural blue-collar roots. He really is an Okie from the greater Muskogee area--or his parents are, anyway; Merle was born in Oildale, California, near Bakersfield, two years after the family migrated from Oklahoma. His imagination has remained working-class. Though he had long left poverty behind when he wrote "If We Make It Through December," the portrait of a laid-off factory worker rings true: "I don't mean to hate December / It's meant to be the happy time of year / And my little girl don't understand / Why Daddy can't afford no Christmas here."
The bedrock emotion in his songs is probably a deep, stoic sadness ("I grew up in an oil town / But my gusher never came in," he sings in the beautiful elegy "Kern River"); still, Haggard can also kick up his heels ("Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room"). The young ex-con's pinched, antisocial bitterness in "Branded Man" ("I paid the debt I owed them, but they're still not satisfied") faded with time. Later on there were astonishing moments of open-armed bonhomie--the sunny prophecy "Rainbow Stew," for instance, with its visions of world peace and gasless cars and its giddy refrain, "We'll all be drinkin' that free Bubble Up / And eatin' that rainbow stew!" Haggard's politics are impossible to pigeonhole. The single he wanted to release right after "Okie" was "Irma Jackson," an interracial love story. Aghast, Capitol quashed the idea. Haggard may have been received at Nixon's White House, but that didn't prevent him from unfondly remembering the man who "lied to us all on TV." In the end Haggard hews to a sort of right-wing anti-authoritarianism, more reflexive than reasoned.