You probably already heard about the death of country music legend Merle Haggard. (Update: David just posted a tribute.) When I saw the NYT news alert this afternoon, I immediately thought of my grandfather, a huge country-western fan in general and of Haggard in particular. So I emailed Pop to see what his favorite Haggard song is and he replied with two: “All My Friends are Gonna Be Strangers” and “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink.” I went with the latter because it’s nearly happy hour, just in time for my grandfather’s vodka gimlet.
For more on Haggard, check out the essay Tony Scherman wrote for us back in August 1996 detailing how “Merle Haggard’s sandblasted truth has been eclipsed by the twinkly perfection of today’s country music”—more twinkly than ever today, two decades later. Here’s Scherman:
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.