Morning Music: Merle Haggard

Strangers - Merle HaggardSince Merle Haggard died last week, I figured we’d spend some time listening to his music. He’s always been a struggle for me because on the one hand, he was one of the most talented songwriters ever. On the other hand, he wrote “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” — two of the most vile and reactionary songs ever. And they weren’t the only ones.

The thing is, I think Haggard was a smart and thoughtful guy. But that kind of working class bigotry toward anyone considered an outsider came all too easy for him. It’s weird and it also explains why he was all over the board when he discussed these songs. Mostly, I don’t think he much knew what he was doing. He just wrote the songs and how ever they turned out was okay. Analysis was not really what he did. But he should have. Anyone with his background and good fortune should have embraced the outsider to the core of his being.

Five years after his release from San Quentin Prison, Merle Haggard released his first album, Strangers. It’s not a great album. Over half of it is other people’s material, and I’ve never been so much taken with him as a performer. And it doesn’t include his best material. But much of it is quite fine indeed. It isn’t very distinctive, however. In particular, today’s song, “If I Had Left It Up To You” sounds like George Jones wrote it. And that’s true of most of the tunes on the album, they sound like someone else wrote them. But that doesn’t make them any less good. And for a first album, well, wow.

3 thoughts on “Morning Music: Merle Haggard

  1. As a guy who was 18 in 1969 when “Oakie from Muskogee” came out, I’ve never had a kind work for that prick. I doubt I’d ever go to the trouble to find out where he was buried. But, if I ever happened to be near his grave I would stop by to piss on it.

    • He’s said later he was an idiot when he wrote those songs, and he was strongly against Bush II. But I think Frank has it right; he’s all over the place talking about them. I think this is pretty common with pop artists. Johnny Cash, for example, could do an entire album about how Native Americans were betrayed, a fabulous song like “Man In Black” on the side of the poor and the drafted grunts dying in Vietnam . . . then turn around and do patriotic doggerel on his TV show.

    • I appreciate that. Just the same, Haggard was such a mass of contradictions. Hooked on cocaine for years and a lifetime cannabis smoker, it’s interesting to hear him sing about the “good times” when “a joint was a bad place to be.” But I won’t be presenting those songs. Actually, tomorrow, I’m not even doing him because I felt like taking a break — after one day.

      I have a Merle Haggard story that I will tell later in the week. Through an accident, I saw him when I was a kid…

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