Whether Dad was playing an original tune on his Martin electric or Mom was cleaning house to Pavarotti, music was thankfully an enormous part of growing up. It kept us all grounded, motivated and creative. And apparently a legend like Merle Haggard found salvation in song as well. Following his release from doing hard time in San Quentin in 1962, Haggard tuned in to something he'd been doing all along: singing and playing guitar. Three years and a signing to Capitol Records later, Haggard garnered attention for something other than arrests and escapes. "Lonesome Fugitive" and "The Bottle Let Me Down" got him started, and "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," "Mama Tried" and "Okie From Muskogee" quickly became hits for him and covers for virtually every burgeoning country artist.
Despite his notorious issues with drugs, alcohol and the occasional brawl, Haggard became an icon in music that breaks the boundaries of genre. He claims 39 No. 1 country hits and has had his music recorded by artists as not-country as the Grateful Dead and Elvis Costello. Haggard even acknowledges freely that he doesn't like much country music at all. He doesn't play a prescribed style. Instead he plays what he knows, and that more than anything has earned him the respect and longevity of a career that keeps him recording and touring. Already in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Haggard detours from his usual venue of Billy Bob's Texas and tries out Fort Worth's own hall of fame, Bass Performance Hall.
If the audience is lucky, the living legend will bust out the fiddle he inherited from Bob Wills and demonstrate his knack with an instrument he mastered in only six months. If luck stays, he'll perform with heart-wrenching accuracy Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," a song that can make even fellow ex-con Steve Earle tear up. Knowing the Haggard show, he'll follow up with a rocker like "Big City" and a playlist that shows off the folk, pop, jazz and blues that compose his catalog. Many people say his music is traditional; some say it all sounds the same. His music isn't traditional. It's classic. And what sounds so similar to each song is that voice that can dive into the dregs of a sad story and smoothly and discreetly extract your heart in a phrase.
Haggard's voice is like a distinguishing facial feature; it's identifiable and memorable. It sticks in the brain and becomes what one identifies as Merle Haggard, rather than the visual of his stern, now softened face. It's a question of whether it's the voice or a perfectly written song that allows him to collect a bevy of accolades, Grammy, CMA and ACM among them. The credit goes to the combination of the two, a harmony that he was born into, just like the rough life he's lived.
At 63, Haggard may understandably deliver a more refined show than those he gave when the Urban Cowboy soundtrack was on my sis' record player and the genre of country music didn't include Garth Brooks or Tim McGraw. Post-back and foot surgery, he might be a bit less energetic onstage, but no less sincere. He still plays as though he has no concern for what ticket sales bring, just appreciation that someone loves the music as much as he does.