Merle Haggard Set an Impossibly High Standard for Country Music

Merle Haggard pictured at one of his final North Texas appearances at Billy Bob's last 4th of July.
Merle Haggard pictured at one of his final North Texas appearances at Billy Bob's last 4th of July.
Mike Brooks

There are so many reasons to admire Merle Haggard and so few words to describe them. The country music legend, who passed away Wednesday on his 79th birthday, was the working man’s hero, a scrappy, rough and tumble boy done good. An unmatchable songwriter, Haggard released 71 singles and penned countless tracks for his contemporaries. Fed up with the glam rhinestone cowboy nature of '70s country, he forged the Bakersfield sound from scraps of jazz and blues and Western swing in the back of countless honky-tonks.

For many younger fans like me, Haggard's music came later in life — much as his own music came later in his own life. But Haggard was the real deal. While Johnny Cash performed in a prison, Haggard spent three years in the can, “celebrating” his 21st birthday in solitary confinement. This experience, coupled with his humble upbringing, fundamentally shaped his songwriting.

Haggard was an enduring populist, he used his position as a privileged artist to sing for the working man and champion progressive causes. In a genre that has repeatedly resisted progress, The Hag has been there dragging it along into the future. And the past couple of years were, no doubt, painful for him in more ways than one, as he was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and, in his final months, dealt with double pneumonia that eventually took his life.

But Haggard was also unrepentantly vocal about his distaste for the current state of country music, refusing to even identify current chart toppers as such. He was not so much a contrarian (at least not in this respect) as a purist. He had an incredible respect for the sound that he helped create and contempt for an industry he’d spent his career railing against. It was a respectable battle he fought, even if it wasn’t necessarily winnable.

Listening to Haggard sets up a sort of expectation for how songs — country or otherwise — are supposed to be written and performed. They should be melodic and pleasing to the ear, preferably sad and always performed with incredible musicianship. Haggard used inflection to color his words with sorrow, heartbreak, longing — whatever the song called for.

In doing that, he created an incredibly high standard, one that few country artists can live up to. It’s unfair, really, that Haggard was so good. Knowing that “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” exists in this world should be enough to make all musicians throw away their guitars, defeated at the notion that they will never write, record or even just perform a song so perfectly written. Instead, everyone from the Grateful Dead to Elvis Costello to George Strait found artistic roots in these songs and bloomed.

Last year, Haggard headlined Billy Bob’s 4th of July Picnic in its first year without Willie Nelson, filling his buddy's shoes more than capably. Even as he approached 80, Haggard was full of life and continued to tour just up until he succumbed to double pneumonia. During what proved to be his second-to-last appearance in North Texas (he would perform once more at Gas Monkey Live! last November), he looked frail, thanks in large part to his impossibly spindly long legs. Still, he played his guitar in 2015 damn near as well as he did in 1965, and time and honky-tonk smoke had long coated his smooth voice with a perfect patina.

The loss of Merle Haggard is profound, one that really smarts if you’ve drowned your sorrows in “Misery and Gin” or “Turnin’ Off a Memory” a few times. Now, whatever your Merle Haggard memories are, they're only that — unable to be relived or rekindled with the opening notes of "Mama Tried." 

There is one comfort, though: knowing that you can put those records on the turntable, pour a drink, and they’ll be just as relevant 100 years from now as they are one day after his death. 

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