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Merle Haggard, American Badass

Born this day in 1937 hailing from Bakersfield, California: Merle Haggard is 66 years old today. Happy birthday, ya cussed old coot!

Mr. Haggard certainly rates as one of the top half dozen greatest recording artists in the history of country music. Him and his ex-wife wrote tons of totally kick ass songs. His tough-minded Bakersfield sound with the Strangers was harder rockin’ than most of the pussy rock bands. Merle certainly rocked the mic harder than any Grateful Dead candyasses. He had more to say in 155 seconds of the “Working Man Blues” than any 30 minutes of Deadhead wankery.

The most important thing, though, other than Brian Wilson, I can think of no songwriter to emerge from California in the ’60s that was Haggard’s equal as a songwriter.

Haggard has been known as some kind of hardcore right-wing character, largely on the basis of just a couple of songs. It’s worth noting, however, that his outlook was always rather more complicated than that. “Okie From Muskogee” started out as something of an inside joke on square country folk- until he caught flak for it and began presenting it seriously. Also, especially cool is the pre-Travis Bickle/Tim McVeigh character study in right wing looniness “I’ll Be a Hero (When I Strike).” Note also that even as the beautifully belligerant rebuke to anti-war protesters “Fightin’ Side of Me” reigned at #1, he was in the studio very enthusiastic about recording “Irma Jackson”, the commercially hopeless tale of a mixed-race love affair.

He has a box set Down Every Road that kicks much ass. He also recorded an absolutely essential double-album tribute to Jimmie Rodgers Same Train, Different Time.

And if you want a real spokesman for the working man, it would certainly be Merle WAY before Springsteen.

Here the line-up for my own custom mixed Merle Haggard CD, which would be one of the best country CDs in your collection were you to compile one just like it:


Working Man Blues
Okie From Muskogee
(My Friends Are Going to Be) Strangers
Fightin’ Side of Me
I’ll Be a Hero (When I Strike)
Swingin’ Doors
Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down
Sing Me Back Home
The Son of Hickory Hollers’ Tramp
The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde
Today I Started Loving You Again
Mama Tried
In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)
California Blues (Blue Yodel #4)
I Take a Lot of Pride in who I Am
I Can’t Hold Myself in Line
Mama’s Hungry Eyes
Silver Wings
Waiting for a Train
Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel (The Women Make A Fool Out Of Me)
If We Make It Through December
If We’re Not Back in Love by Monday
Pancho and Lefty
I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver

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  • san

    “…other than Brian Wilson, I can think of no songwriter to emerge from California in the ’60s that was Haggard’s equal as a songwriter.”

    Agreed on Wilson, but I think I’d have to throw John Phillips in there, though you can argue that he came out of New York City. And you can further argue that he was more of an icon than a musician, but the M&P did some great stuff.

  • Al Barger

    San, I hate to argue with you at EVERY turn, but I can’t believe you’d even invoke the lightweights of the Mamas and Papas in the same context as Brian Wilson or Merle. They’re not even VAGUELY in the same league on any level.

    The Mamas and the Papas had one main undeniable hit song, “California Dreaming.” This is an undisputed classic. Other than that, though, they weren’t significant. There were maybe a couple of other half-listenable pop songs, but nothing to write home about.

    There were a few other emergent songwriters from California in the 60s who might be legitimate competition, but it sure wasn’t John Phillips.

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  • hagblay

    Right on–Merle is the greatest country music singer in history- I have seen Merle 10 times in the last 11 years- I have seen Merle broke and down- But something has happened in the last 11 years- He has reached down for that natural talent and made a great comeback- He is showing what he really is-Making his last stand to go down as the greatest-