I had really begun to think that Merle Haggard would never die. He outlasted all the great country stars (with the exception of his pal Willie Nelson), experimenting and adapting but never giving us anything less than his own ornery, poetic essence all the while. But alas, the Bakersfield legend passed away today, on his 79th birthday (according to his manager, he’d been suffering from double pneumonia). Hundreds of obituaries and remembrances will surely pop up in the next few days, and I don’t know how much I can add that others won’t say more articulately, but his death definitely closes the door on a long-gone era—a time when country regularly expressed the soul of working-class existence and its everyday travails with the sort of poignant universality and vibrant detail that was the Hag’s stock-in-trade. Many current Nashville stars are one-dimensional tools embracing whatever deep-pocketed patron will advance their careers—whether it’s the NRA or Manwich—but Merle was a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian and thinker. In modern terms, he’d have to be called a liberal.
Haggard followed the path blazed by Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, who put the hardscrabble honky-tonk sound Bakersfield on the map—arising in the late 50s, it was a reaction to increasingly slick, overblown Nashville productions. But the Oklahoma native, who famously celebrated his roots with the controversial, misunderstood hit “Okie From Muskogee,” wouldn’t be defined by just a single innovation.
He spent much of the 50s in juvenile detention and prison for various sorts of theft, and his career took off in the early 60s on the strength of his empathetic tales of hard living, hard work, and crime. He maintained a rare devotion to early country singers such as Jimmie Rodgers and Emmett Miller, as well as to western-swing star Bob Wills. His sound was rich; he was a terrific guitarist and an even better singer, whether yodeling or delivering hard-luck stories with his soulfully clenched phrasing. He continued making records and touring through last year, and performed at Chicago’s 2015 Riot Fest.
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
Joseph Kubera, Book of Horizons (New World)
Charlie Haden with Paul Motian and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, The Montreal Tapes (Verve)
Arditti Quartet, Cage: Thirty Pieces for String Quartet/Ullmann: Komposition für Streichquartett 2 (HR Musik)
Johnny Moore, Lonely Heart in the City (Grapevine)