As Waylon Jennings once sang, ladies love outlaws, and judging by the enduring appeal of the outlaw trope in pop culture—especially in music—ladies aren’t the only ones. Rock ‘n’ roll and its many offshoots glorify the highwayman, the gunslinger, the lone warrior. In hip-hop and heavy metal alike, fans love to hear good songs about bad people, or about good people who’ve made bad decisions—and Riot Fest provides plenty of opportunities. This year you can run downrange of gleeful provocateurs such as the Dwarves and Iggy Pop, raise your fist to protest songs by reggae pioneers Jimmy Cliff and Lee “Scratch” Perry, and surrender to the primal gospel of drugs, booze, sex, and violence with the lifers in Motorhead. Rebellion and rock ‘n’ roll go hand in hand—but how many of your favorite bands have robbed a roadhouse or done three years in San Quentin?
In the 1960s, when the word “outlaw” acquired its most enduring attachment to country music, it signified the return of gritty authenticity to a genre warped by the polished, countrypolitan sound coming from Nashville. Spearheading this revolt were a ragtag group of hell-raisers whose names have since been enshrined in country lore: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and a scrappy kid from Oildale, California, named Merle Haggard.
Born in 1937, Haggard spent his youth hopping freight trains, bouncing between reform schools and juvenile detention centers, and learning how to play the guitar like his idols Buck Owens and Hank Williams. He landed in San Quentin in ’57 (and really did turn 21 in prison), then turned his life around after seeing Johnny Cash’s legendary performance there the following year. Over the next few decades he climbed higher than that boy from rural California had ever imagined possible. People loved his twangy baritone, jazzy influences, and unpretentious blue-collar attitude; he helped craft the Bakersfield sound, and became a rough-edged poster boy for outlaw country.
Haggard has not only released a staggering amount of music (including 38 number one hits, among them “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried,” and “Workin’ Man Blues”), he’s also beaten lung cancer, been awarded an honorary doctorate, and visited the White House at the invitation of six different presidents. The Hag has never been what you’d call politically correct (as he made clear in a 2006 duet with Gretchen Wilson), but his old-fashioned patriotic values seem downright sensible compared to modern country’s jingoistic chest beating—he’s even spoken out in support of Obama. He’s a smart, complex man who’s lived through a lot, and he’s always stuck to his guns, no matter who’s listening.
Today Haggard is an icon, an elder statesman, a reminder of a bygone age—but he’s far from ready to go gently into that good night. The old boy has got plenty of piss and vinegar left in him yet: this spring, shortly after his 78th birthday, he released a love song to marijuana called “It’s All Going to Pot” with his old pal and Pancho & Lefty partner Willie Nelson. Most mainstream country artists have settled safely into red-state platitudes, ceding the market for revolutionary music to punk rock, heavy metal, and hip-hop, but until the Hag puts down his guitar he’ll give those genres plenty of competition. “I’ve never been a guy that can do what people told me,” he told the New York Times in 1990. “It’s always been my nature to fight the system.” Spoken like a true outlaw. v
Merle Haggard plays Sat 9/12 at 7:15 PM on the Riot Stage.