It’s now and again tricky to put standard musicians in a bigger cultural context, and this was once now not the function of Marc Eliot’s The Hag
Haggard was once undeniably original. His oldsters have been “Okies” who fled the Melancholy-era Dustbowl for California’s decrease San Joaquin Valley. Left fatherless at age 9, Haggard grew up deficient in a transformed railroad automotive along teach tracks in a the town close to Bakersfield. All the time a revolt and not a excellent scholar, Haggard was once a prolonged truant and serial runaway. Starting as a boy, he would “experience the rails” by way of hopping passing freight trains. A self-taught guitarist who most well-liked track to books, Haggard cherished taking note of Lefty Frizzell, Jimmie Rogers, and Bob Wills. Sadly, a rash mood and deficient impulse regulate ended in many encounters with regulation enforcement—and sessions of incarceration—whilst a juvenile. By way of the age of 20, he was once a convicted felon, serving time in San Quentin jail for armed theft.
Many nation musicians would pose as “outlaws,” and Money famously carried out at San Quentin (with Haggard within the target audience), however Haggard was once the actual factor. Regardless of those inauspicious beginnings, inside of years of his unencumber on parole from San Quentin in 1960, Haggard modified course and changed into probably the most a hit nation musicians within the nation. (California Gov. Ronald Reagan issued Haggard a complete pardon in 1972.) Within the following many years, Haggard launched over 100 albums, recorded greater than 600 songs (250 of which he wrote), a lot of them hits, toured broadly, and received a lot of awards, together with a Grammy Lifetime Success Award in 2006 and the Kennedy Middle Honor in 2010 (together with Paul McCartney). Haggard even made the quilt of Time mag in 1974, the primary nation musician to be so featured.
Within the overdue Nineteen Sixties, Haggard’s gritty, unadorned option to songwriting—by contrast to the extra mainstream “countrypolitan” sound then popping out of Nashville—attracted the eye of influential musicians similar to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons.
By way of 1969, The united states was once fraught with cultural turmoil. The so-called hippie motion was once in complete bloom, as have been anti-Vietnam Struggle protests and campus unrest. The “Psychedelic 1960s” or “Age of Aquarius” peaked with the Woodstock pageant. By no means earlier than had one technology been in this kind of state of riot in opposition to its elders. “Don’t accept as true with somebody over 30,” Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman warned.
Following within the trail blazed by way of fellow Bakersfield denizen Greenback Owens (whom he in the long run eclipsed), Haggard appealed to an target audience made up basically of middle-class adults with blue-collar or rural roots. This target audience—now and again described as “rednecks”—was once patriotic, conservative, and out of date. In 1969 Haggard launched his (arguably) most famed tune, “Okie from Muskogee,” which changed into the anthem for The united states’s embattled Silent Majority and endeared him to President Richard Nixon. Haggard claimed that the tune was once a tribute to his father, a failed farmer who grew up close to Muskogee, however the lyrics resonated extra extensively:
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our journeys on LSD
We don’t burn our draft playing cards down on Major Side road
We adore livin’ proper, and bein’ loose
We don’t make a birthday celebration out of lovin’
We adore holdin’ arms and pitchin’ woo
We don’t let our hair develop lengthy and shaggy
Just like the hippies out in San Francisco do
I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A spot the place even squares could have a ball
We nonetheless wave Outdated Glory down on the courthouse,
And white lightnin’s nonetheless the largest thrill of all
Haggard doubled-down the next yr with the similarly pugnacious hit, “The Fightin’ Facet of Me,” which warned:
They’re walkin’ at the fightin’ aspect of me
Runnin’ down a lifestyle
Our fightin’ males have fought and died to stay
If you happen to don’t find it irresistible, depart it
Let this tune that I’m singin’ be a warnin’
Whilst you’re runnin’ down our nation, hoss
You’re walkin’ at the fightin’ aspect of me.
Haggard was once some distance from a one-trick pony. He had 38 Billboard No. 1 hits. His catalog of songs over time covers the gamut of everlasting nation subject matters: consuming (“The Bottle Let Me Down”), laborious residing (“Swinging Doorways”), jail (“Sing Me Again House”), dangerous alternatives (“Mama Attempted”), romance (“These days I Began Loving You Once more”), loss (“Silver Wings”), poverty (“Hungry Eyes”), trains (“No Extra Trains to Journey”), fight (“If We Make It Via December”), and odes to the running guy (“Workin’ Guy Blues”), rural lifestyles (“Giant Town”), and loose spirits (“Ramblin’ Fever”). His duet with Willie Nelson masking Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” is an all-time vintage.
But, in spite of excellent seems to be (Haggard bore a putting resemblance to James Dean as a tender guy), a stupendous making a song voice, instrumental talents, level presence, and prolific songwriting, Haggard by no means generated the huge attraction of different artists, similar to Elvis Presley’s film luck, the tv target audience of Johnny Money, Glen Campbell, or Roy Clark (by means of Hee Haw), or the multi-generational approval for Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, country-rock teams such because the Eagles, or even Dolly Parton. Eliot does now not explicitly spell out a proof, however the reader can shape some conclusions from the abundantly detailed factual recitation in The Hag. Many artists are haunted by way of demons, which encourage their creativity, and this was once definitely the case with Haggard, however those self same demons now and again hindered his luck.
A number of elements can have contributed to Haggard’s restricted attraction. Haggard’s middle-class/blue-collar id cemented his recognition with that demographic, whilst alienating him from a broader, more youthful target audience at a important level in his profession. He later toured on occasion with Bob Dylan and seemed at fairs with Willie Nelson, however he all the time retained his symbol as a standard nation track artist relatively than a hybrid or “outlaw” (even if he was once as soon as an outlaw). He by no means grew his hair lengthy a los angeles Willie Nelson, and his beard, by the point he sported one, was once now not unusual amongst nation musicians.
His level presence didn’t translate to the film (or TV) display screen, even if he attempted. He was once headstrong and autonomous sufficient to refuse a call for participation to look on The Ed Sullivan Display in 1970 because of his war of words with the structure. He additionally declined a job within the 1977 blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit.
Haggard’s profession was once now not enhanced by way of an undisciplined and tumultuous private lifestyles. An inveterate philanderer, he was once married 5 occasions; to the level that his songs addressed dishonest and heartbreak, he was once projecting. He additionally drank, gambled, smoked cigarettes (most probably contributing to his eventual middle illness and lung most cancers), abused cocaine all over the Eighties, and no less than by way of the overdue Seventies was once a closet marijuana consumer—claiming that his physician beneficial it! Sarcastically, his prison document was once off-putting to a couple conventional nation fanatics, whilst—in contrast to Willie Nelson—he saved his drug use non-public for a few years even if it will have widened his formative years attraction.
Early on, Haggard had selected his cultural “lane” and needed to are living with that. He was once “old skool,” and cherished conventional nation track carried out by way of conventional-looking musicians. Haggard declined to play at the Nitty Gritty Grime Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken? mission as a result of they have been “long-hair hippie varieties.” Haggard by no means controlled to bridge the “technology hole,” and infrequently attempted.
Haggard was once a posh determine. He cherished touring on his bus, which reminded him of using in a freight automotive. (He had a life-long fascination with trains.) Not like many different main nation artists, he have shyed away from residing in Nashville; he valued his privateness and most well-liked residing in faraway portions of California—now and again on a houseboat. He was once a loner, in spite of his a lot of marriages. Even his band was once known as “The Strangers.” Cussed and independent-minded, he was once now not temperamentally provided to be “directed,” as Colonel Tom Parker had finished for Elvis and as Brian Epstein did for the Beatles. He had restricted industry acumen and made his proportion of dangerous selections, leading to IRS issues and a chapter in 1992. Nevertheless, Haggard—contradictions and all—was once true to himself and controlled to reach outstanding (albeit cyclical) luck in spite of his humble origins, previous, and self-inflicted hindrances.
Eliot, who up to now wrote a best-selling biography of the Eagles, The Restrict (1998), amongst many different books on pop culture figures, presentations really extensive familiarity with the track trade, and his detailed guide will probably be of significant pastime to fanatics of Merle Haggard or the rustic track scene within the many years from 1960-2000, the arc of Haggard’s profession. Additionally, the lifestyles and occasions of “The Hag” are illustrative of bigger cultural subject matters that formed The united states all over that period. He was once the voice of blue-collar The united states all over a hard, disruptive epoch, the casual poet laureate of the country’s center category—the running guy’s Robert Frost.
The duality between Haggard’s out of date tune lyrics and his , libertine private lifestyles would possibly strike some as hypocritical, however it displays the tensions inherent within the generational struggle that roiled the country all over that duration. Poets invoke the readers’ deeply held sentiments and attitudes. Artists put across photographs and don’t faux to be exemplars. Storytellers entertain the target audience with myths and fables. Haggard was once a poet, artist, and storyteller—now not a preacher. He gave voice to what center The united states was once feeling with out pretending to be a fashion citizen himself. Musicians are hardly saints, and Haggard was once no exception. Many nation musicians died younger of alcohol abuse or drug overdoses, together with Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Keith Whitley, however Haggard was once a survivor.
That the son of an Okie and an ex-con who served time in San Quentin may just rely as fanatics U.S. Presidents as various as Nixon and Barack Obama demonstrates the ability of redemption on this resilient nation. Most effective in The united states.