The interwebs are, understandably, full of posts with people’s favorite Merle Haggard songs after the legend passed away on Wednesday. You could certainly do a lot worse than spending time listening to your favorites all over again, and maybe venturing out into a few you aren’t familiar with. But there’s a lot more we owe Merle than just leaving us with thick songbook and a bunch of albums and live performances.
I think you can argue pretty convincingly that he was the original outlaw in country music, and along with some fellow musicians in the Bakersfield area he is responsible for the fork in the country music family tree that binds the Twangville community together. Back in the late 50’s country music was full of string sections and about as polished as any genre you could find on the radio. A group of like-minded musicians from the farms and oilfields of the Central Valley in California took exception to that. Merle, Buck Owens, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, and a few others starting highlighting the rough edged Fender Telecaster and put the twang of a pedal steel guitar right into your face. Outlaw country was born. (Watch the 2nd video if you want to see just how out of place those songs were when they were originally performed.)
By the mid-60’s Haggard’s songs in particular were influencing the vanguard of west coast rock and roll including Jerry Garcia, Gram Parsons, and Roger McGuinn. By the early 70’s, even the Rolling Stones were giving a nod to Bakersfield. Haggard wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, though, and while the world was taking notice of him, he was taking more notice of the world. Angry at the hypocrisy being shown in the latter part of the Vietnam War, he penned Fightin’ Side Of Me and Okie From Muskogee, appealing to a vast new audience and vaulting him to mainstream stardom.
When I last saw him about 6 years ago that crossover appeal was still evident as the audience ranged from Hell’s Angels on their best behavior to Silicon Valley millionaires trying to convince themselves they were outlaws. That shows who Merle really was, though. He wrote songs that were true to himself and represented what a lot of America believed in and I don’t know how much better legacy you can leave than that.
About the author: I've actually driven from Tehatchapee to Tonopah. And I've seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night.