One of the greatest voices in country music has been silenced. Merle Haggard looked and sounded like he was carved from stone, even the name ‘Merle Haggard’, those words, looked on paper like something chiselled away at,all that was left from the starting granite.
Merle was one of those names and faces and voices and ‘places’ associated with country music that you just figured was and always would be there. A go-to to always go to.
Many years ago, when I was brand new to working in music retail, my first time behind a counter and loving making the recommendations to a buying public, I was also very new to country music. I hadn’t grown up with it. But there were a handful of names I knew, trusted icons. Merle was among them. It was Merle and Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams and George Jones, that was the top shelf – one or two others…but Haggard was one of the ones you went to. And one of the ones I turned a lot of customers onto, then again in another music-retail job, the alt-country boom, a slick bit of back-door marketing that eventually meant a bunch of people with indie tastes or no real taste found their way back to the yee-haws and yokels and Merle – with his guts and his gumption and his stare and his songs – was forever there. Someone to recommend. And depend on.
And those well-loved songs – Okie From Muskogee and The Fightin’ Side of Me, I’m A Lonesome Fugitive and Sing Me Back Home – were hard-fought, from a life of hardship and pain and a burgeoning “outlaw” spirit.
But he was always one of the top shelf guys for me. One of the cures for not knowing good country, part of the antidote, part of the fabric.
He and Willie Nelson did a fine job on last year’s Django and Jimmie, two old chums out having fun, still knocking up a decent set of tunes. And he was out working, still, playing hard, touring. He knew he was winding down though. He cancelled one or two shows lately and told his kids that he would die on his next birthday.
Wednesday April 6 was Merle Haggard’s 79th birthday. And the day he drew his last breath. His music is there for you to discover. I couldn’t be without it.