“And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried”
The world lost a music legend this week as Merle Haggard died Wednesday, April 6th, on his 79th birthday, of pneumonia. Dubbed “The Poet of the Common Man” Haggard was famous for “Okie from Muskokee” Mama Tried” and “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” to name just a few, and was a pioneer of the rougher-edged Bakersfield sound, a response to the slick productions emerging out of Nashville beginning in the 1950s and 60s. He was a prominent figure in the Outlaw Country movement. His work celebrated outlaws and underdogs and was widely covered by bands such as The Byrds, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Grateful Dead. His vocal prowess speaks for itself, he had a rich, deep vocal range and sang from deep within, defining the very best of country crooning, his was a whiskey drenched and hard scrabble frayed beauty. Haggard was widely praised as one of the very best country singers who ever lived.
The hard working musician had continued to tour and record music until the end of his life, including 2015’s Django and Jimmie, an album of duets with fellow Outlaw music icon (and frequent collaborator) Willie Nelson. He was a legendary artist who sang of simple and old fashioned values, while also plunging headlong into the darkness and utter modernity of late 20th century life with its dark temptation and pale consolations of alcohol, the common state of loneliness we share, and disillusionment about life that plagues all poets. All this while inspiring the world to trudge on, to drive on.
A young Haggard doing time for petty crimes was in San Quentin when Johnny Cash made one of his famous appearances performing for prisoners, and his life was given new purpose and inspiration. Cash would become a mentor to Haggard. This poet would go on to have dozens of number one hits over four decades and has been taken up by generations of newer artists and fans by his honest, unflinching point of view and poetics. Merle Haggard was an icon of integrity, grit, and glamour-free Country music even as it became pop in the 1970’s and into the New Country dark years, a cloud that that mirrors the crass commercialization and soullessness that currently plagues most other areas of music. A stoic, he kept on going and doing it his way. He’s an ongoing inspiration to all frustrated musicians (and people) today fighting the good fight. He asked the hard questions, yet assured us: “The good times ain’t over for good.”
Both of Step On Magazine’s founders were raised surrounded by country music from multiple generations of serious music fans, particularly our two beloved grandfathers Frank and Warren, and Merle Haggard occupies a big place in our long gone but treasured family memories. Frank passed too young, 25 years ago. Warren passed away two years ago this week. He never failed to play Merle Haggard records at full volume until the end of his days, of all his favourites, his favourite artist who would fill him with unabashed emotion, knowing nods, eruptions of laughter, and home truths from his own youth, adventures and attitudes we needn’t know about as “kids”. It was his religion, so like our music is for us. For all great music is for all musically inclined souls. Haggard was the kind of artist worthy of lifetime love and devotion who never stopped working for it and who kept his integrity intact, and his was a well-earned and rare space to occupy in today’s short attention span world. Make yourself an entire CD of Merle Haggard drinking songs in his honour: and don’t forget to pour one out for this great man.