Thoughts on Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard has died. In a year already rife with notable deaths in the music industry, I felt this one deeply, for reasons both objective and subjective. Objectively, Haggard was a colossal figure in country music, as a singer, songwriter, hitmaker and soundmaker (by which I mean there is particular country sound that is distinctive to him and those who’ve been influenced by him). Subjectively, I’ve been a fan of Haggard’s music for around two and a half decades, with a steady rise in my appreciation of his work during that time. But adding to these reasons, and perhaps combining them, Haggard has played an important role in my work as an academic and writer, even if I’ve not yet managed to repay the debt I owe him by writing about him properly.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write about Haggard. I have extensive notes filed in various places about him and his music that remain undeveloped, waiting for their ideal opportunity. When embarking on my book The Late Voice, I thought I’d finally get around to writing about him, for if anyone fitted the bill of a late voice singer-songwriter, it was Haggard. And indeed, the original book proposal contained a chapter on country music that aimed to discuss Haggard, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. It was always going to be a crowded, and hence potentially lengthy, chapter and perhaps that’s why I felt I had to abandon it as the book took shape and I started to worry about cohesion and word count.

But perhaps there were other reasons. Perhaps, even though I continue to deny, against the claims by those who place anti-intellectualism amongst the primary responses to artistic creation, that studying the things you love somehow spoils them, even though I have never believed this, I still have found it difficult to turn that study into writing that communicates what I have heard, learned and felt when listening across the years to particular artists. It wasn’t until The Late Voice that I attempted to write about Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, two artists who have provided my life’s soundtrack since I first started to comprehend, in my late teens, what I later came to refer to as ‘anticipated experience’. What I ended up writing about them barely scratches the surface of what I want to say, but it’s a start at least. The same goes for Van Morrison, whose work I started to explore in writing only very recently. I still long for, but simultaneously dread, the time I finally try to get down in writing what Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt have meant to me over the years, what they continue to mean to me.

With Merle, though, it should have been a bit easier. I had the notes and I had written a little bit about him before. When I decided to write my Masters thesis on country music and hip hop (having discovered via the Open Univeristy that it was possible to study what I’d previously considered a hobby), I focussed my account on place, race, experience and authenticity; Haggard was one of my main country examples and a major influence on the work as a whole. I’d recently bought the Legacy CD reissue of his 1981 album Big City and was also engrossed in his then-recent album for the Anti label, If I Could Only Fly. Songs from these albums became my main examples, songs such as ‘My Favorite Memory’, ‘Big City’, ‘Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)’, ‘Wishing All These Old Things Were New’, ‘If I Could Only Fly’, ‘Bareback’, ‘Leavin’s Getting Harder’ and ‘Thanks To Uncle John’. Some of the songs were Haggard originals and some, such as his version of Blaze Foley’s ‘If I Could Only Fly’, were brilliant takes on the work of other fascinating singer-songwriters.

As news of Haggard’s passing was spreading around the internet, Noah Berlatsky wrote an excellent assessment of If I Could Only Fly, focussing in particular on the album’s title track and how this late, sparse version of Foley’s song eclipsed earlier versions (Haggard had been performing it since at least the mid-80s). Where earlier renditions, proved that Haggard was more than capable of mastering the song, the 2000 version, for Berlatsky, ‘feels as though the grief is clotting around him, and he’s trying to dig out’.

I agree with Berlatsky’s assessment of an album that was so central to my early attempts to write about popular music as an academic. But, for me, the album was also an invitation, at the height of the critical obsession with ‘alt. country’, to take a retrospective look at Haggard’s career and venture into areas of country music that I, along with other fans of alternative or progressive country, had been avoiding for various reasons. The most obvious of these was a lingering sense of unease about some of Haggard’s more notorious material, such as ‘Okie from Muskogee‘ and ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me‘. I already knew there was more to Haggard than this and had done since at least the purchase of my first Haggard album, Serving 190 Proof. As has often happened in my record -buying career, I hadn’t started with the definitive work but with what was available one day when, intrigued at a market stall or car boot sale, I’d taken a plunge on an artist I’d heard of but whose work I didn’t know well. As it goes, Serving 190 Proof wasn’t a bad place to start at all, especially as an introduction to Haggard’s late voice. The opening trio of ‘Footlights’, ‘Got Lonely Too Early (This Morning)’ and ‘Heaven Was a Drink of Wine’ are fine examples of Haggard’s more melancholy, even self-pitying, side; all contain great lines and vocal performances.

So I’d had a generally overlooked but fascinating album as my introduction to Haggard, back around the time I was first getting into Willie Nelson and the 1970s progressive country artists. Later, as I wanted to delve deeper, there was still my resistance to ‘Okie’ and ‘Fightin’ Side’ to get over. I’m not sure I ever did get over that – and I still tend to avoid playing those songs – but I came to realise that there was so much more to Haggard’s story and to his songwriting. I also realised that those songs, regardless of what I might personally think of them, had to be part of that story and could, as in David Cantwell’s masterful account of Haggard’s work, be convincingly placed into historical, cultural and personal contexts.

But by then those songs had started to stop mattering to me as I discovered the gems to be found across Haggard’s massive back catalogue. At some point during the research for The Late Voice, Haggard overtook Neil Young to become the most represented artist in my record collection. I have a silly amount of Haggard albums, yet they all seem essential, with each album containing at least a few stone cold brilliant examples of songwriting or incredible versions of other people’s songs. I’ve never made a Top 10 or Top 20, though I might at some point, especially now I’m seeing such things appear online (this one in the Guardian isn’t bad). When I needed to hear something after reading the news yesterday, I instinctively went for ‘If I Could Only Fly’, then the track I’d played for my students just the day before Haggard’s death, ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive‘, then ‘Silver Wings‘.

Pretty high on the list for me would be one of the many duets Haggard recorded with his running mate Willie Nelson, a leisurely, beautifully paced version of David Lynn Jones’s ‘When Times Were Good’ which the pair included on their 1987 album Seashores of Old Mexico (an album that also includes their duet of ‘If I could Only Fly’). It’s a critically unloved album, but I’ve long had a soft spot for it, and ‘When Times Were Good’ is one of the main reasons. Nelson starts the song wonderfully, with a stark vocal accompanied by minimal guitar. He sets the pace and manages the dramatic development as the band instrumentation gradually builds the song towards a chorus which Nelson attacks in his highest, lonesomest register. For me, though, the standout has always been the moment more than three and a half minutes into the song when, following a relaxed instrumental break, Haggard’s voice takes up the narrative. In the two drawn out lines ‘There’s a Golden Eagle rollin’ out of Memphis / And a country singer still lost between the lines’, we get to ride the rolling slopes of Haggard’s voice, its breaking highs and creaking lows, the moments where the voice dips or drops out momentarily, just enough of a catch in the throat for us to get the sense of weariness the singer is carrying, his almost paralysing burden of memory, loss and nostalgia.

I included a paragraph about this recording in my PhD thesis, another time I tried to write about Haggard but didn’t end up saying much (looking back now, I see I emphasised Nelson’s contribution slightly more, even though it’s always been Haggard’s entry halfway through this long country song that has captured me). And I tried once more when giving a presentation on country music called ‘The House of Memory’, its title taken from a Merle Haggard song.

Since then, I’ve tried and failed to write about Haggard. I can’t say for certain that I’ll get around to it now that he’s gone, but I just might. As for these ‘thoughts about Merle Haggard’, I realise they’re really thoughts about me, and about my various attempts to write about music over the last fifteen years, rambling in no clear order through the corridors of memory. But perhaps that’s what our connection with our favourite musicians always brings, an opportunity to learn about ourselves through what we feel they’ve taught us.

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