Don’t let Merle Haggard fool you. In spite of the squeaky clean lyrics rooted within the minimalist melodies of the musical cowboy’s most recognizable song, the “Okie from Muskogee” singer was a pot smoking, cocaine sniffing, serial monogamist with a penchant for tussling with the law.
Born and raised on the outskirts of Bakersfield, Haggard was a troublemaker by nature and a hellraiser by choice. But his recreational drug use, tiffs with the law, and innumerable marriages aside, Haggard was a pioneer of the Bakersfield sound and a proponent of the outlaw country movement, which is why the somber news of his passing on April 6 – his 79th birthday – was all the more heartrending.
Haggard’s blue collar anthems and true to life ballads gave country enthusiasts everywhere a lip smacking taste of the boonies by serving up songs that were chock-full of patriotic undertones and illuminated the unenviable plight of the working man. From “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Mama Tried” to “If We Make It Through December” and “Workin’ Man Blues,” Haggard laid it all on the line with his authentic lyrics and sanguine southern melodies.
Like his peers Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Haggard aligned himself with the growing outlaw country movement throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The revival of the raw honky-tonk sound cemented Haggard’s status as a country music icon and aided in making him a bona fide Country Music Hall of Famer by 1994.
Asked whether or not he feared death in an interview with Billboard last year, the country crooner answered:
“Sometimes I fear it and other times it calls to me like a forgotten dream or an old song. I’m not saying I welcome it, but I recognize it as part of a holy process. Born of nature, return to nature. Maybe that’s the name of my last song.”
With that, we honor the country music legend with a tip of the old cowboy hat and a lit joint for the road.