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06 Apr 2016

So Long, Okie: Remembering Merle Haggard

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Merle Haggard performed last year at Stagecoach. Merle Haggard performed last year at Stagecoach. Kevin Fitzgerald

This is shaping up to be quite a sad year for the music world: 2016 has already taken David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmy Kilmister and Natalie Cole—and today, it took the great Merle Haggard.

He passed away at his Northern California home on his 79th birthday, after suffering from complications from pneumonia.

Merle Haggard was a larger-than-life figure in country music. He was an outlaw in every sense of the word: Theft, bad checks and robbery were part of his criminal past, which eventually landed him in San Quentin Prison, where he began to turn his life around.

In the early 1960s, when Merle Haggard began his recording and performing career, he and Buck Owens were instrumental in forging the Bakersfield sound, a subgenre of country music that protested the commercialization of Nashville’s country-music scene. It’s a never-ending trend in country music, it seems, to commercialize the music of the day by turning it as “pop” as possible; many Americana and alt-country acts today can relate to what Merle Haggard went through five decades ago.

There are many great Haggard songs, but the one he’ll probably always be remembered for most is “Okie From Muskogee,” a controversial song he released in 1969 about how the hippie movement was destroying America. It earned him an audience that would give him thunderous applause whenever he’d start playing the song.

Yes, Merle Haggard was a man who was not afraid to take a strong stance—and tell the whole world about it. However, while he was pegged as a blue-collar conservative, he went on a successful tour with Bob Dylan in 2005.

He’s admired in alt-country and Americana circles as much as he is in the mainstream country world. He’s been referenced in songs. His song “Mama Tried” was often covered by the Grateful Dead. He recorded songs with artists from Willie Nelson to Jewel, and was even on punk label Epitaph Records’ sister label, ANTI-, with people such as Tom Waits and Roky Erickson.

Last year at Stagecoach, Merle Haggard’s surprising performance eschewed much of the Bakersfield sound, as well as the outlaw country sound. Instead, he went for a more polished live presentation with a horn section. Still, he was magnificent and proved that he still had it as a live performer.

It’s worth noting that earlier that day, Merle Haggard was seen on the side of the stage while Sturgill Simpson performed. He seemed in awe of what Simpson was trying to create: yet another country sound that rejects the commercial stuff coming out of Nashville.

The deaths of Johnny Cash in 2003 and George Jones in 2013 were crushing blows to the country-usic world, and now comes the death of Merle Haggard. There are very few of the originals left. It’s undeniable: Merle Haggard is one of the guys who made the genre something modern country musicians can hang their hat on.

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