Al Aronowitz – “Merle Haggard: Home-fried Humor and Cowboy Soul” (1968)

September 11, 2008 at 12:38 am (Reviews & Articles)

Written for the Aug. 10, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone


Country music is blowing in like a fresh wind from the West. America can’t be defined by its pay-toilets and its smog. Merle Haggard never heard of Woody Guthrie, but they’re both going to be heroes in the plagued remnants of this murderous decade.

Merle Haggard’s father was one of those Okies that Woody Guthrie used to sing about. Merle is a gentleman of the cowboy ethic. When he was 14, he was thrown into jail for suspicion of armed robbery. Merle Haggard, a name out of a morality play. That’s the kind of songs he sings.

Country people come to the city for excitement. Just to live in the city is enough to drive people to the country for a rest. Westerns are still the peanut butter and jelly of America’s cultural diet and even the Underground, like marijuana, has its roots in the soil.

Neal Cassady was a Denver cowboy before he became the hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a novel which still reads like a road map for the cross-country lifestyle.

“I don’t know if you could call my music cowboy music,” says Merle Haggard. “I don’t sing about horses. I call it country music, or American music. It’s one of the only musics that began with our nation.” If Merle Haggard had never heard a Woody Guthrie song, neither had much of the audience that attended the Woody Guthrie memorial concert at Carnegie Hall last January.

Bakersfield is where the wind dropped Jim Haggard after the draught blew into Chacotah, Okla. All his friends and neighbors were migrating there. Jim Haggard was a country fiddler in Chacotah. In Bakersfield, he went to work for the Santa Fe Railway. The year was 1935 and Merle was born two Aprils later, Jim Haggard’s second son and third child When Merle was 9, his father died, leaving little more than the echo of his music.

Bakersfield is one of the most thoroughly modern cities in America now, rebuilt out of the splinters of a 1952 earthquake, but the Bakersfield in which Merle grew up might as well have been back in Oklahoma, with the settler’s shacks, the oil wells, the dirt farms, the cotton fields and the ten-gallon drawl of America’s Southwest. Merle drove a potato truck, hitch-hiked to Texas, pitched hay on a farm, hopped freight cars to anywhere, worked as a shooter in the oil fields and drank like a man in Bakersfield’s country music saloons.

“It helps a guy’s outlook on life,” he says, “to see how the other half lives, depending on what half you’re living in.” By the time he was 17, he had spent two years in a reform school. The whole story is in his music, a melodrama of hot buttered regret, deep dish sentimentality, home fried humor and clear, cool cowboy soul. “I’ve done a lot of living.” he says. He sings as if there isn’t a mistake he hasn’t made. The trinity of his sadness is whiskey, women and the law. His church is righteousness. His laments are simple. “I’ll leave the bottle on the bar.” he sings. “I’ll sober up and come back home to you.”

As a kid, he kept running away, he says, because he didn’t want to be a burden to his mother. Now his lyrics are about a branded man whose jail record trails after him like leg irons or about a condemned prisoner who asks to hear a song his mama sang before he’s put to death. “Well I’m gonna get me a seeing-eye dog to help me find my way.” he sings. If Merle Haggard wears his scars as badges, it is not out of pride for the lack of virtue which caused them, but as a celebration of having survived the wounds. He can play the role of the hero, the foot, and the itinerant highway counterman. You look at his album covers and you see his name in his face.

Sing Me Back Home is Merle Haggard’s sixth album, and if you really listen to any of them, you’ll really want to listen to the rest. The orchestration is as down home as Oklahoma, ranging from a swinging door piano to that buffalo of American instruments, the steel guitar. Merle’s five-man group, the Strangers, are also from Bakersfield, which certainly has as much of a claim on Nashville as Boston does on San Francisco.

Buck Owens, Mr. Number One of the Country and Western charts, comes from Bakersfield. So does Tommy Collins, who sometimes writes songs with Merle. So does Liz Anderson and Wynn Stewart and Ferlin Husky and an entire honor roll of other Country and Western stars. And so does Bonnie Owens, who is the new Mrs. Merle Haggard. Bonnie sings the high harmonies with Merle. If you’ve never heard country harmony, it’s like the rough-hewn logs of a cabin. Somehow, the voices fit together. Somehow, sadly, they tell you they’re going to endure.

The history of pop is written in the account books at the box office. You can trace it down the river to New Orleans. You can find its extract in the blue grass of Kentucky. You can claim it to be the bastard son of Southern Negro field chants. But pop is an expression of the people not the purists, and its lineage includes an incest that ranges from Harry Richman to Elvis Presley, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Frank Sinatra, from Stephen Foster to George Gershwin, from Giacomo Puccini to Roy Rogers. Everyone likes to think his taste is improving, but pop is what the people buy.

Now comes Merle Haggard singing songs descended from his father with a voice that can sway an audience like a wheatfield in the wind. Even restricted to the Country and Western charts, he can sell close to 200,000 copies of a 45 r.p.m. produced with a hint of Phil Spector in the control booth. ‘Sing Me Back Home’, the title song of his album, could be a Top-40 hit if the big city radio stations would only play it. The big cities could use the fresh air.

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