Rest Easy, Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard has finally gone to rest after a life lived full and hard, dying the same day he was born, 79 years later. To call him influential would be the grossest of understatements, and to call him an outsider would only scratch the surface of this complex and often troubled man.
From the beginning, Merle was born to struggle and strife. He started life in a converted boxcar in California. When he was only nine years old, his father died of a brain tumor. His teens were peppered with running away from reform schools. Before he was 21, he already had a wife and child, and a criminal record. It seems he was destined to live a long, sad country song. That is probably why he was able to craft so many heart-wrenching tunes.
Starting a music career was in some ways a salvation, but it also led him to more of the troubles that would follow him most of his life. All this came through in his music. It was a strange dichotomy to hear such a sweet baritone voice sing of troubled times. For example, the musically engaging but dreadfully sorrowful If We Make It Though December. Few artists could make a joyful season like Christmas into a point of pain for a struggling family.
His political views and criticism of Nashville’s way of doing things made him a favorite of many, and helped strengthen the sub-genre known as Outlaw Country, populated by other rebellious souls like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams, Jr. Unfortunately, his biggest draw also held him back at times, as one can only rebel and wallow in the misery of bad decisions so much before needing to switch to something more upbeat. Even so, Merle’s long list of hits is a testament to his staying power and prolific songwriting.
Many will claim him as an influence in the days to come, but all you need to do is listen for a song where someone is singing low and sad, and Merle Haggard will be there. Someday by Alan Jackson, On The Other Hand by Randy Travis, or Easy Come, Easy Go by George Strait all could have been Merle Haggard songs. Whenever someone sings about their stupidity after drinking too much, you can bet Merle will be looking over their shoulder and laughing. And when a song plays about someone working themselves to death trying to provide for their family, you know Merle will be putting a hand on their shoulder, trying to give a little hope, having been in that spot himself.
Merle Haggard may not have made the best decisions at times, but he was a poet and a singer with a deep abiding love for his fellow man and possessed a strong sense for injustice. His music and the songs of those inspired by him is a lasting legacy to the American spirit of hard working regular people just trying to get by. Rest easy, Merle. You have carried your share of the load.