This is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to write, right up there with eulogizing Ronnie James Dio. Strangely, shortly before the news of each passing, I had just reaffirmed that they were still alive amidst recent health issues – which made it all the more crushing.
Now you may be wondering what the hell a metal site like Last Rites is doing paying tribute to the “Okie From Muskogee”; hell you might still be trying to wrap your head around our previous piece on David Bowie. Well I’d say there are two reasons. First, many of us are huge fans of Ol’ Hag; second, he may well be more metal than all of us.
His rebellious spirit began to materialize shortly after his father’s death in 1945. His “Mama Tried” to turn him around but to no avail. Soon he was engaging in petty theft and other minor offenses, eventually working various laborer jobs in between stints in various detention centers. It was during one these times that Haggard got serious about a music career, thanks to the support of Lefty Frizzell. Despite this, he continued to run afoul of the law, landing in Bakersfield Jail following an attempt to rob a local roadhouse. He soon found himself in San Quentin, where things could have gotten much worse for him. Instead, a now legendary concert by Johnny Cash inspired him to join the prison band and, after his eventual release, get his life on track.
“I wrote [them] when I recently got out of the joint. I knew what it was like to lose my freedom, and I was getting really mad at these protesters. They didn’t know anything more about the war in Vietnam than I did.
His experiences behind bars would serve him well as a singer and songwriter, drawing on the physical and emotional strain of incarceration for some of his most memorable work. Haggard rejected the Nashville establishment in pioneering the “Bakersfield Sound,” which combined a unique twang with traditional steel guitar and a rough edge not heard during that era. He was as important to the Outlaw Movement as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
“I’ve never been a guy that can do what people told me…It’s always been my nature to fight the system.”
Personally, my introduction to Merle Haggard coincided with his signing to Anti/Epitaph in 2000. I had recently started a college radio gig and was still at a phase where I thought I just had to be all metal all the time, and that any deviation would somehow affect my perceived credibility. Then a couple of the veterans (very old school guys with a love of death metal, black metal, grind, crust punk, and the like) began to espouse the virtues of country outlaws – Haggard, Cash, Hank Williams, etc. I was stunned, my idea of country music having been completely bastardized by the mid-to-late 90s emergence of…well, you know the names. Soon a Silverlight Greatest Hits CD joined my collection – and again I was stunned. These songs were amazing. All heart, all soul, zero pretense, and for lack of a better term, zero fucks given.
All in all, Merle Haggard spent over 50 years going against the grain, recording his songs, his way; recording with whom he wanted (his list of collaborators reads like a wing of the Country Music Hall of Fame), when he wanted. That rebellious spirit will live on forever in over 50 studio albums that include some of the greatest songs ever written. That’s pretty metal.
It appears that I have run out of words for now. It’s time to sit back and bathe in that music, and drink one for Merle. The bottle will let us down, and let his memory come around, but that’s OK, because we here at Last Rites never want to forget.