To understand the universal relevance of Merle Haggard, stand in the audience while he takes the stage. To the left, bikers in leather vests and tattoos are hoisting cans of beer; to the right, toddlers are balancing on their parents’ shoulders. When Haggard goes into one of his dozen household classics, the anti-anti-war anthem “Okie from Muskogee,” and mentions “the hippies out in San Francisco,” two of the people he’s singing about spark a joint, raise their hands and cheer.
But if Haggard resonates with a wide spectrum, his own story is singular, and provides a context for his hard-boiled songs and persona. Fleeing the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, his family landed in the roughneck Bakersfield, CA suburb of Oildale. He grew up tough and was initiated into the outlaw country movement naturally – while in jail. During a three year sentence in San Quentin after a botched bar robbery, he attended the first of Johnny Cash’s legendary prison concerts and became determined to turn his life around to pursue a career in music.
That career began on the whiskey-soaked stages of Bakersfield’s honky-tonks and remains one of the most successful of his generation. Haggard’s hard-driving twang and unvarnished, honest tunes about wrestling life’s demons were a welcome remedy to the rhinestone-studded dandies who dominated early ’70s Nashville. Over the next fifty years, he turned out 38 number-ones, including “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and won about every accolade in music, including a 2010 Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contributions to American culture. -- Nate Cavalieri