My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Merle Haggard: An Appreciation

haggard4I cannot say that I was surprised to hear of Merle’s death yesterday, but I was tremendously saddened as Merle’s music has been an important part of my life since I was about 13 when “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” hit the airwaves in versions by Roy Drusky and Merle Haggard. The Billboard charts say that Drusky had the bigger hit, but the DJs in Virginia mostly played the Haggard version with its driving telecaster and incomparable vocals. At the time I didn’t have much money but by 1968 I had a summer job and purchased the 45 RPM records of “Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” and “Mama Tried”, great songs both. Unlike most 45s, however, the B sides were hardly throwaways. In fact the B side of “Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” was “Today I Started Loving You Again”, arguably Haggard’s most famous and most covered song.

It didn’t take me long to switch to buying the Hag’s albums and I eagerly obtained each new Merle Haggard album as soon as it was available for purchase. Haggard issued a great many albums, and to me they are all cherished friends, although I do prefer the early Capitol albums. Although Merle was a great songwriter, he was also good at selecting material from other writers. Plus he had a strong sense of the past paying proper homage to the likes of Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Merle’s tribute to Bob Wills A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) kicked off the western swing revival that continues to this day,

I had three opportunities to see Haggard live and the shows I saw in 1968, 1975, and 1982 were all great shows, although they differed greatly from each other. The 1968 show was that of a tight little honky-tonk band with a young and enthusiastic Merle as the vocalist and rhythm guitar player. The 1975 show featured a slightly larger band with more western swing elements and featured Merle playing fiddle on some of the numbers. The 1982 featured a much bigger band with whatever survivors of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys were still playing, and the band featured horns and reeds. In 1968 Haggard may have had a set list but for the later two shows Hag was clearly winging it – and the audience ate it up.

I could cite a number of statistics to support my contention that Merle Haggard was the greatest country artist of all time. I could do that, but I won’t – all that is needed is to listen to the recordings. Kevin over at Country Universe listed the Hag as the #1 male country artist of all time and listed thirteen essential singles. I made the following comment on Kevin’s blog:

“Every Haggard album is filled with treasures that never made the radio, and most of the Haggard singles had very strong B-sides. Kevin’s list of essential singles doesn’t include my two favorite singles and that’s okay – they’re all essential and you can’t have a list that long.”

I still stand by that comment and as Merle makes his way up to that heavenly choir, I will leave you with the lyrics from my favorite Merle Haggard song, “I Can’t Be Myself”

It’s a way of mine to say just what I’m thinking

And to do the things I really want to do

And you want to change the part of me I’m proud of

So I can’t be myself, when I’m with you

CHORUS
I can’t be myself and be what pleases you

And down deep inside, I don’t believe that you’d want me to

And it’s not my way to take so long deciding

But I Can’t Be Myself When I’m With You
Oh, you never liked the clothes I wear on Sunday

Just because I don’t believe the way you do

But I believe the Lord knows I’m unhappy

‘Cause I can’t be myself when I’m with you

RIP.

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3 responses to “Merle Haggard: An Appreciation

  1. Razor X April 7, 2016 at 7:02 am

    Nice tribute, Paul. Haggard’s importance to country music cannot be overstated; it’s hard to imagine country music without him.

  2. luckyoldsun April 7, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    It’s largely a matter of taste, but if I were to try to “measure” it, I think the factors I’d use to determine the GOAT would include: Hit records; Hit songs that he sang and wrote himself; Touring–length, size of venues, audiences; Songs that he wrote that were covered by other important artists; longevity; awards; and songs by other artists where he’s name-checked. By those criteria (anyone can add others and weight them however one chooses), the winner would most likely be….Merle!

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