The Poet of the Common Man. Merle Haggard emerged from the Bakersfield music scene in the mid-sixties, and over the course of time, became the greatest man in the history of country music.
Born during the height of the Great Depression, the son of a honky tonk fiddler and a church-going mother, Haggard’s life was a hard one from early on. When he lost his father at age nine, he rebelled to the point that much of his youth was spent in juvenile detention centers. His only positive outlet was country music, and he listened to and studied obsessively the work of his heroes Bob Willis, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell, all of whom would shape his singing and his songwriting.
Haggard entered a tortured period, where he was quickly developing into a musical talent but also becoming quite the petty criminal. Haggard spent most of his teens and early twenties in and out of detention centers and prisons. During one time on the outside, he attended a Lefty Frizzell concert and found his way backstage. After singing for Frizzell, Haggard’s hero refused to go onstage until Haggard got to sing for the audience first, and Haggard received a thunderous ovation.
This encouragement was not enough to keep him from his criminal life, and after he attempted to break in to a restaurant he thought was closed – it wasn’t – Haggard was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in San Quentin Prison. He continued to cause problems while in jail, but eventually was turned around by the counseling of a death row prisoner that he didn’t want to permanently join in that part of the prison. So he took classes and played in the prison band, and was finally released in 1960, ready to pursue his musical career.
Manual labor by day, music by night was the routine for Haggard in Bakersfield, California, until his popularity in the local club scene allowed for him to quit his day job. Soon, Buck Owens was making the Bakersfield Sound a national sensation, and after playing in Wynn Stewart’s badn for a spell, Haggard struck out on his own, landing a recording contract with Tally Records.
When his Tally releases caught national attention, Capitol bought out his record contract. Success then came rapidly for Haggard. From 1966 on, Haggard released commercially successful and critically acclaimed albums and singles that established him as the voice for the common man. Singing about his own experiences in prison and in poverty, Haggard’s skill as a songwriter, coupled with his highly stylized vocals, resonated deeply with a listening audience that sensed the pure pathos and open empathy Haggard had for their lot in life.
He was the prisoner who couldn’t shake his criminal past in “Branded Man.” He was the factory worker trapped in a job that was slowly working him to death in “Working Man’s Blues.” He was the steadfast country boy refusing to change who he is despite the rapid changes in society all around him in “Okie From Muskogee.” He was the proud patriot defending his country and his flag in “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
He was the son who let his mama down in “Mama Tried”, and the son who just remembered how his dad could never work hard enough to give her what she deserved in “Hungry Eyes.” He was he man who was drinking to escape a memory but it was wasn’t working in “Bottle Let Me Down.” He was the man who decided to keep drinking anyway in “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” He was the country boy lost in the urban jungle in “Big City.” He was the laid-off dad who couldn’t afford to play Santa to his little girl in “If We Make it Through December.”
He was one of them. He was all of them. He was every man who worked hard, played by the rules, and still couldn’t get ahead. He was every man who ever felt misunderstood, left behind, or just plain invisible. He gave them all a voice by telling their story, and for two or three minutes at a time, restored some of the dignity that the world had slowly chipped away, one grinding day at a time.
All of these qualities made him a huge success, of course. The kind of legend that this list is all about. There were dozens of #1 hits, millions of records sold, countless industry awards, and even after radio moved on, as it always does, a consistent stream of solid albums with great songs written by him and sung just as well as the old ones were when he was on the top of the charts. Of course he’s in the Hall of Fame. Has been since 1994.
But what makes him the greatest man in the history of country music isn’t just his peerless singing, poetic songwriting, and guitar-playing prowess, though all of that is certainly essential to the end result. It isn’t even just the voice he gave to the ignored, the downtrodden, and the hard-working men (and women) who never get the glory they deserve.
He’s the greatest because he is the quintessential country artist. Merle Haggard is the common thread that links together the best of what came before him, and he’s been the biggest influence on all of the best that came after him. That’s Haggard in that Randy Travis vocal. That’s Haggard in that plainspoken and real Alan Jackson song, That’s Haggard in that Brad Paisley guitar lick.
There have been many great men in the history of country music. We wrote about one hundred of them over the past three years. But none of them wrote as many great songs, made as many great albums, sang as many great melodies, or played as many great guitar licks as Merle Haggard. There might be some who did one or two things better than he did, but nobody has been as consistently great in as many ways as Merle Haggard has been. He took the best lessons from all of his heroes, and in turn, passed them on to the next generations of country singers who called him Hero.
Merle Haggard is the greatest.
- The Bottle Let Me Down, 1966
- Sing Me Back Home, 1967
- Mama Tried, 1968
- Workin’ Man Blues, 1969
- Okie From Muskogee, 1969
- The Fightin’ Side of Me, 1970
- Carolyn, 1971
- If we Make it Through December, 1973
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, 1980
- Big City, 1982
- Are the Good Times Really Over, 1982
- Pancho and Lefty (with Willie Nelson), 1983
- That’s the Way Love Goes, 1983
- Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down, 1966
- Sing Me Back Home, 1968
- Mama Tried, 1968
- Same Train, a Different Time, 1969
- A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills), 1970
- Someday We’ll Look Back, 1971
- Hag, 1971
- Back to the Barrooms, 1980
- Big City, 1981
- Going Where the Lonely Go, 1982
- 1996, 1996
- Roots Vol. 1, 2001
- The Bluegrass Sessions, 2007
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