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MERLE HAGGARD 1937-2016: Image of the Outlaw in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

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Merle Haggard has been buried – his body presided over by Marty Stuart and the tear-baiting machinery of Nashville accountants posing as artists.  With him – inevitably as much a part of the soil in which his body rests – is yet another part in the human totem of a vanishing American tradition; another highway cross in the ground to mark where an indomitable, honest voice stood.      Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob.  Woe to the towns of Bethlehem, Bakersfield: Merle begat Merle.  All fuse, no bullshit.

Quoth Hag, “At my age, I don’t buy but a half a loaf of bread, you know?”

The voice of Merle: a mosaic of nicotine, kerosene cans, bent fenders on Cadillacs from all-night drunks; jailhouse cots, stray dogs, an empty bottle on a bar stool.  A voice of roses, thorns; transmissions towers and fertile valleys.  He is at once steam-powered, industrial, though bare and virile as untouched ground in the same note. This brings us to schematics: Merle Haggard is apple pie.  Merle Haggard is a foreign war for an oil field.  Merle Haggard is the Space Program – a bottle of Tennessee Mash poured over a bowl of corn flakes.  Merle Haggard is an American – the last of a lost tribe that hung right when it should’ve gone left.  In the body of roots music, the forces of salvation and lostness operate like warring sides of the same coin.  Consult the rolodex of Harry Smith, Leadbelly’s overalls, the plaintive wail of Hank Williams.  Riven by forces of contradiction and contrition, redemption and violence, the tradition of our music is a state of being haunted; either chased by the temptation of some form of salvation, or the temptation to corrupt that which redeems.  Fiances drowned in muddy rivers, Alabama backroads as a stand-in for Damascus (in the Gospels of Hank); songs of murderers, trains, chaingangs and churches; songs of loss, love, edges, aches.  Not an ounce of it anywhere not infected with loss, not wrought with thirst, hunger and life, heretical in its violence of celebrations, destructions.  It is this tradition to which Haggard belongs – an emissary of lament, pride, pain, love.  It is ageless, the seed of it all likely within us.  It is the apple pie, the Space Program.  It is us.

Say the sycophants, journalists, aye: “Hey didn’t ya know – Merle Haggard was in prison, man.”

Much has been written already regarding his death, and of course in the writing, the term “Outlaw Country” has appeared like the remorseless symptoms of a venereal disease on a chancred cock.  With it, a lot of shadows, light.  “Outlaw Country” is defined visually by a style of bandanas, telecasters, worn denim and token varieties of facial hair.  Goatees are typically verboten, though beards are preferred.  Haggard had a beard intermittently, though probably out of boredom.  Merle is put here out of a desperate, innate piece of human psychosis, a curious habit that demands rigorous categorization of all the universe’s creations.  Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson et al; it is less to do with the commission of crimes than the refusal to bob-and-kneel to the smooth Countrypolitan sound – the sound that Nashville invented after it turned the image of Hank Williams into a futile, glibly farting cartoon riding a stale pinata horse.  (“Keep the pearl-buttoned outfit and pants, but lose the pain,” they say at the Opry.)

Haggard had the street cred and jail sentences to align him with any an“outlaw” designation, but barring Billy Joe Shaver or the perpetually, playfully insane David Allan Coe, who among the aforementioned could share the credentials?  This is not to discount the songs and personas of these other artists – the Kristoffersons, the Jennings, the Paychecks – vital, brilliant as all of them are.  Johnny Cash is no less of an artist for not having murdered a man in Reno, nor am I piss-drunk in sorrow that Willie Nelson never strangled a black jack dealer with his pigtails.  It is to illustrate a profound difference that set someone like Haggard apart.  Through the ensuing years of his success, he never used the experiences of his past to color his image with any hipper-than-thou pretensions, any badass posturing beyond what the strength of his own voice emitted.  In the presence of the authentic, there is nothing to pretend, no absence to placate.  He had heard men raped within the walls of prison cells while he was sleeping; seen men beaten to death over petty insults; watched a friend walk his last walk to be executed for a failed escape plan that left one guard dead.  With the exception of the last walk (detailed in “Sing Me Back Home”), he never referred to the things he had seen in songs.  He didn’t need to.  The shape and command of his voice showed visions of the horror and pain of all he observed.  It dripped like wax from his diaphragm.  It never left him.  He maintained at any point, at a large capacity show, he half-expected some man he’d served time with to stand up and ask just what the hell he thought he was doing on stage singing, that he needed to bring his convict ass back where it belonged.  “Branded Man” expressed as much.

Quoth the Hag, “I paid the debt I owed them/But they’re still not satisfied/Now I’m a branded man out in the cold.”

Until the insistence of Johnny Cash himself, no one knew Merle turned 21 in prison at San Quentin and had seen Cash perform there.  His initial songs and some early publicity bios suggested a familiarity with crime, imprisonment, but the extent was never completely revealed. Haggard was less than enthusiastic about sharing his criminal exploits to garner publicity, but Cash argued it would endear him to the public.  This is where shadow and light emerge, where “image” clashes with honesty.  He didn’t need credibility.  Academic bullshit or little boys playing cowboys and indians on their mother’s couch cushions, who knows; but the concept of the prisoner, as a personification, a living symbol, whatever, is like manure in country music, spread everywhere about in the futile, directionless hopes that something will grow from its use.  Undoubtably, Haggard shared certain traditions or subject matter with Cash and other country godheads, but he less embraced the crime ballads and murder songs than rebel against the pull of them, reporting, almost factually upon them, singing about the torment and grief the acts caused the perpetrators and the perpetrators’ families.  Rather, loneliness, agony, frankness – the shattering of illusions – these were more in Merle’s style.  Haggard’s landscape was one of consequences.  Archetypes of barroom angels and honky tonk hospitalizations abound in country music – they call it therapy – but one of his strengths was to sing about how relentless pain can be, that contrary to decades of industry-endorsed wisdom, the alcohol isn’t always the savior or herald of salvation, that you can’t escape your past or the mark it’s laid upon you.

Quoth the Hag:

“Staring at the world

Through the bottom of a glass

All I see is a man

Who’s fading fast.”

This is back to that tradition of lostness, the chase of being haunted.  Though the prison ballads will be written about and popularized – images of his likeness in reformatory denim and train caps attendant – it’s his voice against the walls and ghosts of torment, the bizarre existential raving of songs like “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” or “I Threw Away the Rose” that give us a more nuanced view of Haggard’s voice.  At certain times, against the haunting, his cool, resigned anguish sounds like a picture of Camus with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.  There is the recognition of the distant, the sense that there is no escape.  Sometimes you’re fucked, but it’s fine.  Philosophize but know you’re vanishing.

Quote Heidegger to Haggard:

“Longing is the agony of the nearness of the distant.”

Quoth the Hag to Heidegger – “Fuck it, etc:”

“Each night I leave the bar room when it’s over

Not feeling any pain at closing time

But tonight your memory found me much too sober

Couldn’t drink enough to keep you off my mind

Tonight the bottle let me down

And let your memory come around

The one true friend I thought I’d found

Tonight the bottle let me down”

Between 1966-1969, Haggard went on a songwriting binge that anyone with an ear and half-an-ass can envy; “Swinging Doors,” “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Threw Away the Rose,” “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “My Past is Present,” “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” “Mama Tried,” “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” “Hungry Eyes,” “Workin Man Blues,” and of course, “Okie from Muskogee.”  Two of these songs define something nearly as large as the history of country music itself, or at least what we talk about when we talk about country music.  “Mama Tried” and “Okie from Muskogee” are self-sustaining organisms unto themselves that will endure as long as anyone gives a shit about country music, or whatever’s left of it in 10 years.  These songs have taken on lives of their own, with one giving blueprints to the opposing direction country music would take in the next following decades – what would be chosen as fashionable (through no fault of Merle, but strangely, in spite of him).

“Mama Tried” at one extreme, “Okie from Muskogee” at another.  The polarity encapsulates much of what is laudable, relatable, commendable or condemnable about country music; they are walls, unavoidable, barriers and borders that define why the music can teeter dumbly, dipsomaniacally between self-parody and brutal confession.  The former is a high-tiered lament and apology, deeply personal, while the latter is humorous, a little self-knowing, and mapped out a trajectory that contemporary country music would follow, illustrating – for most people – the reason they didn’t listen to country music in the first place.  In this instance, Haggard is an accidental topographer, and he would occasionally, vocally regret it.

“Mama Tried” is a ballad of breaking your poor mama’s heart through being a no-good thankless thug bastard.  It is ruthlessly open, sincere, featuring a soaring, anthemic chorus about turning 21 in prison “doing life without parole.”   “Okie from Muskogee” is a (possibly facetious) well-meaning ballad about the “other half” of the radicalized 60s, describing a town and people who don’t burn their draft cards or smoke pot or give a shit about Carlos Santana.  Likely they burn votive candles to the heavenly image of Richard Milhaus Nixon and pray to Chevy Bow-Ties on wood-paneled walls.  Haggard wasn’t a static artist and his songs featured a variety of characters.  If he sang anything, it was from knowledge, rather than study.  He knew a lot of people like those depicted in “Okie” and felt nobody was talking about them amid the free love and flowers and paisley shirts.  Convicts deserve their own songs, so do self-acknowledged squares.  These were genuine people, whether he agreed with their politics or not (which sometimes he did, sometimes not) and he sang about them honestly.

Strange thing, though; while “Mama” and other Merle ballads got canonized into the great country song book, “Okie” was prescient enough to predict the kind of reactionary, homegrown “aw-shucks-my-gun-my-girl-my-gumma’ment” fetishization of small town myth that would eventually find Merle as ostracized and out-in-the-goddamn-cold as his character in “Branded Man.”  Instead of anyone finding reserved humor in “Okie,” it was taken as an architectural guide by nearly any asshole with an acoustic guitar and a cowboy hat for over 40 years.  Haggard admitted he likely lost a large part of his possible audience by following “Okie” with another similarly-themed fuck yeah America song, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”  Despite his discography of songs, it was the image and content of these singles that he became tied-to.  When he stopped writing singles such as “Okie” and “Fightin’ Side,” the country community distanced itself from his ensuing career so that now Haggard had to ask where the fuck his radio play went, why the fuck he was now known as the “Muskogee” guy, and how the fuck – at the age of 63 – he wound up signing to Anti-, a punk rock label, after having been cut adrift from the Nashville Machine.  How could somebody like Haggard (all fuse, no bullshit, remember) compete with the Garth Brooks Melodramatic Rolling Thunder Revue of Weeping Housewives?  For the last 20 years of his life, the form of music he respected and breathed became swamped with crisp vocoders, synthetic slide lines – christ, the fiddles were probably electronically-programmed keyboards.  They were people raising the sentiment of “Muskogee” to a religious article – “Hello Toby Keith” – wallowing in their walled-in conceptions, anemic worldview, unknowing in their own self-mockery and blandness.  Were those guitars?  They sure as shit didn’t sound right.

Quoth the Hag to Heidegger, the state of music:

“Sound(s) like it’s been strained through some kind of white toast or something.  It all just sounds too neat and perfect, with no surprise to it at all…It’s like building cars, like an assembly line.  It doesn’t sound like anything that came from a guitar.”

Quote Heidegger to Haggard:

“In its essence, technology is something that man does not control.”

Haggard raises his glass to Heidegger.  They drink in that old, eternal way of all ghosts.

The country music community loves its corpses.  Legend and legacy is a commodity so long as it is stoically, silently visible – borne of desiccated body, gone – a vampirized, dry emblem of useless past that nods its head at name recognition alone.  It has no need of the living legend with its opposable thumbs or functioning brain cells, for its brain is usually at odds with whatever the establishment is defining as the music it endorses.  He was the artist of “Okie from Muskogee,” yes, who came to wonder how so many could take it as the genetic blueprint for all that was permissible or wanted in country music – a blind endorsement of a Rockwell painting that no one could ever really afford.  The good old days, they say now – that’s all they want.  They wear pre-distressed trucker caps, factory-torn denims – suburbanites masquerading as “good ol’ boys” to sell a few shitty t-shirts, and maybe they’ll mention a man like Merle from time to time, since it’s the closest they can get to anything authentic.  So now we have the shadow and the light, whatever falls between them.  A lot of tipped cowboy hats and empty skin writing songs about heartbreak, not because their hearts are broken or they have them, but because they have seen blueprints of how such hearts could break.  Their writing, then,  is not for want of expression, salvation, redemption, agony, no – but writing music because it’s an option, not a necessity – with nothing driving them hopelessly into it, adding nothing vital to it, changing nothing of the design .  Likely, they make “art” because they like art – which is the equivalent of building a house out of a fondness for modern air-conditioning.  Haggard built songs, houses, rooms, landscapes you could walk around in.   He built what he knew with the materials he gathered; his voice never failing to feel vital, alive, throughout a long career that never catered to bullshit.  Whoever is living the kind of life that a man like Haggard lived, they certainly don’t seem to be writing any country songs.

As a surprise to absolutely no one: there is a Haggard biopic in the making.  Yet again the great ghosts of American music will be swarmed by impotent potentates, poetasters of popular taste and hip, huckster shamen trying to approximate what makes an artist great, all the while missing that it is the humanity of the man that defined and created the art; the openness to failure, the honesty in the failing, the remorse and the balls of ever having tried.  So requiescat in pace and raise your glass, dim the lights and settle the flag, in the hopes anybody can figure any of it out.  Whatever forces conspire to define an American music have momentarily faltered, leaving us with a void that no amount of whiskey or wine can fill.  Until then, here’s to the air-conditioning.