Remembering Merle Haggard, the most talented country singer ever

Merle Haggard Big City

Minutes ago my phone began to buzz with texts from friends sharing the sad news that Merle Haggard died earlier today at the age of 79. I’m not sure exactly what this post is going to be, I just know that I have to try to express my admiration and thanks to one of the greatest song writers and THE most talented singer in country music history.

There is no way to write about Merle without first addressing his epic Marvel superhero origin story. Merle was born near Bakersfield, California in a small town called Oildale in 1937. His parents, Flossie Mae Harp and James Francis Haggard, were living in a converted railroad boxcar at the time.

As a youngster, Merle was always in trouble, and that continued until he was a young man and wound up in San Quentin prison after attempting to rob a roadhouse that he didn’t realize was open at the time. Merle had gotten a guitar at the age of 12 and had taught himself to play and sing, but it wasn’t until he saw Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin (yes, Merle Haggard was a prisoner at the time) in 1958 that Merle decided he would commit to being a musician.

Merle joined the prison band and managed to stay out of trouble, which is extremely notable given his less than exemplary prison record that included numerous attempts at escape. Merle actually decided against one such escape with a fellow inmate nicknamed Rabbit. Rabbit later escaped on his own, but wound up shooting a police officer and he later returned to San Quentin — this time on death row.

Merle got his prison life in order, stayed out of trouble, got his GED, and was released in 1960. In 1962 he recorded his first demo, “Skid Row,” and in 1964 he had his first top ten hit with Liz Anderson’s “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers.” The lyrics to Liz’s song had the existential angst and heartache that would later be a hallmark of Merle’s own songs, but it was another song by Liz that would brand Merle as country music’s first authentic outlaw:

I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” (above) was Merle’s next release, and it too was a huge hit — and a song that is still inexorably tied to Merle Haggard’s public persona.

During his 53-year recording career Merle recorded more than 80 albums and 39 number one songs. From his first demo to his most recent duet project with Willie Nelson, Merle has WITHOUT QUESTION the most consistent and sizable body of work in country music history, if not pop music in general. Legends like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson were not only not able to sustain the output in terms of original songwriting, but even Willie and Johnny’s most diehard fans would admit the singers’ careers had ups and downs. Not Merle Haggard.

And let’s also remember that the storied “Outlaw” movement of the early 1970s that rebelled against the Nashville establishment and was spearheaded by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings meant very little to Merle Haggard because he had been an outlaw from day one. He was NEVER part of the Nashville establishment, and lots of the things that Willie, Waylon, and the rest were fighting for (the right to use their own bands for recording sessions, control over production decisions, more creative control in general) were all things Merle had from the very beginning. I can still remember seeing Merle Haggard perform at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium in 2000 — and what a big deal it was that he was playing there. (DAMN what a show too!)

Now let me get back to my bold statement in the opening paragraph where I declare Merle Haggard to be “THE most talented singer in country music history.” I’m going to double down on that statement by taking it one step further by saying Merle Haggard might be the most talented singer in the history of recorded music. Jazz singers like Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan are often considered to be on an entirely different level than twangy-throated “hillbilly” virtuosos, but don’t think for a second that Merle Haggard did not have just as much, if not more, range in his voice than Frank or Sarah or anyone else — and not just “range” in terms of octaves or whatever, but “range” in terms of emotional breadth.

In other words, this man could f***ing SING!

Here are just a couple of examples in which Merle goes from defiant badass to a helpless muddy puddle of pain and regret:

If you need a slightly more humorous example of Merle’s vocal talents, here he is doing some impressions of other country music stars on Glen Campbell’s show:

I should point out that me and a number of my friends are devout members of the church of High Fidelity when it comes to lists and rankings, and whenever we toss out superlatives, it is very important to pay attention to the exact wording. Yes, I think Merle Haggard is the most talented country singer ever. I also think Hank Williams is the greatest country singer ever and Willie Nelson is my favorite country singer ever. My apologies if that is confusing, but I won’t waste numerous paragraphs trying to explain further.

This post is not about some sort of musical history pissing match, however. It is about the greatness of Merle Haggard and the huge impact he had on me in terms of better understanding my own emotions and place in the universe. It is about how in my darkest hours when the entire world seems to be spewing meaningless, distracting, sappy gobbledygook — I can put on a Merle Haggard song and once again have a conversation with another human being. And later, when I find myself lifted out of whatever darkness I was in, I am able to “safely” revisit that part of myself — that part of all of our selves — just by hitting “play.”

And let’s not forget that Merle is tapped into all aspects of human emotional reality, which doesn’t just include heartbreak and despair, but also the love and hope that goes along with it.

Merle has received the Kennedy Center Honors, he is in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he was the subject of the PBS series American Master, and he is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest musicians. I don’t know why it doesn’t seem like that’s enough. It just doesn’t.

I’m going to end this part of the post with an appearance Merle Haggard made on Ralph Emery’s popular country music themed talk show in 1984. Merle is sitting on the couch alongside singer/songwriter Freddy Powers (who wrote the song “Natural High” in the YouTube audio clip above) and he decides to change up the song they were planning to perform. Instead, Merle does the title track from his brand new album at the time, Kern River:

Nobody does that right there except Merle Haggard. Nobody. As Porter Wagoner says at the end of the clip: “He’s a dangerous man with a song.”

Thank you so much Merle for recording so many songs that have been some of my best and closest friends through the years.

For those of you wanting to dive headfirst into the vast ocean of Merle Haggard, I recommend you drop right into the middle of it. This string of albums from 1979 to 1982 may be a bit heavy on the hurt, but they are all flawless and capture Merle at a point in his career when he still had the singing chops of a hungry young man, but also the bottom-of-the-barrel-aged creakiness that could only come with age, and perhaps a bit too much hard livin’.

1979 Serving 190 Proof
Merle at his lowest, and perhaps his best. It is brutally honest emotionally with the songs seeming to originate from a place under the floorboards. Listening to this album reminds me of Citizen Kane when Orson Welles shot scenes from a camera mounted in a hole. I guess that’s the exact same perspective as concert goers in the front row as they watched Merle kickin’ out the footlights yet again:

1980 The Way I Am
A straight-forward Merle Haggard offering with a few more “bright spots” than its predecessor. One of those bright spots is the borderline silly “Sky-Bo” that defines a “new kind of hobo for planes” — a song I cannot help but sing to myself every time I find myself on board a plane and enthralled by the magic and allure of flight. The title track is an epic tour de force of self reflection and reality check confessional penned by Sonny Throckmorton:

Wish I were down on some blue bayou
With a bamboo cane stuck in the sand
But the road I’m on, don’t seem to go there
So I just dream, keep on bein’ the way I am

Wish I enjoyed what makes my living
Did what I do with a willin’ hand
Some would run, but that ain’t like me
So I just dream and keep on bein’ the way I am

The way I am, don’t fit my shackles
The way I am, reality
I can almost see that bobber dancin’
But I just dream, keep on bein’ the way I am


1980 Back to the Barrooms
I just don’t see how anyone could argue against this being Merle Haggard’s best album. No one has ever captured what it means when alcohol is not only a viable alternative, but seems like the only choice.

In other words, Thom Jurek of AllMusic says that what Back to the Barrooms “is really about is the wreckage caused by broken amorous relationships and boozy escape as the only way to cope.” No country music fan of any note is not familiar with songs like “Misery and Gin,” “Back To The Barrooms Again,” “I Don’t Want to Sober Up Tonight,” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” but in between those booze anthems are eight other perfect songs that range from heartbreak to a moving tribute to one of Merle’s early music mentors, Tommy Collins. But, as much as I would love to include “Leonard” as a sample song, that honor has to go to one of BTTB‘s signature tracks:

For more insight on Back To The Barrooms, be sure to check out Darren O’s reflections on the album in celebration of its 30-year anniversary.

1981 Rainbow Stew: Live at Anaheim Stadium
This was one of my first Merle Haggard albums, and it’s a great live sampling of his career up until 1981. The album kicks off with four songs from the recently released Back To The Barrooms, but then heads off on a journey through Merle’s already-lengthy career, including odes to two of Merle’s musical heroes: Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Here’s Merle performing Jimmie’s “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ on the Corner):”

1981 Big City
I just don’t see how anyone could argue against this being Merle Haggard’s best album. (Yes, there are at least ten albums that merit that intro.) A much more diverse offering than Back To The Barrooms, this is the one I would suggest folks buy first if you are afraid of plummeting too far too fast. It’s Merle’s first album on Epic and the change seems to not only reinvigorate Merle from a songwriting standpoint (he wrote or co-wrote 8 of the 12 songs), but it also seemed to reinvigorate him on a personal level as his subject matter rises above the barroom floor a bit, so to speak.

1982 Going Where the Lonely Go
Mellow Merle perfection. I don’t hear a lot of buzz about this album, but it is just as great as the others on this list. If some performer broke onto the scene and released this as their first album, then tragically died of an overdose, this would be universally accepted as one of the greatest albums of all time. But, because it is Merle Haggard’s 40-whateverth album that came out after Big City, it’s just some out of print (aside from streaming and a two-fer packaged CD) Merle Haggard album from the ’80s.

I really don’t want to end this post. I don’t want to say goodbye to Merle Haggard. I guess I can tell myself that I never have to because I will always have his music, but that doesn’t seem to help because the man is gone. The world I live in no longer has a living, breathing, singing Merle Haggard in it — and neither does yours.

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