I remember driving late one night across the North Dakota Prairie, my left hand on the wheel of my Chevy, my right on the radio dial. My home state, at night was a big electronic vacuum cleaner, sucking up radio signals from all over the country. I'd been driving for hours and was looking for something different to listen to. I hated country music with very few exceptions.
As I turned the dial, I came across WBAP from Fort Worth and as a Nashville "countrypolitan" song faded I heard finger picking, then the nasty Fender Stratocaster sound of "Mama Tried". It was the first time I ever heard Merle Haggard. I liked it.
What I liked most was the pared down, clean sound. A small tight band, one back up singer. Merle Haggard and the Strangers did the songs and the made the sound Nashville was trying to get rid of.
Like Buck Owens, his sound was tight, fresh and clean. I learned later they were from the same town, Bakersfield, California.
Bakersfield is a hot, dusty, dirty town in the Central Valley. Bakersfield grows food and pumps oil. The people who do the work are underpaid and overworked.
In the dust bowl days, thousands and thousands of people (like Haggard's parents) from Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and other states moved to the Bakersfield area, they brought their music with them. Hillbilly music, folk music, honky tonk, western swing and blues. The "Bakersfield Sound" was made up of all those traditions with a sprinkling of Mexican Rancheros sounds thrown in for flavor.
Most country music is written through observation by the writer. Merle Haggard lived the songs he wrote, he lost his father at 9, he was a teenage delinquent, served time in juvenile facilities, a drop out, constantly in trouble. He and a friend rode the rails to Texas when they were 15, when he was 18 he was in prison for robbery, he escaped and was sent to San Quentin. Haggard wrote about what he knew, what he'd lived. His "Workingman's Blues" was about his work as a truck driver, short order cook and field hand.
His song "Sing me Back Home" was written about a prison buddy, who after a daring escape killed a man, was captured, tried and sentenced to death. His song "Mama Tried" was autobiographical. written about his widowed mother's struggle with him during his teenage years.
Haggard was an alcoholic, when he wrote, "Tonight the Bottle Let me Down" he wrote what he knew, the same with his song "Swinging Doors". Haggard did a lot of cocaine as well, he was a life long expert in substance abuse.
Merle knew about relationships, good and bad. He should have he was married 5 times, once again his songs reflect what he lived, "Today I Started Loving You Again.", 'If We Make it Through December", "If We're Not Back in Love by Monday" and many more. He wrote a song called "Irma Jackson" in the 60's it was about an inter-racial love affair. His record company wouldn't release it.
Later in life he commented about "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me", he said, "When I wrote those I was dumber than a box of rocks."
Up until his death yesterday, Merle was still playing over a 100 dates a year.
I saw him live twice, I'm glad I did. Merle Haggard was an American Original.
Here is his discography...