Not that one really needs a reason to listen to Merle Haggard. But with the opening of the new Bakersfield Sound exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, that's exactly what I've been doing over the past few weeks. Combined with his upcoming 75th birthday on April 6 and his appearance at The Ryman on April 11, now seems a good time to reflect upon the "Poet Laureate of the Common Man" — or as he would probably prefer, The Hag.
In 1994, Johnny Cash revived his career through his collaborations with Rick Rubin. Since then, the template of a hipster Svengali producer combined with material pulled from the modern indie-rock songbook has become the standard procedure for older artists seeking reinvention. And over the years, I've found myself wishing that this or that aging country or soul singer would get on the revival train.
The one name that has been conspicuously absent from my makeover wish list is Merle Haggard, partially due to Haggard's own ornery cussedness and his unwavering spirit of individuality. The same impulses that landed him in trouble with the law as a young man became driving forces in his music, once they were redirected in less felonious directions. So the idea of Haggard being guided by a youngster, no matter how talented or hip, just seems a little ridiculous.
Another reason that Haggard has never required a comeback is the simple fact that he has never "gone away." Of course, he's not the record-making machine that he was in the '60s, '70s and '80s, but Haggard has rarely gone more than three years without a new album, and he continues to tour despite sagging record sales and recent health problems.
Even more amazing is the fact that Haggard is still crafting great records. Sure, his later albums may lack the level of consistency of his earlier work, and his voice has lost some of its power and range. But even in his less focused recordings there is always that moment when he touches the emotional core of his talent — and you stand in awe.
Take, for example, Pancho and Lefty, Haggard's 1983 collaboration with Willie Nelson. From the very beginning, the album was primarily an excuse for two old friends to hang out, booze it up and have some fun in the studio. The album suffers horribly in retrospect from '80s-itis production (Willie and Hag backed by synthesizers — really?), but the vocals are spot-on, particularly on the title track. Willie sings the bulk of the Townes Van Zandt classic, spinning the legend of the two wastrel bandit boys, but when Hag steps to the microphone it all changes. Haggard's solitary verse is a shot of cold, stark reality — a world in which there are no heroes or villains, just a solitary man living out his days with the consequences of his actions, unanswered questions and could-have-beens. It's an amazing performance, clocking in at just over 30 seconds of the song's four-and-a-half minutes, but it's also a perfect summation of the essence of Haggard's talent.
That essence is his ability to address the basic contradictions and unsolvable questions of human existence through the simple terms of a country song. It's very appropriate that one of Haggard's biggest hits — and the most famous controversy of his career — the song "Okie From Muskogee" is such an enigma. Was it a brilliant satire or a jingoistic manifesto? The answer is both — or perhaps neither. It's Haggard's ability to always see the multiple facets of what people perceive as "The Truth" that has sustained him as an artist.
On his most recent album, Working in Tennessee, Haggard opens with a twisted grin, poking fun at the sucker's game of the music industry through the lighthearted Western swing of the title cut. The album continues with jabs at corporate country and just-for-fun covers of old favorites that show a musician having a good time with his band. Then you hit the center of the album, and the simple "What I Hate." It offers no solutions, positions or dogma, but merely lists the symptoms of a much bigger disease. It stops you in your tracks. It's a question without easy answers, and Haggard offers no solutions other than the need for people to look within themselves.
Haggard does not give his listeners a final answer or a definitive truth. It's the journey and not the destination that is paramount. And for those lucky ticket holders who see Merle Haggard live at The Ryman on Wednesday, they will see a true living legend. It's a status he's attained not because of past achievements, but through his continuing search for the soul of humanity.