Before there was gangster rap or heavy metal or even psychedelic rock, there were The Outlaws. Johnny Cash got himself banned from the Grand Ole Opry for smashing the footlights while high. Waylon Jennings refused to play the Opry because they wouldn’t let him bring drums on stage. Willie Nelson’s very public embrace of weed and his ‘unconventional’ appearance left him on the outs with Nashville. And then there was Merle Haggard.
Raised in a family of California Okies during the Depression, Haggard launched his country music career after he was released from prison. The man was born grizzled. Nashville loved his sales numbers, but hated his image. Like the other Outlaws, his refusal to sand down his edges left him on the margins of the Nashville scene while smiling crooners in Nudie suits packed the Opry stage.
Cash wrote songs about drugs and murder. Nelson celebrated liquor and drugs. Haggard’s first-person experience with poverty and the justice system never left him. Like the other Outlaws, his music centered on pride, pain, and the struggles of people at the margins.
While stereotypical Opry performers like Conway Twitty and Glen Campbell scored hits with sappy songs about love, Merle Haggard crashed the country charts in 1969 with ‘Working Man Blues.’ His album, ‘Okie from Muskogee’ was a legend marked by stories about prison, alcoholism, divorce, and poverty. His two most popular songs from the album were anthems of white blue collar resentment, mostly aimed at the emerging Hippie culture.
Merle Haggard died yesterday at the age of 79. He will be sorely missed.