Merle Haggard & Marty Stuart
- June 24, 2012 - June 24, 2012
- Venue: Family Arena
- Location: Family Arena
- Address: 2002 Arena Pkwy., Saint Charles, MO 63303
- Admission: $41.00 - $70.00
The word "legend" usually makes an appearance at some point when discussing Merle Haggard. It's an acknowledgment of his artistry and his standing as "the poet of the common man." It's a tribute to his incredible commercial success and to the lasting mark he has made, not just on country music, but on American music as a whole. It's apt in every way but one.
The term imposes an aura of loftiness that's totally at odds with the grit and heart of Haggard's songs. When a Merle Haggard song plays, it can make an innocent-as-apple-pie grandma understand the stark loneliness and self-loathing of a prisoner on death row; a rich kid who never wanted for any material possession get a feel for the pain of wondering where the next meal will come from; a tee-totaling pillar of the community sympathize with the poor heartbroken guy downing shots at the local bar.
As a result, Haggard found his songs at the top of the charts on a regular basis. Immediately embraced by country fans, he also earned the respect of his peers. In addition to the 40 #1 hits, Haggard charted scores of Top Ten songs. He won just about every music award imaginable, both as a performer and as a songwriter, and in 1994 was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His body of work easily places him beside Hank Williams as one of the most influential artists in country music.
Haggard said Johnny Cash encouraged him to address his problems directly in verse. "I was bull-headed about my career. I didn't want to talk about being in prison," Haggard recalls, "but Cash said I should talk about it. That way the tabloids wouldn't be able to. I said I didn't want to do that and he said, ‘It's just owning up to it.'" When Cash introduced him on his variety show, he said, "Here's a man who writes about his own life and has had a life to write about."
From that point on, Haggard stopped hiding the story of his past incarcerations, and his songs opened a window on the dark life of prisoners and ex-cons. "Sing Me Back Home," another #1 in 1967, was written for his old friend Rabbit, who was executed after his escape plan led to the death of a prison guard. "Mama Tried," which reached the top of the chart in 1968, offered an apology of sorts to Haggard's religious and hardworking mother, absolving her of blame for his bad behavior. He laid out all the other aspects of his life in subsequent songs, proving himself an adept lyricist who specialized in sorrow and pain, with the occasional dash of hope or humor.
"Working Man Blues," which came out in 1969, may have appealed to the rock crowd because of its hard-driving beat and its anti-elitism, but it delivered a clear message of solidarity to the blue collar country audience, with its uncomplimentary reference to welfare. That political stance was solidified with Haggard's most popular song, "Okie From Muskogee." He says the song started as a joke, and its tone definitely leans toward the humorous, but it also drew a clear line between "us" and "them." Haggard spoke for the Americans who didn't smoke marijuana, didn't burn their draft cards, didn't grow their hair long and shaggy and were "proud to wave Old Glory down at the courthouse." Followed by the belligerent "Fightin' Side of Me," which undeniably challenged the anti-war protesters, it made Haggard a political symbol. In the ensuing years, Richard Nixon invited him to sing at the White House. Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, gave him an unconditional pardon for his past criminal offenses. George Wallace asked him for an endorsement - which Haggard turned down.
The furor caused by those two songs took Haggard by surprise, but he never shied away from writing songs with a strong point of view. In 1972, he released "I Wonder If They Ever Think Of Me," which revisits Vietnam via the thoughts of a P.O.W., while 1973′s "If We Make It Through December" crystallized the worries of an unemployed father at a time when much of the U.S. was feeling the effects of a particularly difficult recession.
Though the hits slowed down a bit in the following decades, Haggard never stopped making music. He started producing his own cuts for the first time, and "My Favorite Memory" and "Big City," went to #1 in 1981. The next year he and George Jones made an album together, with their duet "Yesterday's Wine," reaching the top of the chart. Teaming up with another legend-in-the-making, Willie Nelson, Haggard scored again with the 1983 hit "Pancho and Lefty." In 1987, he scored his last #1, "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star."
In the mid-nineties, with the release of the box set Down Every Road coming at the same time Haggard was releasing an album of new music, the media turned its attention to the long-ignored singer once more. His status as a living legend took hold about then, with good reason. It was overdue.