John Sieger
John Sieger

The Legacy of Merle Haggard

“Lonesome Fugitive” was one among a long list of classic songs. Haggard was unique.

By - Apr 7th, 2016 04:21 pm
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Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard

More bad news from the universe — Merle Haggard has died. I’d much rather write about the living and the breathing, but lately there have been too many good ones that have gone. A charter member of country music’s greatest generation, Haggard was unique. A subtle and convincing singer, his voice emanated from a deep well of earned emotion. The same place his memorable songs came from. A gifted instrumentalist, he handled more than a few of his own guitar solos. He also played fiddle in the Bob Wills western swing style. Qualified and more.

If you know him for “Okie From Muskogee,” you might not have appreciated him him for a while. It was a song he was ambivalent about, and it was instantly hijacked by the Nixon administration for their nefarious purposes. Divided then, divided now. It was my introduction to him and I detested it at the time. Now I don’t think about it much, it’s eclipsed by the wealth of wonderful work he created.

My re-introduction came from that little old song stealer, Jerry Lee Lewis. On the same album that featured our city’s anthem, “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me), was a sleeper called “Lonesome Fugitive.” It’s an unshakeable instant classic and it’s been with me since the first spin. I learned it and sang it, but neither of those guys has anything to worry about. Having been familiar with it for so long, I always assumed he wrote it. Not so. It was an odd discovery for me on the day of his death, but it doesn’t matter, he owns the song like a dog owns a turkey bone.

His first #1 hit, it’s often cited as the one that made Haggard a star. This happened in 1967. It was written by Liz and Casey Anderson, a married couple, on a long cross country drive. Inspired by “The Fugitive,” the popular TV show, it was presented by Ms. Anderson to Merle. He was dragged to their house reluctantly and probably not expecting to be gobsmacked when this lady walked over to the pump organ to play. She had no idea Haggard had done hard time at San Quentin, but it was like she had written his theme song.

His childhood was right out of Grapes Of Wrath. Brought up in a converted boxcar after his parents fled the Dustbowl. His father, a railroad carpenter, died before Haggard was ten and it swept him into a world of pain and trouble. Before he saw the light, he saw the inside of many reform schools and had done time at San Quentin, where he got to watch Johnny Cash do what he did at Folsom Prison. Paroled in 1960, he straightened himself out and started singing in honky-tonks around Bakersfield, where he helped to invent the spare and honest sound that city is famous for, along with his friend Buck Owens. His progress was steady and soon he started hitting the charts. The songs, including the timeless title “All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers,” told of barrooms, bad jobs and broken hearts.

Then came “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive.” It struck a chord with him and everyone who heard it. A better match of man and lyric might not exist:

Down every road there’s always one more city
I’m on the run, the highway is my home

I raised a lot of cane back in my younger days
While Mama used to pray my crops would fail
I’m a hunted fugitive with just two ways:
Outrun the law or spend my life in jail

I’d like to settle down but they won’t let me
A fugitive must be a rolling stone
Down every road there’s always one more city
I’m on the run, the highway is my home

I’m lonely but I can’t afford the luxury
Of having one I love to come along
She’d only slow me down and they’d catch up with me
For he who travels fastest goes alone

I’d like to settle down but they won’t let me
A fugitive must be a rolling stone
Down every road there’s always one more city
I’m on the run, the highway is my home

I’m on the run, the highway is my home

© L. Anderson /  C Anderson

This song has one of the coldest couplets ever written:

“I raised a lot of cane back in my younger days
While Mama used to pray my crops would fail”

That second line gives me chills just thinking about. To hear him sing it shorts my nervous system out. He would have been a great criminal. As evidenced in this live performance, he was a striking presence and could really rock a baby blue suit. The look is one hipsters still aspire to. It’s funny to see his wife, Bonnie Owens, singing along in her slightly frumpy Lawrence Welk gingham. But pay no attention to the outfit, listen to her perfect harmonies instead — she was first rate.

It must have been inspiring to sing with Merle. His voice is like liquid velvet. It has a warmth and intimacy, and at times brims over with understatement, if that’s possible. Merle doesn’t get in your face, he insinuates and gets inside the story. Then he lets you come to him. Millions did.

You may not hear it as well in this live version, but Haggard singing any word that ended with a vowel, especially at the end of a line, is heaven. It was at these moments he unleashed a perfect vibrato that could be Pablo Casals playing a Stradivarius. People often call someone’s voice an instrument; in this case, it’s undeniably true.

When Merle stirred up the right-wingers it put a little bit of a stink on him. But it happened when country was suddenly perceived as authentic and important by people who had been wearing tie dyes the year before. The Flying Burritto Brothers in their Nudie suits, led the charge and adored him. He was too independent to be used for political purpose, anyway. Keep in mind, one of his last songs was a love song to marijuana sung in a duet with Willie Nelson called “It’s All Going To Pot.”

Fact is, Haggard lived every part of the last century and some of this one. He hopped freights and did time. He could have been gone 50 years ago, but, thankfully, he made it this long. I only saw him once and it was a revelation. A great guitarist as well as a singer, his band was as laid back and confident as he was. They kept everything banked at about 80 percent volume and the solos popped out to the front without, I assume, much work for the guy at the soundboard. When he tipped his hat to the audience, I felt like we should all have been tipping ours. Thanks for the chills and rare beauty, Merle, Bro Country will not let anyone forget about you soon.

Bonus Tracks: We could scroll to the end of the internet with bonus tracks, but here are a handful of absolute musts:

3 thoughts on “John Sieger: The Legacy of Merle Haggard”

  1. Rudy Baumann says:

    It was a very nice article John and very well written and there were many things that people probably did not know about Merle that you included thank you very much

  2. Ken Wald says:

    That song and that LP were my intro to Merle in the 70’s. My musician friend Jerry Smith an Appalachian living Ohio played rock n roll on his lead guitar but help me love country music too. Buck, Loretta, Tammy, George, Conway, and Merle. The twang!

  3. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Thank you for this warm and moving tribute to Merle Haggard! He also helped and encouraged many young musicians and songwriters. And “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” is undoubtedly a great song!

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