In the 1960s, Haggard became the most important country sing-songwriter since Hank Williams. This became clear to me this summer as I listened repeatedly to a new compilation of Merle Haggard’s music, “The Complete ‘60s Capitol Singles.”
Haggard’s songs succeeded because they were about what was closest to him: his own troubled youth, the plights of prison inmates and the struggles of the workingman. While Haggard continued to make distinctive music every decade since then (his latest studio album was released in 2011) many of his early hits have become among the most treasured songs in country music history, sounding as fresh and daring today as when they were rolled out on 45 rpm vinyl.
.Haggard began teaching himself guitar at age 12, drawn to the music of Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams. At 14, he ran away to Texas with a friend. When they returned to Bakersfield, the two boys were sent to juvenile hall. However, the two took off to Modesto and lived a life of manual labor and committing small crimes. Eventually, when Haggard was 20, he was sentenced for attempted robbery of a restaurant. He was sent to San Quentin prison. In 1960, after two years and nine months he was released.
Haggard straightened out his ways. He got married and spent his days working manual labor jobs and, whenever he could, spent nights singing at local nightspots. He immersed himself in the hard-edged Bakersfield sound that was up and coming from local sensation’s Buck Owens’ string of national hit records. From the get-go, the vibrant Bakersfield music scene also helped to give Haggard his own sound that people to this day find appealing and timeless.
His first records for a small Bakersfield label demonstrated he could write and sing hit songs with strong audience appeal. Capitol Records bought out his contract and from about 1966 on his songwriting blossomed. Hits like “The Bottle Let Me Down” “I Threw Away the Rose” and “Branded Man,” were followed by even more assured and confident classics such as “Mama Tried.”
In 1969 Haggard caused a national sensation when he tweaked counter-culture boomers in the novelty song aimed for to appeal to his ever-growing blue-collar audience “Okie From Muskogee.” But another hit song later the same year called “Workingman’s Blues” was surely among his most memorable. It captured the spirit of a man who worked hard for the sake of his nine kids and also drank too to cope with the pressures he endured.
Thirty-five years later, Bob Dylan wrote and recorded a sequel to that song that he called “Workingman’s Blues No. 2.” When Haggard heard what Dylan was up to he mused to a reporter he just might write a sequel to “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Actually, Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues No. 2” was meant to be more of a homage to Haggard than a song sequel. Dylan wrote it in the spirit of a thank-you after Haggard joined him on his national tour. During that tour, I was happily in the audience at their Beacon Theater performance in New York City. It was a uniquely satisfying concert, a paring of peer musical giants on a single bill that I never dared to dream I’d ever see.
Back when Haggard was serving time in San Quentin, he was in the audience of prison-garbed inmates when Johnny Cash made his first infamous prison performance. About a decade later in 1968, he was a guest on Cash’s ABC TV show. Here is a Youtube clip from that show: