That’s how Bob Dylan described Merle Haggard to Rolling Stone in 2009.
This was no mere hyperbole. Haggard, who died at his home in California on Wednesday at 79, spent more than 50 years representing the authentic heart of American country music. He lived the life portrayed by the characters in his songs. And those songs, 38 of which topped the country charts, form a significant portion of the 20th-century country music songbook’s top tier.
In an era when what passes for country music is more often than not mainstream pop with a cowboy hat and a southern accent, composed by committee, and about as authentic as a watered-down lite beer, it might be difficult to understand Haggard’s influence. He was the antithesis of “Bro Country,” a writer of tough-as-nails portrayals of the “other America,” the one populated by poor and working-class folks, the lost and the wandering, the perpetually heartbroken, characters for whom the American dream was often a nightmare.
Haggard was to country music what Son House and Muddy Waters were to the blues – an authentic voice singing songs born of personal experience, tinged by regret and sadness, but brimming with the human spirit’s triumphant ability to endure.
Born in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1937, shortly after his family had been driven there from Oklahoma during what came to be known known as the “Great Dustbowl Migration,” Haggard knew poverty and hopelessness firsthand from birth. At 19, following a youth spent indulging in juvenile crime, Haggard ended up in San Quentin Prison, serving a five-year sentence for robbery. It was there that Haggard first came face to face with Johnny Cash, when Cash visited the prison and recorded his iconic “At San Quentin” album; it was there that Haggard became familiar with the guilt and regret that would inform his post-prison songwriting; and it was there that he encountered the characters that would populate his songs until the end of his career.
In his 1969 song “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard positioned himself in opposition to the counterculture movement and the anti-Vietnam War stance associated with hippies, with lines like “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD/We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/Cuz we’re livin’ right and bein’ free,” but his influence on “hippie” music in particular, and songwriter-oriented rock music in general, was vast. (His position on marijuana would, shall we say, soften over the years, perhaps due in part to his deep and enduring friendship with pot advocate Willie Nelson.) Rockabilly and early rock ’n’ roll had always shown their influence in Haggard’s work, so it was not surprising that the most astute rock musicians found inspiration in his music.
Much of that influence can still be heard in the music of the Grateful Dead, a band whose members recognized in Haggard a fellow outsider, and in his songs, a deep strain of American irreverence. The Dead made Haggard tunes like “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” into concert staples beginning in the late ’60s, and current offshoots of the band perform Haggard songs on a regular basis to this day. The Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams are just a handful of artists who have both covered Haggard’s compositions and assimilated his foreboding exterior/tender-hearted interior dichotomy into their own songcraft.
After leaving both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons birthed “Cosmic American Music” at the dawn of the ’70s with his Fallen Angels band, marrying the Bakersfield country strain to tenets of rock music and hippie-fied folk, and making his debt to Haggard in this regard abundantly plain. As a result, the Alternative Country movement that erupted in the mid-’90s had Haggard’s markings all over it, from the garage-country of Uncle Tupelo to the gritty Americana of Whiskeytown.
These days, as Bro Country faces its inevitable backlash and the pendulum starts to swing back toward gritty realism, artists like Eric Church, Sturgil Simpson, Jamie Johnson and Chris Stapleton have proven themselves capable of carrying the Haggard torch forward, finding inspiration in the aching sadness at his music’s core.
Haggard took many stances in defiance of country music’s often politically right-wing and socially conservative mandate, particularly during the later stages of his career. He received the Kennedy Center Honor from President Obama in 2010, and praised the president while decrying attacks on him from the political right as “almost criminal”; he described marijuana as “one of the most fantastic things in the world” to Rolling Stone in 2015; and he distanced himself from the “traditional values” associated with both the Republican Party and country music repeatedly throughout the last decade of his life. During that time, much like his dear friend Dylan, Haggard never stopped touring, finding a temporary balm for his restlessness on the concert stage.
Haggard’s ill-at-ease spirit, revealed to the world through the craggy and weathered topography of his face, mirrored the landscape of our country. Like the down-but-not-out characters in his finest songs, his music will endure.