It's not surprising that Merle Haggard's music helped set the stage for outlaw country. He was a convicted felon who served three years at San Quentin for burglary. Released in 1960, he was fully pardoned a dozen years later by California Gov. Ronald Reagan, undoubtedly influenced by conservative affection for Haggard's song "Okie from Muskogee."
Indeed, Haggard was a lower-class boy with troubles of his own: After losing his father at the age of 9, he spent a wild youth hopping rails, working odd jobs and getting in trouble for truancy, documented in "Mama Tried." Juvie only taught Haggard bad habits. He was earning a reputation as a performer in his teens before that was cut short with his San Quentin stint at age 20. But he saw Johnny Cash perform there several times, and those experiences helped him resolve to turn his life around. Out of prison, he did manual labor and started writing more songs: His time and his work were fodder for many of those early anthems like "The Fugitive," "Branded Man" and "Sing Me Back Home."
By the late '60s, Haggard had become a bona fide superstar, launching a streak of 37 straight Top 10 singles, including 23 No. 1 singles. His career stayed strong through the '70s and into the '80s, when Haggard's type was again shuffled out of the country music establishment.
Over the past two decades, alt.country largely restored Haggard in the public eye, and he's responded with several amazing albums that stand with his late '60s work as among the best of his career. Roots, Vol. 1—recorded with Norm Stephens, Lefty Frizell's guitarist—revisits that old '50s sound that was such an influence on Haggard. At 70, he's still a vital artist and performer, apart from being one of country's biggest legends. Haggard seems most comfortable when his circumstances are removed from the easiest situation. "We weren't outlaws so much as outcasts," remembers Billy Joe Shavers, a crony of Haggard's in an artistic cache that included Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
Even politically, Haggard's always been tough to qualify: Many pegged Haggard as a right-winger thanks to songs like "Okie" and "Fighting Side of Me," but, in retrospect, they seem to be more of artifacts of upbringing than necessary expressions of world view. At times he's even suggested that "Okie" was a humorous expression of an ignorant worldview, though that seems a tad disingenuous given his upbringing. Nonetheless, he's raised questions about the Iraq war from its outset while vocally supporting the Dixie Chicks. Then again, on the eve of Ronald Reagan's funeral, he suggested Reagan be added to Mount Rushmore.
"Okie" will forever frame discussion of Haggard (he once complained to Willie Nelson, who offered to trade him "Crazy"), but his influence is larger than even the legions of similar-minded artists he's inspired. His broad baritone croon is signature, and the everyman tone of his songs ("Working Man Blues," "I'll Just Stay Here and Drink") remains one of the primary touchstones of outlaw country. Haggard and his peers are reminders of those roots and the universality of our heartache, be it in love or life. Who can't appreciate "a lonely song, someone is gone/ A story old as time/ Love, hate, or want and wait/ 'til misery fills your mind?" Or how about a 70-year-old still sorting through the complexities of life but fighting soulless plasticity with earthy, honest, rugged music?
Merle Haggard plays Meymandi Concert Hall in the Progress Energy Center Wednesday, Aug. 8, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $41-$51. The show is part of PineCone's Down Home Series.