It was January 1, 1958, and Merle Haggard was doing time in San Quentin for the crime of being stupid. A few months before, he and some friends tried to knock off a restaurant in Bakersfield, California only the establishment was still open for business. It was 11 p.m., not 3 a.m., but Haggard was too drunk on wine to see the light.
But he saw it when Johnny Cash came to San Quentin on that New Year's Day, flipped off the guards and put on one of his iconoclastic prison shows. Haggard was in the audience. He studied every move the Man in Black made. Three years after walking out of San Quentin, Haggard had his first Top 20 song and was on his way to becoming, alongside Cash, the most significant singer and songwriter in country music since Hank Williams.
Haggard was born in 1937 in a labor camp called Oildale, just outside of Bakersfield. Like figures in a Woody Guthrie ballad of the Dust Bowl, his parents came from Oklahoma, looking for what work they could find, making their home in a converted boxcar. His mother scorned the Devil's music, so his father played the fiddle on the sly, but died when Merle was nine years old. He spent the rest of his youth fucking up, again and again, as if he needed to generate enough reckless stories to build his own legend. He didn't get his prison tattoos by design, but he may as well have.
Haggard became the man Cash sang about the lost loser turned into populist outlaw myth. His music played off of the cool, steely Bakersfield sound created by the late Buck Owens (whom Hag adored so much that he married his ex-wife, Bonnie), but also added strings and horns and backup singers. His songs were studies in desperate but proud lives. His sex appeal was pure James Dean.
In 1969 he wrote "Okie from Muskogee" and found himself at the center of the culture wars. He still maintains it was all a joke, that he never meant to give the silent majority their anti-hippie anthem. That's likely bullshit Haggard capitalized on that hit with the even more right-wing "Fightin' Side of Me" and the song polarized popular music into a mostly Southern mainstream country audience and a mostly privileged rock-oriented youth. (And we're still living with that red state/blue state musical divide.) Of course, Haggard has since become nearly as big an advocate for weed as Willie. On stage he turns "Okie From Muskogee" into a contact-high sing-along satire of his own wasted, flag-waving days.
For a legend, Haggard has never been especially fashionable; styles have come and gone around him, and he's barely noticed. When country dabbled in disco, he mastered the fiddle and released a tribute to Bob Wills. When rockabilly made a comeback, he cut gospel. When country threatened to find political correctness, he celebrated black-face minstrel Emmett Miller. When Toby Keith was cashing in on jingoism, Haggard had the singer join him for a fatalistic ballad on the same record on which he demanded withdrawal from Iraq.
In other words, Merle Haggard has been a cranky, cocky, whimsical artist of the highest order.
And into his fourth decade of recording, he still is. Though he had some 40 No. 1 hits from the '60s to the '80s, he was forced to declare bankruptcy in the '90s and sue his label. But he's never needed a second or third act. Charts mean nothing to him, and with the exception of Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, no other country figure has raged against the dying of commercial success so forcefully. While his peers have sunk into Branson or Vegas schmaltz and state-fair medleys, Haggard has spent his late 60s making some of the most independent and reflective records of his career. You'd have to turn to the man with whom he's currently touring, Bob Dylan, to find another singer and songwriter of such poetic endurance and relevance.
In 2000, his first album for the punk- and artsy-rock label Anti-, If I Could Only Fly, was as spare as Springsteen's Nebraska and as vulnerable as a fledgling. He owned up to his age by waxing nostalgic for cigarettes and cocaine: "Watching some old friends do a line/Holding back the want to in my own addicted mind/Wishing it was still a thing you and I could do/Wishing all these old things were new." On one song he wondered if he was a decent father; on another he dreamt of flying, though he sang in a way that made it seem like dying. His tone was gossamer, but he still sounded like he was ready to bow out of the game.
Last year he released Chicago Wind, his seventy-fifth album (or so, not counting an equal number of hits packages) on his original label Capitol. His swing was back ("country jazz" is how he describes his classic sound) and his songwriting, which has never abandoned him, was as gruff and unguarded as ever. He gave the title track a Latin-soul groove to contrast the bone-chilling loneliness; he sang a song for his father and confessed he still sees him at every turn. Perhaps his fans would have preferred more anthems of branded men, fugitives and the proletariat. What Haggard has always wanted is to speak his mind and sing his heart even if in the form of a sappy love song or a silly defense of the Ten Commandments.
Haggard could have settled for being stuffed and mounted as a legend in the Hall of Fame. But when he commands a stage, leading the Strangers (only one of two or three of the best bands to ever make country music), bending a sharp Telecaster lick, scratching out a fiddle line or giving a bottomless baritone moan, he's neither a journeyman nor a symbol. He's just making music; given where he came from and where he's been, he's still making it beyond all expectations.