Thursday, April 7, 2016

something sustaining

...Never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
  -- John Donne

"Merle Haggard, Country Music's Outlaw Hero, Dies at 79"
By Bill Friskics-Warren

Merle Haggard, one of the most successful singers in the history of country music, a contrarian populist whose songs about his scuffling early life and his time in prison made him the closest thing that country music had to a real-life outlaw hero, died at his home in Redding, Calif., on Wednesday, his 79th birthday.

His death was confirmed by his agent, Lance Roberts.  Mr. Haggard had recently canceled several concerts, saying he had double pneumonia.

Few country artists have been as popular and widely admired as Mr. Haggard.  Thirty-eight of his singles, including "Workin' Man Blues" and the 1973 recession-era lament "If We Make It Through December," reached No. 1 on the Billboard country chart from 1966 to 1987.  He released 71 Top 10 country hits in all, 34 in a row from 1967 to 1977.  Seven of his singles crossed over to the pop charts.

Mr. Haggard had an immense influence on other performers... '60s rock bands like the Byrds and the Grateful Dead, as well as acts like Elvis Costello and the Mekons, all of whom recorded Mr. Haggard's songs.  Some 400 artists have released versions of his 1968 hit "Today I Started Loving You Again."

He was always the outsider.  His band was aptly named the Strangers.

Unlike his friend Johnny Cash, Mr. Haggard didn't merely visit San Quentin State Prison to perform for the inmates.  Convicted of burglary in 1957, he served nearly three years there and spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement.

Mr. Haggard went on to write "Mama Tried," "Branded Man" and several other candid songs about his incarceration, all of them sung in a supple baritone suffused with dignity and regret.  Many of his other recordings championed the struggles of the working class from which he rose.  He became known as a poet of the common man.

Defying the conventions of the Nashville musical establishment, Mr. Haggard became an architect of the twangy Bakersfield sound, a guitar-driven blend of blues, jazz, pop and honky-tonk that traced its roots to Bakersfield, Calif., and that, in Mr. Haggard's case, defined a body of work as indelibly as that of any country singer since Hank Williams.

In a 1999 interview with the magazine LA Weekly, Mr. Haggard cited Lefty Frizzell,

Elvis Presley,

Jimmie Rodgers,

Chuck Berry

and Bob Wills

as among the artists who influenced his sound.  "I thought, 'If I combine all that, maybe I can come up with something sustaining,'" he said.

Mr. Haggard was fluent in a wide array of musical styles.  In 1980 he appeared on the cover of Down Beat, a magazine whose main focus has always been jazz.  His 2000 album, "If I Could Only Fly," was issued on an imprint of Epitaph Records, a label associated with punk bands like Bad Religion and Rancid.

Much of Mr. Haggard's cross-genre appeal was attributable to his versatile band, in which he sometimes played fiddle and lead guitar.  But a great deal of it was also because of the pliancy of his singing voice, a deeply expressive instrument that lent itself to a variety of tempos, arrangements and emotions. ...

{Article - The New York Times - April 6, 2016, can be read in its entirety online.  (Photos here were added by this blog.)}


NYTimes Reader Comments:

> >  ST   Delaware
I discovered Merle on my car radio when I moved from the East Coast to Baton Route, Louisiana.  An immigrant in this country, living in an unfamiliar city and worried about getting lost constantly, his voice seemed oddly reassuring, even if the songs were mostly sad, typical country music. 

Even though I started to appreciate various other country singers, to me country music means Merle first, then the rest.  To think that that voice is no more makes me sad enough to try my hand at writing a country song myself.  R.I.P., Merle and thanks for all the music.

> >  Ben   NYC
So, so sad and shocking.  I was just listening to him a few hours before I heard the news.  I guess I'll Just Sit Here and Drink.

> >  HapinOregon   Southwest corner of Oregon
Sui generis and one of the best, ever...

> >  John Schaffer   Orlando, FL
In 1974, I was home for the summer from college and working a summer factory job building farm equipment at the John Blue plant in Huntsville, Alabama. 

I was just starting to listen to country music, mostly filtered through the Byrds, Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons and other country rock bands of my generation.

After our shift at the factory was over, I would often go out with some of the older guys for a beer before heading home. 

I'll never forget the afternoon when someone dropped a few quarters in the juke box and I heard for the first time Merle Haggard singing "Working Man Blues". 

That is when I realized what real country music was and why Merle was the poet of the common man. ...

> >  Adam   Scottsdale
One of the greatest American songwriters in our storied history.  What a body of work, what a soulful voice.  Thank you Merle for so many miles and so many nights.  Life would not be as sweet without you!

> >  yaaah69   Bisbee, az
Merle came from the same area that I was raised in...he had a big house in the canyon on the way to Kernville...he will be much missed... the last of the great ballad singers.

> >  Sulawesi   Tucson
I love his semi-autobiographical song "California cottonfields".  Rest in peace Merle

> >  foley.douglas   Canada
Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down and Sing Me Back Home are two of the greatest American songs ever written.  The Flying Burrito Brothers covers of both do them and Mr Haggard justice.

> >  George Murphy   Fairfield Ct
The best of the best.  He's up ere w/ Hank and the brakeman now.

> >  ExPeterC   Bear Territory
Found myself in Bakersfield about a month ago listening to a Merle mix while turning off the highway on to Merle Haggard Drive.  RIP

> >  CK   Los Angeles
He created characters and told their deep stories in just 3 minutes in the songs he wrote, and it felt like you really knew them by the time the song was over.  It was like reading a book -- there was such rich detail in the lyrics and emotion in his voice, especially on the sad songs.

> >  Frankie Calpella   CA
Merle, I'll surely miss you.  An honest working man.

> >  rich   new York
Country Music is not the same anymore, but then again, what is?

> >  Joe McNally   Scotland
What a time in your country's history for this great musician to go . . .

Are we rolling down hill
Like a snowball headed for Hell?
With no kind of chance
For the Flag or the Liberty Bell

Are the Good Times Really Over for Good?

> >  Peter   New York
Merle Haggard singing Jimmie Rodgers is one of the greatest slices of Americana ever served up to the world.  May this wonderful country crooner and spark plug spokesman rest in peace.  Yodel-A-Ye-ho!

> >  Willie   the South
Losing makes me sorry, but you say, "Now, honey, don't worry."  Don't you know I love you, too, and that's the way love goes.
---------------------- > >  Becca   Florida      My deceased, and favorite brother-in-law's favorite MH song.

> >  Mister GMC   Mexico
My very first Karaoke performance was of "Mama Tried"!  I have been a lifetime fan of Merle.  Thank you for the songs, the music and the memories!

> >  Voyageur   Bayonne
Merle Haggard was one of the very best performers of country music as a genuine expression of America's working class spirit and emotions....His music and songs will remain forever part of America's culture.

> >  DH   MI
Sing me back home, Merle

> >  BruceKap   Richmond CA
A true loss and a true giant.  Merle picked up where Hank Williams left off.  We're going to miss him - but he leaves a lot of great songs to remember him by.

> >  Michael F   Yonkers, NY
One of the coolest things about him is his band stayed pretty much the same for decades.  We will not see his like again.

> >  RP Smith   Marshfield, MA
"No one could steer me right, but Mama tried"

> >  chazart   paige, tx
He was what real country music is all about.  RIP