One of the original honky-tonk artists, Merle Haggard is a living legend who has just released his 76th studio album. As we celebrate Country Music Month, how could we leave out Hag?
With 38 Number One Hits, Haggard has been one of the most influential figures in country music during the last half-century. Along with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, he reinvigorating country music with a new rebellious attitude.
In the late 1950s and ’60s, country music was dominated by the lush Nashville Sound. But a handful of artists never fit that mold. Following the example of the big rock artists of their day – like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan – these innovative artists (later branded as “outlaws”) refused to let the sound of their music be dictated by some studio exec. They wanted creative control and the freedom to make music that represented who they were.
This might not sound terribly revolutionary, but during the era of the Nashville Sound, many artists–even top-selling stars–had little control over the sound of their music.
The outlaw country singers looked different, too–with scruffy beards, long hair and lots of denim. They were also pretty rebellious as people too, many of these artists wound up spending time in jail.
Today’s spotlight artist, Merle Haggard, wasn’t technically part of the Outlaw movement of the 1970s, but musically, his brand of hard-edged honky-tonk and personal, often introspective lyrics made him far closer to that group in spirit.
Haggard had been in and out of juvenile detention centers as a kid, and he even spent three years at San Quentin for robbery–experiences that he turned to for some of his most classic songs of the 1960s. He also grew up in Bakersfield, California, which, as home to icons like Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, became known as a country music hotbed that didn’t play by the same rules as Nashville.
Haggard turned that hard-edged upbringing into some truly moving songs–and has proven to be one of the most powerful songwriters in modern American popular music.
Merle’s newest album, Working in Tennessee, just came out this week on Vanguard Records. At age 74, he’s got nothing to prove, but he isn’t playing it safe either. He’s just doing what he’s always done, telling it like it is.
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