There was a time when country did not have to face the stereotype, that wearing boots, jeans and a hat was not the product of an advertising campaign, nor was the easy mockery of a genre that explains part of the contemporary history of USA. There was a time when country was everything to a series of musicians who grew up in the rural poverty of the Great Depression or in the forgotten places of the American dream and felt the need to communicate with the world through songs that portrayed their own lives. fugitive, aimless, unfortunate, but with an inexplicable weight of dignity. There was a time when Merle Haggard, who died on Wednesday in the town of Redding (California), was the great voice of that real country and sharp, like a knife between the teeth, when pop promised illusion.
Considered one of the great totem poles in country history, Haggard passed away on the very day he was 79 years old. He was very ill. He had been admitted for double pneumonia and in March he had had to cancel concerts in different cities. Following the hasty suspension of the tour, the musician said in a statement: “I want to thank my fans for their prayers and good wishes. I hope to be back on the road in May, but I’m taking a while. ” Unfortunately, the parenthesis has become a full stop.
His life was like one of his survival songs. His parents moved from Oklahoma to California in 1935, two years before his birth in Oildade. They belonged to that army of unprotected and disinherited from the Great Depression who sought the promised land in the sunny state, becoming one of those thousands of okies saddened portrayed in John Steinbeck’s masterful novel, The Grapes of Wrath. They lived in a caravan outside Bakersfield while his father earned his wage on the Santa Fe Railroad. But when Haggard was nine years old, his father died. A fact that, as he recognized in various interviews, marked him forever.
Raised by a strict mother, who forbade him to play music because it was a disturbing element, the adolescent Haggard became a rebellious hustler, modeled on Jesse James, John Dillinger and even Muhammed Ali. He escaped every two by three from the reformatories, was arrested on more than one occasion for stealing or getting into fights and spent many afternoons in a brothel thanks to the fact that one of the girls took care of him as a “babysitter”, in his words. In those years, he also played in gambling dens and came to share the stage with his great musical idol, Lefty Frizzell.
At the age of 21, after an attempted robbery in a restaurant in full drunkenness, he was arrested and sentenced to spend 15 years in the San Quentin jail. He served three sentences, enough time for him to know first-hand the most horrible violence between prisoners, as he recognized in his autobiography, and to see a historic performance: that of Johnny Cash on the first day of the year 1959, when the man in black gave a televised concert that would end up being historic.
That time behind bars inspired his first songbook, full of allusions to his criminal past and his days in jail. And, like Cash, he gave his compositions a vitally devastating roughness. Songs like Branded Man and Mama Tried they featured the profile of a self-made man, a road fighter, holding more cursed and runaway epic than many rock’n’roll songs. However, one of his biggest hits reflected a guy who had nothing to do with the countercultural rebellion of the sixties. Between coast and coast, leaving New York and San Francisco aside, Okie From Muskogee it became a huge hit in 1969. It was a celebration of traditional North America, upholding conservative values in a period of great social turbulence in the country. While Jimi Hendrix distorted the American anthem at Woodstock with his guitar, Haggard valued the love of the flag and patriotic pride and charged against drugs. However, some time later, the musician defended himself by assuring that it was a composition under the narrative prism of a person like his father, an absent vital model.
Well off for his recordings with MCA, Epic, and a number of other country labels, the songwriter He always remained true to himself and in that crucial decade he emerged as an essential figure in the future of country. From Bakersfield, a city dedicated mainly to agriculture and oil production, he defended rural essences while giving important doses of vigorous honky-tonk, leading the cowboy genre to regain its nerve not only for its rhythmic force, which fascinated countercultural icons such as Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman of The Byrds and even Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, but also for its themes, much closer to the problems people’s daily lives.
Along with Buck Owens, he led the sonido Bakersfield, one of the best artistic paths from which the outlaw country, the outlaw movement that in the sixties and seventies broke the rules of Nashville, country mecca. With his deep voice and his Fender Telecaster guitar, typical of rock’n’roll, Haggard was a chronicler of great sentimental force and shared rebellion with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris or Jessi Colter. Country once again took on blood and rigor as the Nashville industry, ruled by pop commerciality imposed by producer and patron Chet Atkins, sweetened the songs. Faced with the bland, which comes to our days with a radio-formulated country and stereotype, they kicked open a door for the genre to be renewed in a path taken by people like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen Jr. or Ryan Bingham .
In the eighties his production declined while he wrote his autobiography and collaborated with songs in films, such as Bronco Billy Clint Eastwood, with whom he sang in a duet. However, he never stopped acting and receiving tributes. In the last two decades, he had his center of operations on the West Coast, including his gigs in casinos, although he could also be seen in 2005 accompanying Haggard admirer Bob Dylan on his tour.
Although in Spain, a country that has always looked at country with distance, its wake barely left the circles of fans of the genre, Haggard was an icon in the US For many years it was a classic at the top of the country charts. But it was the opposite of a record label product, a marketing pattern. Haggard, who spent the last years of his life with his wife and two children, surrounded by toy trains that reminded him of his father – published an album in 1976 called My Love Affair with Trains-, he knew what it was to bite the dust and he knew how to count it, like someone who steps on safe ground.
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Merle Haggard, country totem and renovator, dies | Culture