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Merle Haggard has died, but his music stayed alive until the very end

Merle Haggard performing at the Grammy Awards in 2014. The country legend died Monday at age 79.

Merle Haggard performing at the Grammy Awards in 2014. The country legend died Monday at age 79.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As one of the creators of country music’s influential Bakersfield sound, Merle Haggard will undoubtedly be remembered for what he helped begin. But on the day of his death at age 79, let’s not forget how this lifelong iconoclast went out: curious, dogged, unflinching.

Though he’d canceled several tour dates recently as a result of pneumonia, Haggard remained an artist of uncommon vitality right until the end, releasing some of his strongest albums over the last few years and giving great, hard-nosed concerts well into his 70s.

I recall a show in 2012 at the Grove of Anaheim, just after he’d returned to the road following a previous bout with pneumonia, in which the California native introduced his signature “Okie From Muskogee” by noting that he’d heard one could procure marijuana legally in his beloved home state.

Merle Haggard performances

Merle Haggard performs 'Okie From Muskogee'

Merle Haggard performs 'The Bottle Let Me Down'

Merle Haggard performs 'Mama Tried'

Merle Haggard performing 'That's The Way Life Goes'

Merle Haggard performing 'Today I Started Loving You Again'

Merle Haggard performing 'New San Antionio Rose'

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A guy in the crowd offered to prove it to him, but Haggard demurred. He had a job to do, he seemed to be saying, and needed to stay sharp.

Not long before the Anaheim gig, Haggard put out the excellent “Working in Tennessee,” my favorite of the many so-called comeback records he made. It’s full of scornful ditties about the garbage that ticks him off, including (but certainly not limited to) two-faced politicians, phony country music and “a war still goin’ on down in the South.”

But even when he’s way out there — as in “What I Hate,” which proudly proclaims his belief in the chemtrail conspiracy — the lean, direct sound of the music gives him the vibe of someone who’s thought all this through, thank you very much. The album never asks you to indulge him in his old age, the way some late work by Haggard’s friend Johnny Cash could.

That clear-eyed quality is also what distinguished “Unforgettable,” Haggard’s 2004 standards disc, from the countless such projects tossed out by other veteran artists over the decades since Willie Nelson scored a huge hit with “Stardust” in 1978. Where so many have used lush string arrangements as cover to turn their brains off, Haggard came at “Cry Me a River,” for instance, determined not to glaze over; his version of the classic torch song is as skeptical and alert as Arthur Hamilton’s lyric.

Haggard’s most recent album was last year’s “Django and Jimmie,” a spirited team-up with Nelson that will serve as a fine career-capper in the event that the other albums Haggard said he had in the can never come out.

Still, today I’m remembering the singer by looking at another artifact from the recent past: his performance at the 2014 Grammy Awards, where he joined Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Blake Shelton for an all-star rendition of “Okie From Muskogee.”

As the camera moves between them, the other three guys appear to be having a great time, singing and strumming and getting a real kick out of Haggard’s old lines about not growing their hair long and shaggy.

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Haggard, though, has a slightly different look on his face. He’s enjoying himself, sure. But he also seems to be taking stock of the famously complicated song, tracking its relationship to an audience that includes Marc Anthony and Ryan Seacrest and the dudes from Imagine Dragons.

Even at that late date — and at an event meant for back-slapping, no less — Haggard was staying present, digging in, trying to figure things out. He didn’t stop until he had to.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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From the archives: Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson show songwriting at its best


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