Merle Haggard has died, but his music stayed alive until the very end
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'
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.
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.
Merle Haggard tips his hat to the crowd as he performs at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio on April 24, 2015.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard sits on his bus with Fanny Mae before performing at the Stagecoach Music Festival in 2010.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard performs at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on Feb. 11, 2016.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Kris Kristofferson encourages the band as he performs with Merle Haggard, left, at the Saban Theatre this year.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard accepts the ACM Crystal Milestone Award during the Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on April 6, 2014.(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
Merle Haggard poses with wife Theresa and son Ben at the 2014 Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2014.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard performs with Blake Shelton, right, at the 2014 Grammys.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard poses at his ranch at Palo Cedro, Calif., on Oct. 2, 2007.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Merle Haggard smiles during a May 28, 2003, news conference at the National Museum of American History in Washington, where he and his sister Lillian Haggard Hoge donated belongings taken on their family’s Dust Bowl-era move from Oklahoma to California.(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)
Merle Haggard on his property in Palo Cedro in January 2009.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The country singer during a photo shoot at the Muddy Moose Bar at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Event Center in 2004.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard with a map at a 1985 news conference for the U.S.A. for America tour.(Patrick Downs / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard, left, and Willie Nelson attend the BMI awards dinner in Nashville in October 1981.(Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard in concert at Anaheim Stadium in 1980.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard, right, and then Times writer Robert Hilburn at Anaheim Stadium in October 1980.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard plays the Anaheim Convention Center on March 20, 1975.(Los Angeles Times )
Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Glen Campbell perform on a TV show in the mid-1970s.(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Merle Haggard performs with Johnny Cash on “The Johnny Cash Show” on Aug. 2, 1969.(ABC Photo Archives / Getty Images)
The country singer in an image from 1968.(Los Angeles Times)
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.
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