The phrase “living legend” gets thrown around a bit too liberally but there’s no better description for Merle Haggard. Far removed from the big-hat twang Pop dominating Country music today, Haggard was among the ’60s artists who helped popularize and transform the genre beyond its regional hillbilly appeal and teeing up its mainstream success. Haggard didn’t play the role of Country bad boy, he lived it, his hardscrabble California life leading to juvenile and adult offenses and jail time in the ’50s.
After Lefty Frizzell heard Haggard crowd singing at one of his concerts, he invited him up on stage, launching his regional Bakersfield career, but an attempted robbery conviction sent him to San Quentin, a stretch that convinced him to reverse course. In the ’60s, Haggard had hits with other people’s songs and quickly began writing his own; his satiric/straightforward smash, “Okie from Muskogee,” became a redneck anthem in 1969 and his songs have been covered by the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Charlie Daniels and dozens of others.
In the ’70s, Haggard was aligned with Country’s Outlaw movement (while his tribute to Bob Wills helped spark the successful resurgence of Western Swing), in the ’80s he won his first of three Grammys. Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997 and accepted the lifetime achievement award from the Kennedy Center in 2010.
Haggard has experienced a powerful resurgence in the new millennium, signing with Anti- and releasing seven acclaimed new albums, including 2011’s Working in Tennessee, his second for iconic Folk label Vanguard. Hot on the heels of his 75th birthday, Haggard may just be hitting his creative stride; even though he never went away, the Hag is back.
MERLE HAGGARD performs Friday, April 13 at Belterra Casino and Resort. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.