Here’s Why I Believe The Hag Is The Greatest Country Artist Ever
For me, a guy who has spent the past nearly half-century making some kind of a living with my mouth, spouting words (not wisdom) into a microphone, never at a loss for something to say...I am at a loss for something to say.
But I'll try anyway.
Since the Hag passed away April 6th, 2016 on his 79th birthday, a number of people have asked me what was the secret of Merle Haggard? What was it that made him special, that made him an icon? And what was it, Randy, that Merle had that buried itself so deep into your heart?
I thought about that and tried to come up with a clever answer, a deep answer, a profound answer, something that would make whoever I was talking to go 'Wow, I hadn't thought of that!'
But in truth, the answer is simply two words: Truth. Honesty.
Merle Ronald Haggard sang the truth. His truth. He stripped everything else away. Oh, there was great guitar work, there was amazing steel, there may be drums and fiddle and sometimes horns. They were all there in those amazing songs, those songs that live still in the deepest warmest part of my heart.
But it was the truth that mattered. The Hag decided early on that he would bare his soul and lay it out on the line for the whole world to see. 'Here I am' the song would say, 'Here I am, this is who I am, this is who we are, like it or not'. And over and over and over, we discovered that perhaps, while Merle was showing us his life, he was showing us ours as well.
Truth. Honesty. He sang and wrote the most personal, touching love songs ever recorded. He sang and wrote the most gritty, gut-wrenching songs ever recorded. And he recorded them back-to-back-to-back, over and over and over. All him, all us. Maybe that was the magic, maybe that was the secret. Merle Haggard never pretended to be something he wasn't. He didn't go around spouting about being an outlaw, being a tough guy, being above any of us. He didn't have a million dollars worth of fireworks going off beside him on-stage. He didn't run and jump and scream and blow you away with noise.
He quietly blew you away with feeling. Oh, he could 'crank it up' alright. When he sang 'Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink', you were right there drinking with him. When he sang 'Lonesome Fugitive', you were right there, running along with him down that highway to the next town. When he sang 'That's The Way Love Goes' you'd think to yourself, 'Yep, he's right, that's the way love does go alright'.
There are too many, way too many Hag favorites to mention one or two. Any and every Hag song is my favorite. I think that among my all-time favorite lyrics is the opening words to his great 'Footlights', once again illustrating the truth that was Mr. Merle Haggard:
'I've lived the kind of life most men only dream of, I make my living writing songs and singing them, But I'm 41 years old and I ain't got no place to go when it's over, So I'll hide my age and make the stage and try to kick the footlights out again'.
So....I can't pick the one favorite Haggard song. But I think perhaps the one below is a good representation of what I believe is the essence of Merle Haggard, the essence of why this man is, for me, the greatest country music singer in history. It rings with honesty. It screams the truth. It's painful. It's warm. It's the Hag.
And it is forever, along with the rest of his music, in my heart.