Merle Haggard’s career spanned five decades. Before he cut his first record, he had lived a rough life. Growing up in depression-era California, Haggard turned to a life of crime early. In his teens, he ran away to Texas. While there, he rode trains and hitchhiked across the state. By the time he was in his early twenties, he had been incarcerated several times.
While doing time in San Quentin for robbery, he joined the prison’s country music band. Upon his release, he wanted to turn his life around. His long and successful career is the result of this life change.
Merle Haggard’s Thoughts on Music
Knowing that his career kicked off right after a stint in one of America’s most famous prisons adds some context to Haggard’s lyrics. When he sings about hopping trains and doing time, he has been there. There’s an authenticity to the Hag’s music that you don’t find in many other places.
When it came to his own music, Haggard is quoted as saying “We need to have music that contributes to the well-being of the spirit. Music that cradles people’s lives and makes things a little easier. That’s what I try to do, and what I want to do. You don’t want to close the door on hope.” Just the fact that he lived the life he did to come out the other side as a country music icon is inspiring. He wanted his music to do the same.
About the authenticity in his music he said. “To be part of what you’re singing about is somewhat painful. You’ve got to climb inside it all.” From songs about hopping trains and doing time to the ones about heartache and whiskey, he lived them all.
He also said, “I’ll tell you what the public likes more than anything, it’s the most rare commodity in the world – honesty.” His honesty came through in his words as well as his songs.
Merle Haggard’s Thoughts on Newer Music
Haggard passed away in April of 2016. So, we didn’t get to hear his views on WAP, mumble rap, or modern pop country. He was pretty free with his thoughts on music before he passed, though.
His one major gripe overall was a lack of melody. “The only thing that I miss lately in all music is somebody that will put out a melody that you can whistle. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything happening like that.”
Even if he wasn’t a fan of the music, he liked the videos. “I enjoy the videos with the sound off, where you can look at the belly buttons and everything. Really some pretty girls, but I don’t know about the music.”
He may have passed away going on five years ago but some of his words ring true even today. “There’s two or three kids out there trying to make good music, and the rest of them sound like it’s been strained through some kind of white toast or something. It all sounds just too neat and perfect, with no surprise to it at all. No story, no nothing. It’s like building cars, like an assembly line. It doesn’t sound like anything that came from a guitar.”
He also said that “There’s just a few people that call themselves stars can actually sit down with a guitar and sing you a song.” Those words haven’t stopped being true.
Others are definitely of their time but no less true, “If I head another line dance song, I think I’m going to puke.”
The Hag wasn’t shy about sharing his thoughts on music or just about anything else.
Haggard’s Thoughts on America
In the late sixties, Haggard went against the grain. While most other popular musicians were openly opposing the Viet Nam war, he did not. He caught some heat for his pro-war stance but never walked back his opinions or changed his stance. You have to respect a guy who sticks to his guns, no matter how you feel about the guns he’s sticking to.
Songs like “Fightin’ Side of Me” lay his feelings out pretty clearly. While he was first in line to stand up and support the military, he was critical of the government. Mark Twain said it best when he said, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Merle Haggard’s patriotism is unquestionable.
He was pretty outspoken about life after the 9/11 attacks. “In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there’s available… in America right now.” Of the American people, he said, “This is America. We’re proud. We’re not afraid of a bunch of terrorists. But this government is all about terror alerts and scaring us at airports. We’re changing the Constitution out of fear. We spend all our time looking up each other’s dresses.”
In general, he was critical of the government’s involvement in everyday life. “We are under [government’s] control, and if people don’t realize that, they haven’t looked around. And if they’re not paranoid, they haven’t thought about it.” However, he didn’t do it from a partisan position. As he said, “I think it’s important that I stay neutral on politics and remain hard to understand. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as conservative, liberal, independent, or anything. I back the man for the things the man believes in, not whether it says “R” or “D” down there beside his name.”
Bonus Quotes: Merle Haggard’s Humor
Merle Haggard’s music can be full of heartache, whiskey, and war but he had a sense of humor. It often came out in interviews. There a couple of examples of his humor that were too good to pass up.
When talking about his age he joked, “At my age, I don’t buy but a half a loaf of bread, you know?”
About divorce, he said, “Willie Nelson‘s the one who told me the reason it costs so much to get divorced is because it’s worth it.” If anybody knows that, it’s Merle. He did it four times.
Getting to the Bottom of Merle’s Wisdom
Merle Haggard’s words songs paint a picture of a man who lived and created honestly. He came from a tough background and became one of the biggest names in country music. He may have fought against the government, but he carried a deep love for his fellow Americans. While he joked about divorce, he also said that “A house without love ain’t a home.” He was a simple man of principle.
I want to close with what might be the most important thing ol’ Merle ever said. “If I had a choice, and there was a “Y” in the road, I would always take the one that was more fun as opposed to the one that might make me more money.”
Merle gets it. Moments of pure fun, rather than financial gain, will always lead to more valuable memories… Keep that one in your pocket, never know when you’ll need it.