Obituary merle haggard: baritone, downward gaze

Tone-deaf and extremely descriptive, country singer Merle Haggard, who died Wednesday, was authentic and influential in style.

Merle Haggard in 2007 Photo: ap

"Three chords and the truth," was how Johnny Cash characterized the essence of country music. One who attended Johnny Cash’s regular concerts at the San Quentin penitentiary was Merle Haggard. He was serving a three-year juvenile sentence there for various burglary offenses. A concert by Cash in San Quentin in 1958 turned Haggard’s life around. He taught himself to play guitar and trained his voice.

After his release in 1960, Haggard began performing in the small California town of Bakersfield – where he was also born in 1937. His family had migrated to California from Oklahoma during the Great Depression. They lived in a van. His father died when Haggard was nine years old.

In his own songs, Haggard returned to the incidents of his childhood. He phrased with his voice and yodeled as he had heard from country music greats Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. Haggard’s own songs rarely lasted longer than two and a half minutes, but he managed to sing about the unsteady life in them like no other: Wordless and extremely vivid, he described the hardships.

"First thing I remember knowing/ Is a lonesome whistle blowin’," he lifted in his song "Mama tried," describing the descent of a migrant worker who jumps on a freight train and soon lands in jail. With his sonorous baritone voice, Haggard immediately won over his listeners, cheering them on with even unpleasant truths. Among the hits he landed starting in the sixties was "Okie from Muskogee," which rejected the hippies’ kitschy embrace of the world.

One of Haggard’s specialties was his escorts: short speeches to make the songs’ meanings sound more forceful. That earned him the attention of a younger generation in the early 2000s and a record deal with a punk label. On Wednesday, the day of his 79th birthday, Merle Haggard, the Grammy Award-winning U.S. country star, succumbed to lung cancer.