Merle Haggard died Wednesday at the age of 79. Merle was a high-mileage 79-year-old, but despite the above-average wear and tear he was doin’ what he did right up until his death. He and 80+ year-old Willie Nelson released “Django and Jimmy” in 2015, and it stands up well. Many performers that age sound old. Willie and Merle transcend old, turning age into wistful wisdom. As a live performer Merle still had it right up until the pneumonia which eventually claimed him forced him off the road late last year.
I saw Merle Haggard and the Strangers live in 1985 at the old Expo Building at what was then the Ramada Inn in Sioux Falls. The Expo, both then and now, reminds me of a fancy pole building with carpet. That’s not a knock on the place, and it’s not without its charm. Back in ’85 there was no Washington Pavilion, Convention Center, The District or The Denny, so unless you could sell 9,000 seats at the Arena you played places like the Expo. In those days smokers could light up indoors, and the air was blue from hundreds taking advantage of the privilege. I was a 24-year-old high-falutin’ country radio morning guy in those days (KIOV-FM 104.7), so the seats were free and in the first five rows. This was the first big-time country show I’d ever seen, and the first time I saw really, really good country pickers play live. The whole thing rocked, and I became a fan for life.
Yes, Haggard was one of the all-time great country song writers, and his classic recordings going back to the late ‘60’s hold up today. You can read about those records, the Bakersfield Sound, prison and pardons, etc. on any of the many obits online today. For me, what I admired about Haggard was his willingness to evolve his world view. Early on you got Merle The Redneck, the Okie from Muskogee, the pro-war “Fightin’ Side of Me”. But over time he evolved, mellowed, became more open-minded and questioned authority. Living life the Willie Nelson Way will do that to a guy.
Weeks before his death, Haggard was asked his opinion of presidential candidate Donald Trump. He summed Trump up this way: “I think he’s dealing from a strange deck.” Big City, turn me loose and set me free…
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