Ah, Christ, Merle Haggard died, shit. On his 79th birthday. He was one of the greats. You know this for two reasons. First off, objectively, he just was, an acerbic and jovially iconoclastic teller of hard truths and winsome lies, a prickly charmer and actual outlaw (he once attended a Johnny Cash concert in San Quentin while doing time in San Quentin) who got warmer the crabbier he got, somehow. Take his phenomenally bitchy and eternally awesome 1969 anti-protester protest song “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” wherein he literally bellowed, If you don’t love it, leave it, and still sounded like a uniter, not a divider. Nary a karaoke night will go unimproved by its presence.
The other reason you know he was one of the greats is because every goddamn modern country star is constantly yapping about what a great he was. Merle, Johnny, Hank, Waylon, Willie ... these guys only exist on country radio nowadays as totems, as cheap name-drops, as authenticity bulwarks erected by a host of gallivanting bros in tight pants and backwards mesh baseball caps who sing exclusively of their desire to drink moonshine and punch deer to death and tenderly fornicate with ripped-bluejean queens in the beds of their trucks on backroads amid cornfields under a harvest moon, and what have you.
True, I like many of those songs, corny as they can be, but they tend to pay fealty to the Real Deal in a way that dilutes the impact of the Real Deal. So by all means, listen to the actually pretty decent 2006 Eric Church song that I swear to God is called “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” but don’t just take his word for it. Merle’s catalog is a mess, naturally, but fart around on your streaming service of choice, or, if you’re truly about that life, buy random old records of his on vinyl. I picked up 1976's The Roots of My Raising for $4 a couple years back based entirely on the rad shirt he’s wearing.
The ecstatic Dukes of Hazzard / Miami Vice crossover this cover portends does not exactly come to pass; nonetheless, my jam at this hour is “Walk on the Outside,” a gently spoke-sung prison lifer’s lament—“I’ve been in here so long / I forgot what I did wrong,” it begins—imbued with a weight and gravitas that’d be unbearable if he wasn’t so sweet about it. All he wants is a beer, and all you want is to have a beer with him.
He never stopped touring; he never stopped doing anything, really. Last year he released a full duet album with Willie Nelson called Django and Jimmie; here they are cutting the pro-protestor anti-anxiety song “It’s All Going to Pot,” with Merle belting out his verses while wearing ... a backwards mesh baseball cap. How about that. That’s America for you: The contradictions are the whole point. If you don’t love it, leave it. Otherwise, now’s the time to pledge allegiance.