The Uncertain Musical Legacy of Merle Haggard

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Merle Haggard’s torch is carried by roots rockers and old-school acts, but his place in mainstream country is less secure.

Photograph by Michael Williamson / The Washington Post / Getty

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One of the year’s best albums is a Merle Haggard tribute called “Best Troubador”—the odd spelling is deliberate—from the singer-songwriter Will Oldham, working under his stage name, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Oldham, who is thirty-seven, specializes in a ragged, old-time hillbilly style, often updated with ladles full of irony. But on “Best Troubador” he sounds as serious as heartbreak; the album lacks even the hint of playfulness that lurked about Haggard’s most earnest performances. Oldham performs living-room-still versions of songs selected mostly from outside of Haggard’s classic period, relying heavily on album tracks rather than big hits. His readings of cult favorites “The Day the Rains Came,” “Roses in Winter” and “If I Could Only Fly”— a Merle-associated Blaze Foley song, included here in a recording that would barely qualify as a proper demo—are so delicate and mysterious that you fear a stiff breeze might blow them away forever.

It’s a marvellous tribute, but not one likely to inspire waves of Haggard converts. There will be other tribute albums—Willie Nelson, Haggard’s old friend and collaborator, already has one in the can. And at the close of his latest album, “God’s Problem Child,” Nelson makes a promise about Haggard: “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” It’s a nice song and a nicer thought. But is it wishful thinking?

Popular music rarely lasts, even when its creators build it for that purpose—as Haggard typically did, with one eye on the past and another on the ages. Such endurance depends on external factors. Johnny Cash, Haggard’s friend and occasional recording partner, had a network-TV series and a late-in-life resurgence that was popular with alternative rockers, as well as an Oscar-winning movie made about his life, in 2005. Haggard’s working-class persona proved mostly resistant to crossover appeal, and his counter-to-the-counterculture political associations always muted his broader appreciation. The question of a lasting and widespread musical legacy remains wide open.

In April, on Haggard’s birthday—which was also a year to the day since he’d died, at the age of seventy-nine—eighteen thousand people gathered for an event called “Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard,” at Bridgestone Arena, in Nashville. The several generations of fans present already knew both the words to Haggard’s songs and his roles in country history: blue-collar poet and proto-outlaw, devotee of idiosyncrasy, at once a follower and advancer of tradition. Performances proceeded briskly but without much sense of celebration or loss; participating artists had clearly been instructed to eschew sharing any Haggard stories or memories in the interest of time. Merle’s mourners came, sang, and went, all in a tearless rush.

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