It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Merle Haggard—the archetypal outlaw, often bearded, a little skeptical around the eyes, a little bit somewhere else—including a song called “If We Make It Through December” on a Christmas record, where it could freely rub up against blank, life-affirming hooey like “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland.” The song, which was an unexpected crossover hit (it cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 1973, peaking at number twenty-eight), is heavy with yearning, resignation. After that, faith: “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be alright,” Haggard promises.
I’ve listened to “If We Make It Through December” almost every December of my adult life. Something in Haggard’s delivery—calm, until his voice wobbles halfway through the word “fine”—is, for me, a fail-safe balm for the strange, year-end ennui that skulks up on (and sometimes swallows) even the best of us. The temptation to spend every idle minute calculating and recalculating the year’s missteps and devastations—to indulge in the cruellest kind of stocktaking that December allows—is invariably strong. Haggard acknowledges that. It’s O.K. Look ahead; wait. “I plan to be in a warmer town come summertime.”
By the end of “If We Make It Through December,” after the fiddle comes back in, I’m usually pretty deep into one of those gross, hiccupping laugh-cries, in which it seems like my breath is going in and coming out at the same time. It always feels incredible—a loosening. A warmer town come summertime.
Haggard died on Wednesday, his seventy-ninth birthday, on a ranch not terribly far from Bakersfield, California, a town synonymous with the twangy, rugged, guitar-driven style he helped engineer there. It’s hard to say what country music would look like without him. He was a progenitor—along with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and a dozen or so others—of what’s now called outlaw country; the idea, back in the nineteen-sixties, was to present a grittier alternative to the smooth, overtly professional sounds then piping out of Nashville, often under the tutelage of the producer and guitarist Chet Atkins.
The idea of outlaw country might sound punitive, or at least dumbly macho—“Our thing is less neutered than your thing!”—but listen to Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” a hit from 1968, and then listen to Patsy Cline, or Eddy Arnold, or Jim Reeves singing about anything at all. Haggard possessed—could sublimate—a wildness then largely unknown (it was at least long unseen) in country music. His songs are loose and unstoppable, like a jalopy with the brakes cut, careening downhill in a cloud of dust. And then there was Merle, his head stuck out the window, hat blown off, whooping like a cowboy.
He was either the author or performer of several of the world’s greatest drinking jams, including “Misery and Gin,” “I Don’t Want to Sober Up Tonight,” “Back to the Barrooms Again,” “Drink Up and Be Somebody,” “It’s All Going to Pot” (a collaboration with—who else?—Willie Nelson), and, perhaps most famously, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” The latter is a glorious kiss-off, finished with a long, loping guitar solo and one of the surliest spoken codas ever committed to tape (“We’re gone,” Haggard mutters during the fadeout). It’s a glorious, birds-up protest anthem, an embodiment of the best (petulance) and worst (petulance) parts of the outlaw ethos. That sullen swagger could backfire, like any hyper-masculine manifestation, but when it hit right, like on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”—bottom’s up, we’re all gone.
Haggard was born in 1937, in a converted boxcar in Oildale, California, to Flossie Mae and James Haggard, Okies who’d fled the dustbowl during the Great Depression. Per the biographies, Haggard was a wily, fearless, impish kid. He was first ordered to a juvenile detention center in 1950, for shoplifting, and then ordered back several times after that. He spent most of his adolescence either hopping freight trains, hitchhiking, driving a potato truck, frying eggs on a kitchen line, or committing petty larceny. In my mind, he is often descending out an open window via a rope made of bed sheets, under cloak of night, hitting the ground hard and sprinting off into the blackness, his boots kicking up puffs of dirt. In 1957, he was arrested while trying to rob a roadhouse in Bakersfield. He spent his twenty-first birthday in solitary confinement at San Quentin. He was there, in 1958, when Johnny Cash showed up with an acoustic guitar.
He recorded his first long-playing album in 1965; “Strangers,” released by Capitol Records, eventually made it to number nine on the country chart. Haggard wouldn’t become known to pop fans until 1969, though, when he wrote “Okie from Muskogee,” a lumbering, boastful paean to Oklahoma, fuelled by anti-hippie rhetoric (“We don’t make a party out of lovin’ / We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo / We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy / Like the hippies out in San Francisco do”). There is a whiff of “real America”-pandering to the lyric, and when it was suggested that the conservative message of “Okie from Muskogee” might be at odds, in some fundamental way, with the lawless nature of his work and life, Haggard took a predictably contrarian stance. He later suggested to an interviewer that his vitriol toward Vietnam War protesters was directed at their character, not necessarily their politics. It just didn’t seem right, he insisted: “They weren’t over there fightin’ that war anymore than I was.”
Although he took a few extended breaks, Haggard recorded and performed fairly consistently for the last five decades. In 2013, he was photographed wearing a floppy San Francisco Giants bucket hat and a large gray sweatshirt featuring the phrase “I [Heart] Haters.” He posted the picture to his Twitter account, accompanied by the caption, “How bout this sweatshirt.” He remained irascible well into his dotage.
He leaves behind a considerable discography—dozens of albums, which collectively contain thirty-eight number-one country singles—but, as with most of the great American singers, there is a sense that no one studio recording ever quite captured all of him. The way he moved, or how he got over.
Still, if you watch enough footage of Haggard performing live, you’ll start to notice him doing something sort of curious: he hovers around the microphone, his eyes fixed on some invisible point in the middle distance, narrowed and brutally focussed. It’s the kind of visage people adopt when they’re trying to tell you something important: that they love you, or that they think you’re making some kind of mistake. “His gaze, the way he engages the mic, the timing and weird dips and glide of his voice,” is how my friend Christopher began to describe the scene in an e-mail a couple hours after we’d all learned Haggard had died. “He sings around a song, sort of into it and out of it, like a prospector knowing there’s even more to discover. He does all of this with the audience as a critical part of the process, like they are part of that song-glob he’s navigating. It’s where you really see what he’s about.”
It’s tough, now, to know that those videos are all the Merle Haggard we’ve got left on Earth. There is a generosity to his movement onstage that reminds me, in a way, of “If We Make It Through December,” a song as emotionally generous as any I can think of. Haggard was singing, always, to the person for whom dread wasn’t an abstract concept, but a way of being: the broken-hearted, the broken-down. He scanned the crowd, and found him, and helped him.