This is more a Monday morning love letter to Merle Haggard than anything else…
If you didn’t catch the Kennedy Center Honors broadcast on December 28th, you missed a pretty eclectic (read: moderately awkward) lineup of people chosen for this year’s honoring, including Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Jerry Herman, Bill T. Jones, and Merle Haggard. I tuned in during the end of Jerry Herman’s set, and although I’m generally a pretty big fan of musicals, the dripping sentimentality was difficult to swallow. But! Then came Merle. It’s really a testament to his musicianship and song-writing ability that, in a room full of Hollywood elite and East Coast liberals, the Hag was the one who ultimately brought the house down. Watching Oprah sing along to “Silver Wings” was definitely a TV moment I never thought I’d witness, though Bill T. Jones’ rhythmic swaying to “Workin’ Man Blues” seemed slightly less out of place, for some reason.
Merle seems to be having a small renaissance over the past couple of years, both in his life and in my iTunes. His 2008 appearance on Real Time has had a strong viral life online, for better or for worse, and is still one of the first youtube clips that populates when you search for his name. I’m convinced someone could make a lot of money on t-shirts that say “I am seldom in Muskogee”. He was the focus of the 2010 PBS documentary Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself, which covered the more salient periods of his life such as the loss of his father and his descent into petty crime, and included interviews with Keith Richards, John Fogerty and Robert Duvall, among others.
His recent Rolling Stones interview provided a, dare I say, heartwarming look back at the Kennedy Center Honors as well as his experience meeting the President. Merle is not one to dole out exaggerated compliments, but he’s not tolerant of undeserving, disrespectful criticism either, no matter who the recipient. I especially love his reaction to the claim that Oprah shouldn’t have been honored because she isn’t an artist: “It’s not about who wrote the best song or who the best songwriter was, but who was the best in their field… I don’t know how anybody can say she wasn’t deserving of it.”
Seeing him perform with Kris Kristofferson last summer was an experience I walked into with some guarded skepticism. More than anything, I was trying to manage my expectations in case the headstrong, drinking, singing outlaw I was hoping for was actually a washed up impersonation of his former self. After all, he’s 73, a lung cancer survivor, and has been, as my mom would say, “rode hard and put away wet”. He’s seen a lot in his seven decades, and I wasn’t prepared to begrudge him for allowing a lifetime of hard living to take a toll on his performance.
I couldn’t have been more wrong! Despite a set list that included more sentimental, slow ballads than I would have liked (this was in Saratoga, after all), his voice sounded incredibly clear and the Strangers were flawless and on point. He stood through the entire show – did you hear that, Bob Dylan? – and even the worn-out, well rehearsed stage banter (“I’d like to introduce the Strangers!”) was, surprisingly, more endearing than it was annoying. They ended the show with an exhuberant, if under rehearsed, round of “Okie From Muskogee” that included Joan Baez, John Prine and Kris Kristofferson. Merle has awesome friends.
Unfortunately he didn’t play this song, but it’s one of his best: