Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Country Icon Merle Haggard Dead At 79

There’s something perverse about watching a man in pain sing some of the most beautiful songs ever written, which is how I spent two nights in November of 2010, chasing Merle Haggard’s bus down Interstate 10 out of Louisiana, into Texas, off toward oblivion. A few months earlier, Haggard had been named a Kennedy Center honoree, and I had been sent to a casino parking lot in Lake Charles to interview the country legend about his life and times. Stepping aboard his tour bus, I immediately realized I was speaking with a wounded man. Haggard was 73. A cancerous chunk of his lung had been removed in 2008 and he was just now recovering from a related infection that burned deep in his chest. When I told him that it seemed insane for a man in his state to be out on the road, he nodded in solemn agreement. He said that touring was a compulsion, an obligation, a trap he didn’t feel that he deserved to get sprung from. Haggard — who died Wednesday on his 79th birthday — sang about things like that all of the time, telling stories of human turbulence with supreme elegance. En route to becoming one of the greatest songwriters in history, he was first a hero of the Bakersfield sound — a bright, sleek, rock-tinted dialect of country music that initially spread across the California oil fields near where the singer grew up. Haggard filled his most indelible songs with heavy regrets, the kind that haunt life’s most tragic transactions. The sting of loneliness burns through the effects of alcohol in “The Bottle Let Me Down.” A loving mother fails to save her no-good son in “Mama Tried.” A prisoner prepares for his execution in “Sing Me Back Home.” Gorgeous American songs about ugly American situations, all of them...more

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