Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

Haggard Country

By David Luhrssen
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By 1970 Merle Haggard had placed himself firmly on one side of the social and political rift threatening to tear America apart. A guest star that year on Porter Wagoner’s popular syndicated television show, Haggard performed “The Fighting Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogie,” his blunt spoken and musically irresistible counterattacks on the Counterculture.

They are among the TV appearances from 1968 through 1983 collected on Merle Haggard LegendaryPerformances, a DVD from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The earlier performances especially reveal a rawboned figure just a bit ill at ease amid the backslapping gladhanding of Nashville.

In a voice rich as honey and in words simple yet never simplistic, Haggard brought the old fatalism of the American South into contemporary times in such songs as “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Started Loving You Again” and “Branded Man.” Gravity peered through the wry smile—or was it a wry smile that peered through the gravity.

On record, on stage and on television, Haggard was almost always most comfortable with simple accompaniment, a modest rhythm section, an electric guitar and a crying pedal steel. Amid the tinsel and glitz he was a traditionalist, making him a country outlaw years before Waylon and Willie took up the banner.

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