Zero to 180 – Three Minute Magic

Discoveries of a Pop Music Archaeologist

“Sam Hill”: Merle Sans Strangers

IMDB, the Internet Movie Database, recognizes these nicknames for Merle Haggard, who – in poetic fashion – left us this week on the exact date of his 79th birthday:

– Mighty Merle
– Okie from Muskogee
– Hag
– Poet of the Common Man

Merle Haggard 45

Mighty Merle would enjoy the backing of The Strangers, one of country music’s greatest bands (who once recorded this charming radio ad for Ford Trucks), but the Hag began his recording career as a solo artist.  I am sorry to learn that Merle’s second single did not enjoy the same chart success as his inaugural release “Sing a Sad Song” which was a Top 20 national hit despite being released on Tally, an indie label with minimal distribution.  Perhaps it’s time then to reintroduce this quirky little tune “Sam Hill” to the rest of the world in honor of Merle’s passing:

“Sam Hill”

Merle Haggard (1964)

Haggard projects such a serious and soulful presence that casual fans may be surprised to learn of his gift for musical mimicry, as evidenced by this hilarious clip from The Glen Campbell Show in which he not only impersonates but also embodies four other legends of country music — Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash [see also “Musical Impersonations (On Wax)”]:

Thanks to Deke Dickerson for putting together this moving tribute to Merle on the day his spirit left us:

If you’re a true believer, then you already know, but for the uninitiated, one of the last true giants of country music has left the building.  Rest in Peace to the great Merle Haggard, who passed away today, on his 79th birthday.  It’s hard to put into words the immense influence and style and legacy of the man who was the best selling country music artist of the 1970’s, who started recording in the early 1960’s and was still recording and touring and incredibly active up until his death.  Suffice to say, Merle Haggard was one of the greatest of all time, a Country Music Hall Of Famer, a Mount Rushmore-like figure who wrote epic songs like ‘Mama Tried’ and ‘Okie From Muskogee’ and ‘White Line Fever’ and ‘Tulare Dust’ and ‘Ramblin’ Fever’ and ‘Fightin’ Side Of Me’ and ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’ and literally a thousand others.  He sang the living [dung] out of those songs, too, with the conviction that a million wannabes who followed in his footsteps have never been able to emulate.  He picked guitar, he played the fiddle, he made tribute albums to his heroes, and he kept playing and singing and playing and singing.  He worked like a dog, like a man possessed, and inspired more fans and musicians than almost anybody in the history of the country music genre.

I was lucky enough to write two box set books for Bear Family Records on Merle Haggard’s Capitol Recordings from 1968-1976.  I also wrote a box set book on Merle’s ex-wife and longtime harmony singer Bonnie Owens.  It was because of his desire to see a good Bonnie Owens collection that he agreed to let me interview him. I wasn’t promised anything more than a cursory 15 to 30 minute phone interview, but minutes into the first phone call, we started talking about Roswell aliens and Lefty Frizzell and Emmett Miller and Bob Wills and then the floodgates were opened.  I wound up interviewing Merle for a total of ten hours.  He was a fascinating character, and one that gave endless great and usable quotes.  He was not educated, but he was highly intelligent.  I admired his ability to admit that he was wrong, and how he learned from experience.  He explained to me for nearly an hour how ‘dumb as a rock’ he was when he wrote the right-wing anthems ‘Okie from Muskogee’ and ‘Fightin’ Side Of Me:’

Merle: “I was dumb as a rock, you know, I thought that the government told us the truth, and I thought that marijuana made you walk around with your mouth open.  So when you write a song from that limited understanding, and have it become a hit, I was really in a whirlwind of change in America, and in my own way of thinking. ‘Okie from Muskogee’ came off the wall, written in about ten minutes, and it came off the back side of my brain, and my heart.  Because I was disturbed about young America.

“See, I was easing into my thirties, at that time, so I was pretty much out of here as far as the young people were concerned, and they were young kids that I was irritated with, and they were doing things that I thought were un-American.  Well, it wasn’t un-American, they were smarter than me!  Kids are always smarter than the old folks….they see through our bigotry, and our hypocrisy.  And I had a great lesson in life to learn, that they were already aware of.  I believe history has proven them right.  The Vietnam War was a hoax, the reason we went to war was a lie…maybe communism was a threat, but that wasn’t why we were there.

“What went on in the evolution of America and the evolution of Merle Haggard is not what people would have expected.”  (Merle Haggard interview by Deke Dickerson, 2007)

I was really impressed at how much Merle had achieved, in the rigid music business system that preferred to market an artist in terms of saleable product, singles and albums of same sounding pop-based music, one right after the other.  Merle was able to pick projects (and convince Capitol to release them) that had little commercial appeal except for the fact that Merle Haggard would be doing them–a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers; a tribute to Bob Wills (both done at a time when nobody remembered or cared about Rodgers or Wills); a double album of gospel music, recorded on location in rural churches and homeless shelters; live albums recorded in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Philadelphia and New Orleans; instrumental albums by his excellent band, The Strangers….it was overwhelming then, and it still is today, examining it all in retrospect.  How did he achieve SO much in that amount of time?  It boggles the mind.

I’ll always be grateful for the time that Merle gave me, and I know that at any given time, he had a thousand other people vying for his attention.  It was a life that had to be exhausting. He lived it to the fullest and brought the real, honest Merle Haggard to the people every single time.  There was no other Merle Haggard, it was just the way he was, and that’s one of the big reasons why people loved him.  He was absolutely 100% genuine, no [BS], and they just don’t make country music stars like that anymore.

I saw Merle recently at what might have been his last show (can anyone confirm this?), back in February at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills.  It was an odd audience mix of rich folks, entertainment industry [butt]holes, rednecks, alternative rockers, aging hippies and hipsters.  The minute that Merle hit the stage, despite his frail voice, the entire room was in the palm of his hand.  Grown men kept yelling at the top of their lungs, “WE LOVE YOU MERLE!”  It was, simply, to be in the presence of greatness.  It wasn’t the greatest Merle Haggard performance he ever gave, but he gave all he had, sang his famous songs and walked off stage, as he did, without an encore.  The audience, myself included, felt grateful to be seeing something that we all knew we probably wouldn’t be seeing many more times.  Nobody there knew the end would be coming so damn fast.

Merle Haggard & the Strangers

Annapolis, MD – April 16, 2012


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