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I call him Merle…

Posted: January 19, 2012 12:04 p.m.
Updated: January 20, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Not so long ago I was reading an interview with a classical musician in which the reporter who was questioning the artist asked, “Who is your favorite composer?”

You’d think, of course, that the reply would be Bach or Vivaldi or Mozart or Purcell or some other luminary of the classical music world.

Not so.

 “Merle Haggard,” was the reply.

You probably know that Merle Haggard isn’t usually considered in the same breath with Beethoven or Schubert but instead often shares billing with Vince Gill or Willie Nelson or another star of the country music universe.

But he’s far beyond just being a country singer.

Merle -- I call him Merle, as if I knew him, which I don't – is indeed a country star, but many consider him a lyric poet. His songwriting genius, as well as his performing, has led him to many honors, including last year’s ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, in which he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his accomplishments in the performing arts.

In fact, among those who often dismiss country music as superficial honky-tonk -- and I’ll admit that I sometimes fit into that category -- Merle stands as respected and legendary.

There are plenty of Merle songs on my iPod. His music speaks to a life lived hard, and indeed that’s true.

Merle had a hardscrabble California childhood, hopping a freight train when he was barely 10 years old, the first step in a youth of petty crime and reform schools. He left home for good at 15, rambled into all sorts of trouble and ended up doing hard time at the infamous San Quentin prison.

 “Going to prison has one of a few effects,” he told an interviewer in 2004. “It can make you worse, or it can make you understand and appreciate freedom. I learned to appreciate freedom when I didn’t have any.”

Released in 1960, he joined the train wreck that was the West Coast country music scene then, and it was his hit song later that decade, “Okie From Muskogee,” that made him famous.

It was, in a way, a paean to the “silent majority” that Richard Nixon liked to refer to. The song started as a joke, Haggard said, but drew a clear line between “us” and “them.” Haggard sang about Americans who didn’t smoke marijuana, didn’t burn their draft cards and “were proud to wave Old Glory down at the courthouse.”

It was a raucous song, but a great deal of Merle’s work is introspective balladeering.

Johnny Cash, says Merle, encouraged him to address his problems in verse, and the hard, brutal truth of his life, including his years in prison, emerged in song.

When Cash introduced him on his television variety show, he said, “Here’s a man who writes about his own life and has had a life to write about.”

Through the years, he’s had 40 number-one hits and has won virtually every award imaginable, both as a performer and songwriter. Nixon invited him to sing at the White House and Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, gave him an unconditional pardon for his criminal offenses. George Wallace asked for an endorsement but got turned down.

Rock star Bonnie Raitt told Newsweek in 1996, “He’ll tell you he’s a country singer, but to me the essence of rock and roll is a cry for freedom and rebellion. And I don’t know anyone who embodies it better. Every aspect of his life is a refusal to submit.”

The Houston Chronicle acclaimed his composing, calling his songs “simple but profound narrative.”

Married five times -- hey, Beethoven and Bach can’t claim that, can they? -- Merle continues to battle demons in his life. He had a portion of a cancerous lung removed three years ago and is still performing at 74 despite heart problems.

 “I reckon we’re pretty resilient creatures,” he says.

Resilient, indeed.

Why am I writing about Merle now?

Because he was supposed to perform last Sunday night in Columbia, but had to cancel because of illness. The concert was rescheduled in April.

I’m not much of a concert-goer. But I’ll be there for Merle’s gig, the first time I’ve ever seen him sing, and I’ll be ready for a scratchy dose of the honesty that only he can deliver.

I might even sing along because I've got a feeling that when Merle hits the stage, it's not going to be a very tame evening.

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