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Week 8: Merle Haggard, poet of Poverty Row


A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After one year of country (dated from the column’s introduction on March 3, 2009), Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.


For this week’s entry in Nashville Or Bust, I’m going to do something a little different. For previous entries, I’ve read biographies of the artists I was writing about in an attempt to cover my shameful ignorance with a fig leaf of relevant information. Alas, the Merle Haggard autobiography I ordered hasn’t arrived yet, so the biographical portion of this entry is going to be largely autobiographical in nature.

In that respect, this entry is going to be more in line with the original goal of this project: to write about my own journey through country music as much as the music and the artists I’m discovering. There is, perhaps, something to said for this tack (key word: perhaps), though I think it goes without saying that Merle Haggard’s story—or Johnny Cash’s, or Willie Nelson’s, or Gram Parsons’—are inherently more fascinating than my response to their music. Though dammit, if I don’t write an essay linking Merle Haggard and beloved hip-hop communists The Coup, who the hell else will?

As I kid, I felt like the politically charged humanism of the Bay Area socialists in The Coup spoke not only to me, but also for me. In a hip-hop realm where crass materialism has become a religion, The Coup combines the anarchic comic spirit of the Marx brothers with the revolutionary theories of Karl Marx.

To paraphrase 2Pac, I remember Boots Riley of the Coup used to sing to me. He had me feeling like broke was the thing to be. The Coup’s shamelessly romanticized, idealized take on life among the angry proletariat was an invaluable corrective to mainstream rap’s grotesque materialism. For The Coup, poverty wasn’t a temporary way-station en route to something better. Poverty has a place in many, if not most, hip-hop narratives, as something best experienced in the rear-view mirror. The idea is to go from ashy to classy, from the streets to the penthouse, not to cling to poverty for ideological reasons.

Yet for The Coup, to be poor is to be on the right side of the labor/management divide. To be poor is to be noble, hardworking, and dignified, to earn every dollar through honest toil instead of being born into wealth and privilege.

I spent my formative years growing up in a group home for emotionally disturbed adolescents on the north side of Chicago. So I knew firsthand how it felt to live on the fringes of society, to be part of a segment of the populace that was culturally invisible, that most people would prefer to forget.

I felt like The Coup was rapping about the glory of being a marginalized, ostracized outsider solely for my benefit. The group’s darkly funny story-songs about the righteousness of being at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder made me hold my head just a little higher and feel slightly less consumed with self-hatred. Slightly.

I felt the same way listening to Merle Haggard for the first time. It would be inaccurate to say that the no-hopers in Haggard’s songs live in the gutter. For Haggard’s dreamers and drifters, the gutter would be a huge step up, an impossible ideal forever out of reach. They dream of someday being wealthy and successful enough to afford a place of pride in the gutter.

Both Haggard and Boots Riley of The Coup write about poverty as a permanent economic condition and a state of mind in songs that radiate empathy and compassion. But they attack the subject from antithetical angles.

Boots is always quick to draw a connection between the individual struggles of the beaten-down proletariat and the overarching structure of society, between the bosses in executive suites and the kid on the street making minimum wage at McDonald’s, unable to afford health insurance or feed his wife and child. For Riley, the answer to everyone’s problem is a communist overthrow of the government. Also universal health care and gender equality, but mainly, the violent communist overthrow of the government. Even as a 17-year-old addicted to The Coup’s Genocide & Juice,I understood that a communist revolution would create more problems than it would solve, and that being poor wasn’t anything to be proud of, anymore than being rich was. But damned if it didn’t feel good to feel like someone else shared my pain.

Haggard never proposes overarching answers to the problem of poverty. On the songs compiled on the absolutely essential collection The Lonesome Fugitive: The Merle Haggard Anthology (1963-1977),the leftist politics are implicit rather than explicit. By singing sympathetically from the perspective of prisoners, P.O.W.s, drifters, the homeless, hobos, and drug dealers on the run, Haggard forces us to think of these marginalized outsiders as human beings like ourselves and our families, instead of social problems or fuzzy abstractions.

Haggard’s best songs have a vividness and depth that’s simultaneously literary and cinematic. He’s unparalleled at creating an entire world in just a few lines. “Hungry Eyes,” for example, begins with, “A canvas-covered cabin in a crowded labor camp stand out in this memory I revive / ’cause my daddy raised a family there with two-hardworking hands and tried to feed my mama’s hungry eyes.” Those lines rival Steinbeck in their succinct, evocative invocation of a social class and way of life.

Haggard can create an entire world in just a few couplets. “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am” has perhaps the greatest opening lines in the history of the universe. Note: I am not being hyperbolic. I challenge anyone to cite better opening lines than this: “Things I learned in a hobo jungle were things they never taught me in a classroom / like where to get a handout while bumming through Chicago in the afternoon.” Does it get any better than that? No. No, it does not. Prove me wrong, motherfuckers.

“I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am” embodies a theme that ricochets through Haggard’s songs, like those of his friend Johnny Cash: the common man’s struggle to retain his dignity and sense of self in a world intent on breaking him down. The song’s hardscrabble protagonist derives pride not from external accomplishments, but from being able to face the world without delusions or pretensions.

In that respect, the proud drifter of “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am” is the inverse of the protagonist of “Sidewalks Of Chicago,” a big talker who writes his mom back home about how he’s “really hit the big time” even as he sleeps on the streets and receives his mail at a homeless shelter.

The song starts on a note of almost sacred quiet, with a softly strummed guitar and intimate humming, before building to a roaring cinematic chorus. The production on The Lonesome Fugitive isn’t spare by any means. This isn’t Johnny Cash or Jimmie Rodgers performing with just an acoustic guitar. There’s a lot going on musically and production-wise, but it always serves the song. There are background vocals and strings and fancified instruments, but none of the generic, one-size-fits-all excess that defines so much Nashville production. Haggard’s voice is the perfect vessel for his message and his music: gritty, authentic, intimate, and as working-class as a pair of faded blue jeans. So I don’t want to shortchange Haggard’s music, which, in “It’s All In The Movies,” approaches the lush, intricate sophistication of Steely Dan.

Close your eyes, and it’s easy to imagine “Sidewalks Of Chicago” as a 1972 character study with Warren Oates in the lead role, moody cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and Karen Black as the woman who leads our hero astray. Many of Haggard’s songs have the grit and intensity of ’70s cinema, with their empathetic portraits of small-time losers chasing the American dream down assorted dead ends. The difference is, Haggard only needs two and a half minutes to tell a heartbreaking story, not 120.

Haggard speaks deeply to me, but he speaks even more profoundly to my hobo alter ego, Sam The Tramp. While Nathan sits in a cubicle and interviews the Wallace Shawns of the world, Sam The Tramp is currently fleeing via a freight train after killing an abusive labor boss with a crudely fashioned homemade shiv. Yes, Sam The Tramp leads a much more exciting, albeit much less secure, life than boring old me.

Haggard’s heroes aren’t all hobos, criminals, prisoners of war, or homeless people. On “If We Make It Through December,” Haggard ekes poignant drama out of a laid-off factory worker’s struggle to survive the cold of a brutal winter and the disappointment on his daughter’s face Christmas morning once she sees that Santa has skipped their home yet again.

There’s a savage tenderness coursing through many of Haggard’s best songs. His outlaws yearn for the stability and comfort of home even as their lifestyles and compulsions pull them further from any hope of redemption. This theme is perhaps best realized in “Mama Tried,” a song with a chorus as perfect and unforgettable (“And I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole / no one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried / Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied / That leaves only me to blame, ’cause Mama tried”) as the opening lines of “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am.”

Politically, Haggard is something of an enigma. His empathetic portraits of poverty seem to place him within the pantheon of bleeding-heart lefty storytellers, but the overt political statements found on Lonesome Fugitive tend to be reactionary, particularly on “Okie From Muskogee,” a Randy Newman-style social satire of small-minded, small-town rednecks raging impotently against a cultural tidal wave of pot-smoking, draft-card-burning peace-and-love types.

Haggard might have meant the song as satire, but it was passionately embraced by the same arch-conservatives who viewed Archie Bunker as a deep thinker with a lot of good ideas. “Fightin’ Side Of Me” is similarly problematic for lefties, with its seemingly un-ironic “America: love it or leave it” posturing and rabble-rousing cartoon patriotism.

Where Boots and The Coup encourage listeners to pimp the system, Haggard’s poor-but-proud drifters scoff indignantly at “so-called social security” and vow as a matter of principle never to accept welfare. Indeed, his loners and outcasts are able to look themselves in the mirror precisely because they refuse government assistance in favor of standing up on their own two feet. Like all of us, Haggard contains multitudes. I’m sure there was part of him that looked at hippies and protestors with derision, and I’m just as sure part of him could empathize with their furious convictions. Haggard isn’t shy about sentimentality, and his weakest songs embrace a mom-and-country jingoism that borders on self-parody, but anyone who speaks ill of Haggard is walking on the fighting side of me.

“This song’s for the working man!” Haggard joyously exclaims on “Workin’ Man Blues.” It’s a gloriously unnecessary sentiment, as every Haggard song is for the working man, God bless him. I raise my bindle proudly in blue-collar solidarity to this most working-class of working-class troubadours. And I’m writing about him next week as well. What aspects of his career would you like to see me cover?

Merle Haggard Week 2

Bob Wills

Dolly Parton

Tom T. Hall

The Louvin Brothers

Jimmie Rodgers 

Hank Williams