They don't make 'em like Merle Haggard anymore, but what the hell would they do with 'em if they did? Everything about Haggard is rough: his Bakersfield voice, a scratchy, gnarled thing even in his youth; his trademark accompaniment, the twangy, stinging barbs of Telecaster snaking out of tweed-covered amplifiers; even his nickname, "Hag," which lingers long and ugly in the mouth. These are seeds that wouldn't find purchase in the fertile soil of Top 40 country, populated by "Blakes," "Traces," and "Jasons." They don't make them like Hag anymore, but that's okay. The man's influence is still there, even as his rough-and-tumble voice doesn't get much radio play anymore.
You can hear his political wit in songs by Toby Keith, his populist defiance in Brad Paisley, and his fleet-footed genre-hopping in Kid Rock. The Hag's influence looms over country music as much as those of Cash, Willie, and Waylon, but it's a subtle influence, one that delights in defying. After all, here's the guy who sang "Me and Crippled Solidiers Give a Damn," a conservative protest anthem, but also opens his song "What I Hate," from 2012's Working in Tennessee, with this line "What I hate is a statesman speaking out of both sides of his mouth / What I hate is war still going on down in the South / What I live for is a chance to change a little bit of it all / What I hate is that most folks don't seem to care at all." Then he sings about chem trails and complains about road blocks and sings the line "What I hate is what I hate," then hiccups and adds, "and I always will."
Hag's poetry always has benefited from a little cantankerous venom, but on "What I Hate," he sounds as concerned as he sounds pissed. Elsewhere on Working in Tennessee, he replicates the trick, balancing softly sung, ambling passages with bite. On "Sometimes I Dream," he sings a particularly brutal line — "Sometimes I hate myself and wish I could scream" — with a patience and easy croon on loan from his friend Willie Nelson, who appears on the record. "Under the Bridge" is similiarly harsh, though its Western shuffle could easily fool you. Here, Hag plays a cast-out auto worker pretending he's a king in a castle while living homeless under a bridge. That plucky guitar solo sounds positively cheery, a chilling homage to the way Tarantino's most violent scenes are soundtracked by the pinkest bubblegum pop or how the Beach Boys' saddest songs usually sound the sweetest.
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He's always been tricky, too. His 1969 "anti-hippie" anthem "Okie from Muskogee" was adopted by the Silent Majority, but it was just as quickly picked up by the hippies themselves. The Grateful Dead performed the song as a live staple. Could one imagine Rage Against the Machine covering "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)"? Uh, no. That's what makes the Hag special. He's not just the voice of a specific agitator; he's the voice of all of them. He's a poet for the contrarian, the guy looking to flip anyone in charge a mighty bird. Hag's always sung about what he hates, but at the same time, he's always sung about what he loves, too, and it's something both sides of the aisle can get behind: personal freedom.