He Is What He Is
Merle Haggard, bad luck, good fortune and all
by Rick Levin
You’re forgiven for thinking country music great Merle Haggard is pushing up daisies — stories of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. Surely Haggard’s longevity even surprises him once in a while, considering all the well-documented acting up and acting out on his rap sheet of a past life: A drop-out, ditchdigger, thief, multiple felon and San Quentin convict who attended all of Johnny Cash’s legendary shows while in the pen, Haggard finally cleaned up his act when a cellmate who suggested they escape together (Haggard declined) went on to shoot a cop, get caught and get executed by the state. Yeah, if that doesn’t straighten you out, nothing will. At that point, Haggard, still locked up, went to work in San Quentin’s textile plant, joined the prison band and earned his GED. Upon release, he received not one but two pardons from Ronald Reagan and went on to become one of the original Outlaws, flying a big middle finger at the uptight Nashville scene and recording such classic, and oft-misunderstood, hits as “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” and “I Wonder If They Think of Me.”
As with Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, Haggard more recently was embraced by a new generation of fans when, in 2000, he released the excellent If I Could Only Fly, an album of typically sharp and wise songs that were stripped to their barest bones. Since then, he’s continued touring and recording; his most recent album, out just this month, is I Am What I Am. Live, Haggard is a generous performer whose hard-scrabbled edge has been made more elegiac (but not softened) by the ravages of time — he is an artist who is fully aware of how rough life is on most people, and who is utterly grateful for his good fortune.
Merle Haggard. 7:30 pm. Wednesday, April 28. Hult Center. $29-$64.