There is no one in contemporary popular music who has created a more impressive legacy, or one that spans a wider variety of styles. In a genre that has always relied upon filler to round off the album coming off a country hit, Merle has written the vast preponderance of his material ("Without writing you have nothing," says Merle, meaning both the royalties and the satisfaction) and has used each album as a vehicle for personal expression, sometimes not even leaving room to include the hit. He has written blues and folk songs, social commentaries and classic love songs, protest and anti-protest, gospel and ballads, prison and train songs, drinking songs, and updates of Jimmie Rodgers's blue yodels. He has written just about every kind of song there is, in fact, except a convincing rock number, and while such prolificness is not without its price (sometimes the rhymes are less than fresh, some of the metaphors could have been worked out a little more fully and sometimes you wish an idea had been left to simmer rather than having been appropriated immediately into a song), taken as a whole the body of work that he has created is absolutely staggering.
-- Peter Guralnick, 1979

About a year ago (I'm writing in February, 1997), I wrote:

Twenty-five tribute pages for Nine Inch Nails, a dozen online shrines to Hootie and the Blowfish and not one page (except for this embryonic effort) dedicated to Merle Haggard!?

Just ain't right.

I'm happy to say that things have changed, and that there's now a solid, if not exactly huge, collection of Merle info online.

Over the past two years, thanks to a slew of reissues on CD (including a couple of major boxed sets) and two tribute albums, Merle (shown above with longtime Stranger and chicken-pickin' virtuoso Roy Nichols) is becoming known to a whole new generation of fans. About time, too, I say.

It's still the case that all of this is STILL somehow managing to fly beneath the radar of any music press -- country, mainstream or alternative. But progress is being made. His record company even got around to putting up a pretty substantial promo page. Not that that absolves them from recycling the odd tombstone design of the 1994 album and using it for Merle's most recent one.

If you really are interested in experiencing Mr. Haggard in all his glory, go out and buy Bear Family's Untamed Hawk, a 5-CD collection of all of Merle's work for Talley and Capitol from 1962 to 1968. It's pricey, but well worth the hundred bucks or so it'll set you back. For more economically-minded shoppers, Razor & Tie's The Lonesome Fugitive, a 2-CD greatest hits package, covers the Capitol catalog up to 1977. And Koch International has reissued Sing Me Back Home, Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down, Strangers, Same Train, A Different Time (Merle's Jimmie Rodgers tribute) and the spectacular A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills).

As for the tributes: in Mama's Hungry Eyes big-time Nashville cats cover Merle -- some great versions, some not so hot -- and in Tulare Dust, Alameda, California's Hightone Records comes up with an hommage that actually manages to give the overworked genre a good name.

Capitol Nashville issued a decent one-disk collection of vintage recordings from the vaults -- marred by closing out the set with a live performance of "Okie" followed by what is perhaps Merle's most unpleasant (and certainly most hypocritical) song, "Fightin' Side of Me," thereby perpetuating the public's perception that the guy's a know-nothing reactionary instead of one of the great geniuses of pop music (any genre) and in my mind the most powerful figure in the history of country music.

And now Capitol's come out with Down Every Road, 4-CD box covering everything from "Skid Row" to 1994. Not surprisingly, the emphasis here is on Merle's Capitol years. That's a little disappointing to me, as an owner of Untamed Hawk -- Down Every Road covers much of the same ground -- and gives short shrift to Merle's MCA, Epic and Curb work. Nevertheless, it's a beautiful box: lots of great photos and essays and a pretty much essential purchase.

Of course we can't forget that the Hag has kicked his best album in years into the mix. 1996 features an avuncular, laid-back Merle and a number of strong originals, including instant classic "Truck Driver's Blues," an intriguing cover of Iris DeMent's intensely personal "No Time to Cry" and a singalong with Dwight Yoakam, longtime pal Bob Teague and BUCK OWENS on "Beer Can Hill."

Web resources:

Contributions, suggestions, criticisms welcome.

The Big Casino