Merle Haggard, one of the best songwriters and the owner of one of the most distinctive voices in the history of country music, died Wednesday, on his 79th birthday.
You don’t need me to tell you of Merle’s life and legacy. You’re on the Internet, with Google at your fingertips.
But allow me to recommend two superb pieces about Merle, one quite short and one very long.
The short one was published two years ago by the Wall Street Journal, as part of its occasional “Anatomy of a Song” series. This one dealt with the genesis of one of the Hag’s greatest hits, “Big City,” with its memorable chorus and its plea to “turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana.”
The story is mostly told in Merle’s own words, and it is a beautiful testament to the kind of man he was. I had the honor of hearing Merle sing that song at the Shrine Auditorium a few years back, and I also got to hear Iris DeMent sing it at the Alberta Bair Theater. She’s small, but she belts it out.
The other, much, much longer story, was a profile of Merle Haggard that ran in The New Yorker way back in 1990. It was written by Bryan Di Salvatore, then (and maybe still) a resident of Missoula.
Di Salvatore spent months traveling on Merle’s tour bus and produced a detailed, nuanced, anecdote-rich account of an American original. Long as it was, the piece had a one-word headline: “Ornery.”
As I recall, the story filled somewhere between 40 and 50 pages in that issue of The New Yorker. I think it might also have been one of the last really long articles—maybe the very last—published by The New Yorker.
Shortly after it appeared—again, relying on my faulty memory—The New Yorker came under the editorship of Tina Brown, whose pursuit of new readers spelled the end of the magazine’s legendary long-form journalism.
Anyway, it’s a hell of piece, with an ending that packs an emotional wallop. Especially today. Rest in peace, Merle.
Bonus: Watch Merle and Willie in “It’s all Going to Pot,” released just about a year ago.