Written by Fantasma el Rey
Merle Haggard is a true country outlaw and with the Legendary Performances DVD we get fifteen classic tunes spanning 1968-83. In just under an hour we get a good look at what drove his popularity and made this former inmate a country music star. The Hag, as he’s known to many, has a straightforward style and simplicity to his music that everyday working folk can relate to. Hag sang about his first-hand experiences in life, love and troubling hard times. The outsider and outlaw posses a calm charm that helps convey his message through his voice and distinct sound, a sound that he would become known for and would be labeled the Bakersfield sound.
Merle Haggard was born in Bakersfield, California in 1937 and spent his early years in and out of detention centers, finally ending with a spell in San Quentin’s solitary confinement. While in prison he cherished visits by performers such as Johnny Cash and clung to his guitar and the music he loved. Bob Wills and Hank Williams were who he admired most and though young Merle’s music had nothing to with the rockin’ styling of other youths of the mid to late 1950s (though he had no problems with the young southern gents that birthed a hybrid sound of their own). Determined to change his life, Merle worked hard to gain his parole and never return, only looking back in song.
Mixing Wills’ western swing with Hank’s straight country, Merle began to write his life and thoughts in lyrics and began to sing at night around town while digging ditches during the day. By 1963 he was on a local record label and two years later his records appeared on the Capitol label. With The Strangers, a new recording and touring band that added more drive to Merle’s sound and along with label mate Buck Owens, they forged a new sound, one that would be named after the town whose streets they both had survived: Bakersfield. The rest as they say is history and plays out in Merle and The Strangers’ music.
The DVD gives a good look at Merle at the height of his fame. Beginning in ’68 with appearances on local music showcases such as Country Music Holiday, Country Carnival and The Porter Wagner Show, we have a Merle that looks a bit uncomfortable in front of the camera and corny sets. Leaving off in 1983 singing at the Country Music Association (CMA nowadays = Country My Ass) and a Johnny Cash Christmas special. The song selection is a perfect display of the themes that put Merle on the map, being the outsider, boozing over a lost love, and fierce pride in what he believes and who he is. Featuring hits like “Branded Man,” “Mama Tried,” “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Swinging Doors,” “I Started Loving You Again,” “The Fighting Side Of Me,” “Okie From Muskogee” and “Workin’ Man Blues.”
“Mama Tried” is the story of a hell raising “one and only rebel child from a family meek and mild” that “turns 21 in prison” even though Mama tried to steer him straight. “Branded Man” is easily the tale of what happened after the rebel child was granted parole and wants to set things right and get his life back on track. “A branded man out in the cold” is the perfect example an outsider’s looking in; further reflected upon in “Pride In What I Am.” “Pride” follows the life of a homeless man as he wanders the hobo jungles and streets of Chicago while looking back on life. More classic Merle and the outlook of the loner.
“Swinging Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Loving You Again” are Merle’s thinking, drinking, and dreaming songs. Sad tunes that reveal a softer side of the outlaw filled with pain in his heart over the girl who left or that he left behind. He gets close to forgetting her but his friend the bottle lets him down, lets her memory creep back in, and he starts loving her again. The missing side of the outlaw heart is the loving song about hard times, struggle, and the love for family that drives a man to do his best to provide for them, “If We Make It Through December.”
“Working Man Blues” stands on its own and is here worked out in a rocking jam complete with yakety sax and pumping piano, yet Merle manages to keep the pace jazzy and rather than rock ‘n’ roll. Ever since I was a teenage “pin monkey” working for peanuts at the local bowling alley, the song has had a place in my mind. The song took stronger hold and meaning as the years passed and I learned what it is to give up much for the good of family. You drink a little beer on the weekends, think about bumming around, but go back to doing what’s right and providing for your loved ones.
“Fighting Side” and “Okie” might just be Merle’s biggest hits that came at a time when the nation was colliding into each other and sides were being chosen across the nation. Merle hits hard with these tunes, which are really just extensions of his pride songs. He gives his point of view strong and solid but manages not to go over the edge, seeming to say “I get what you’re saying but don’t cotton to it. So you stay on that side and we’ll get along fine;” Seems simply enough, “I’ll stand my ground; you stand yours.” “Okie” on the other hand is a tune that I could just never take seriously seeing as how Merle never did too much either. It was kind of a joke and came about as the band passed said town one day while touring. Merle thought about the troubles on college campuses and wondered about life, hippies, and dope use in small-town Muskogee, Oklahoma and it all rolled from there.
Legendary Performances - Merle Haggard is truly that and in bonus features we get to see an older Merle, comfortable with the camera and joking with the crowd at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. We even get firsthand knowledge of the man’s life in an interview filmed with his life Leona in their big ol’ touring bus. Entertaining and well done, I find this disc easily added to the list of “best things to come across my desk this year.” So go get it, fan or not, it’s a good look at a living country legend and true outlaw.