Great Sounds A Trademark Of Haggard

Ask any of country music’s “hat” acts about their favorite musicians, and without fail they mention Merle Haggard.

Ask Haggard, and he’ll say Iris DeMent.

Iris who?

Iris DeMent is a wonderfully authentic country singer who did a brilliant version of the Hag’s “Big City” on a recent compilation album called “Tulare Dust.”

But in music industry circles, she’s a complete unknown, which is why Haggard’s praise is so deliciously leftfield. It’s typical Haggard: always on the outside - even during his heyday - who else could he pick but another outsider?

In 1965, when Haggard broke into the big-time, the Nashville scene was dominated by producers focused on making songs that would cross over to the pop charts.

The raw integrity of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell had given way to Eddy Arnold’s string charts and instrumental overdubs.

But Haggard came out of Southern California, where thousands of Dust Bowl migrants settled and where the Maddox Brothers and Rose and Buck Owens had built a rich, raw-boned Western-hillbilly tradition.

Haggard had a knack for the same kind of song. He sang about truckers and barrooms and hard-luck love in a gorgeous baritone. He shared Bob Wills’ feel for jazz and, like Wills, developed a swinging style that he later started calling “country-jazz.”

Haggard wasn’t a country-music moralist, either - no sin-on Saturday, church-on-Sunday breast-beating for him. Instead, he left his lonely, confused characters alone, free to act out their miseries and their pleasures without judgment.

Ironically, he became best-known for - and forever stereotyped by - two songs, “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me.” The most black-and-white of all his songs, they struck a responsive chord in the Heartland. On the other hand, Haggard wrote one of the great songs about interracial relationships in “Irma Jackson.”

A Haggard show is always an adventure in great music. With 30 years worth of first-rate songs to choose from, a tight band and a voice that continues to pack a punch, Haggard is one of the great originals.

xxxx Merle Haggard Location and time: Washington State University, Beasley Coliseum, Pullman, Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $15

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