by Jon Weisberger
By any conventional measure — radio hits, albums and concert tickets sold, songs recorded by other artists, awards and honors received over a career that’s now in its fifth decade — Merle Haggard qualifies as a giant of country music. But valuable as such measures are, they don’t begin to define the accomplishments that have earned the “Poet of the Common Man” his latest accolade: a BMI Icon. For as the title suggests, Merle Haggard’s music has reached into the heart of ordinary people’s lives in extraordinary ways.
Born in Bakersfield, Calif., during the Great Depression, Merle Haggard grew up hard, and while music quickly became a powerful force in his life, it wasn’t until after he had served time for an attempted burglary that he pursued it as a career. With a voice that embedded hints of influence by figures like Jimmie Rodgers, Tommy Duncan (of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys) and Lefty Frizzell in a distinctive style of his own, and singing songs that reflected the many dimensions of American working-class life, he soon established himself as a major force in country music, winning the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award in 1970.
Yet even then it was clear that Merle Haggard was more than simply a successful country star. He took delight in assembling a band second to none in virtuosity and interpretive power; he offered up not just powerful songs of his own, but tributes to predecessors like Rodgers and Wills, re-creating their signature sounds for new generations. As a songwriter, he boldly explored not just the most popular themes of love and heartbreak, but the changing economic and social landscape, American history and politics, patriotism, war, and his own experiences as a convict, a husband, a father and a musician. Using the often uncomplicated yet elegant forms handed down by his predecessors, he created — and continues to add to — an enduring body of work that resonates far beyond the world of country music while remaining firmly rooted within it.
Through his unflinching honesty and profound musicianship, Merle Haggard has come to symbolize the deepest currents of country music artistry. His influence on generations of artists ranging from Bob Dylan (with whom he recently toured) to country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons to country stars of today like Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw and Gretchen Wilson (with whom he recently recorded) has been, and continues to be, unmistakable. His enduring commitment to tradition, his consistent creativity and unshakable artistic integrity make Merle Haggard an Icon in the truest sense of the word.