Like so many silly rock kids of my generation, my first exposure to the songwriting of Merle Haggard was Bobby Weir’s pass at “Mama Tried” on the Grateful Dead’s eponymous 1971 live album: a two-record set often called Skull & Roses for the same reason that we call the White Album the White Album. An overeager Garcia doubles down on the interstitial guitar fills of the original, and Bill Kreutzmann finds a funky half-time feel in the chorus that would have confused the dancing feet of Bakersfield. Otherwise, the Dead stay atypically decorous and faithful, adding a total jam load of only 30 seconds to the 2:14 of the original.
And I thought that they were joking, of course. I thought that Buck Owens was just the cheeseball straight man on Hee Haw, a square and tepid comedy/variety show that I suffered through often enough because there were only 12 channels and you had to watch something. Truth is, the Dead’s Haggard cover came out only three years after the original. Bakersfield’s melting-pot fusion of electrified outlaw country, Western swing and – in the person of Haggard especially – edgy, confessional candor was important, incendiary stuff to California youngsters like the Dead. They weren’t joking in the least.
Haggard wasn’t joking, either, when he wrote about turning 21 in prison. As critics, we are taught to exclude the biographical narratives of artists from our analyses, or at least to relegate them to a non-essential, supporting role. Whether you lived it for real should have no impact on the worth, meaning and authenticity of your art. But Haggard’s story is irresistible, a genuine, redemptive outlaw myth to shame all others: part destiny-driven fairy tale of unlikely discoveries and synchronicities, part Steinbeck novel, part Scared Straight cautionary tale. Merle Haggard didn’t have to add many inches to his fishes to make them compelling.
Even so, truth, myth and style play freely in his easygoing, swing-leaning country songs, as they do in all the great ones. Merle Haggard is an exemplary craftsman, not just an ex-con saved by his effortless way with words and a tune.
That poignant, rhyming narratives seem to come so easily to Haggard sometimes works against him. On a pair of recent collections of new material on Vanguard, 2010’s I Am What I Am and 2011’s Working in Tennessee, you might think that here, in his 70s, the old master has finally gone autopilot, letting the institution that is Merle Haggard write his songs for him. But a little close attention disproves this quickly. Haggard is as adept as ever in finding the real pathos in the standard story.
Merle Haggard with special guest Tom Pacheco, Sunday, November 3, 7 p.m., $74/$59/$54, Ulster Performing Arts Center, 601 Broadway, Kingston; (800) 745-3000, https://www.ticketmaster.com.