Merle Haggard's death means more to me than David Bowie's did. He's been on my regular playlist for three decades or more. You're going to hear a lot about his time in San Quentin, his songwriting achievements such as "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried," and of course the nuke he dropped into the 60s culture wars, "Okie From Muskogee." It was never clear how much Haggard identified personally with that song, but there's no denying it's a pitch perfect presentation of a certain reality in America. My favorite line is, "And White Lightning's still the biggest kick in town."
I'll stick with my usual approach and single out his musicianship. There's no better singer than Merle Haggard, and I relish listening to his phrasing just as I do, say, with Sinatra. He actually was the first country musician to appear on the cover of the jazz bible Downbeat. Let's let his performance of Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War" do the talking. But first, a few notes. Sitting along with Merle are Willie Nelson and the Hag's sidekick Freddie Powers. And the song is a first-rate example of how a single metaphor can be carried through an entire song. I think we can all agree that in a relationship a Cold War is the worst kind. And finally, look how Haggard is rocking that baseball cap, cocked high on his head just like the hip hoppers would do in the decades that followed this 1980s performance.