How Merle Haggard Changed the Course of Country Music

Haggard was an architect of the "Bakersfield sound," an alternative to the prevailing country trends at the time

Photo: Jerry Tavin/Everett

Legendary country star Merle Haggard died Wednesday on his 79th birthday, a coincidence that wouldn’t seem out of place in one of Haggard’s many indispensable contributions to country music.

But Haggard didn’t just pen hits like “Okie from Muskogee,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried.” He fundamentally altered the course of country music on a granular level, introducing a sonic blueprint that would come to be known as “the Bakersfield sound,” a rough-hewn counterpoint to the sweeter sounds coming out of Nashville at the same time.

Born in Bakersfield, California, to Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma, Haggard spent large chunks of the 1950s in prison, including a stint at the San Quentin prison where he witnessed Johnny Cash‘s legendary performance. Cash’s band was itself something of an anomaly in the country scene, playing a rockabilly-influenced variation on country music that wasn’t quite the popular Western swing of the 1940s or the honky-tonk of the early ’50s.

So when Haggard started recording in the ’60s, it was with a guitar-centric, stripped-down sound that prominently featured the keening leads of the Fender Telecaster guitar. (Buck Owens has also been identified as a key figure in the movement.) Consciously or not, Haggard and Owens were offering a stark alternative to the commercial country sounds coming out of Nashville at the time: lush, expansive arrangements with multiple background vocals and string sections, à la “I Fall to Pieces” or “Four Walls.”

Their rough-and-tumble take offered what some people heralded as a more “authentic” country sound. (Asked to define “the Nashville sound,” guitarist and producer Chet Atkins would reportedly jingle the change in his pockets and say, “That’s what it is. It’s the sound of money.”)

The ripples caused by Bakersfield artists trickled through to other genres. The Beatles recorded Owens’ “Act Naturally,” and years later, The Rolling Stones, experimenting with country sounds on 1978’s Some Girls, features the line “I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield.”

Dwight Yoakam, talking to Country Guitar in 1994, expanded on the influence of the Bakersfield sound: “I don’t know if there would have been a John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival had there not been the California country music that’s come to be known as the ‘Bakersfield Sound.’ ” From there, it’s easy to trace the lineage of the Bakersfield sound to the country-rock acts of the ’60s like The Band and Gram Parsons and then later, the Eagles. The Grateful Dead made the connection explicit by including a version of Haggard’s “Mama Tried” on their 1971 self-titled live album and making the song a live staple for years.

Decades later, Haggard was still being name-checked as an authentic alternative to prevailing Nashville sounds. In 2002, the Dixie Chicks recorded a Grammy-winning version of Darrell Scott’s “Long Time Gone,” which lamented the state of modern country music. It features the biting line, “Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard / They got money but they don’t have Cash.”

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