Lorin Stein at The Paris Review:
The print headline of Haggard’s New York Times obituary called him “a poet of the common man.” He was that, certainly. When Merle released his first singles, in the early sixties, he had spent half his adult life in prison, and in his songs he wrote eloquently—for a mass audience—about being in prison, getting out of prison, and running from the law. My sister and I used to sing those songs with our father, pretty much from the time we could talk. I remember asking my father about the explosive refrain of “Mama Tried”: “I turned twenty-one in prison, doing life without parole.” I understood the words, but I found the past tense confusing and upsetting. Didn’t it mean the man singing was still in prison … and always would be? That refrain is the key to the song. It’s about having already been condemned to life. It is a line from beyond the grave.
As I got older, we sang together less and I listened to records more. Merle still had hits on the radio in those days—the late seventies and early eighties. These songs weren’t all about prison, or about growing up in the dust bowl and the oil fields. His 1979 LP, Serving 190 Proof, is not about the common man at all. “I live the kind of life most men only dream of” is how the first song, “Footlights,” begins:
I make my living writing songs and singing them.
But I’m forty-one years old, and I ain’t got no place to go when it’s over,
So I’ll hide my age and take the stage
And try to kick the footlights out again.