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DECEMBER 27, 2010

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The Kennedy Center Honors

The Kennedy Center took flak this year for inducting Oprah into our pantheon of national treasures. But the real surprise was seeing Merle Haggard’s name on the rolls. (The ceremony airs tomorrow on CBS at 9, with Haggard’s old buddies Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson performing his songs and Vince Gill, Kid Rock, Jamey Johnson, and Sheryl Crow joining in.)

Haggard’s hippie-bashing anthems—“Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fighting Side of Me”—made him a country-music star in the mid-’60s. A son of dust-bowl refugees who’d ended up in Bakersfield, California, Haggard grew up in and out of reform schools and served two years of a 15-year sentence at San Quentin (according to legend, he was inspired to become a country singer by hearing Johnny Cash perform at the prison). He built a career by writing and singing the grievances of the white working-class guys who longed for an era “before the Beatles and ‘Yesterday’/ When a man could still work, and still would.”

So it’ll be funny to see Merle Haggard up on the dais with Sir Paul and Oprah—all the funnier because Haggard is one of our greatest and least likely popular poets. His songs defined the golden age of country music, but his gift for introspection has always strained the genre. His great theme isn’t class resentment but his own uneasiness—in love, in marriage, in his work, in being a man. His records stopped hitting the charts in the mid-’80s. Since then he’s toured with Bob Dylan, come out against the Iraq war, and recorded a song celebrating Obama’s inauguration. History has made him respectable, but it hasn’t softened the truth of his best songs.

—Lorin Stein, editor, The Paris Review

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of very special VSLs. Stay tuned for other guest posters in 2011!

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