Merle and Me
My appreciation for one of country's greats
Merle Haggard died last week. I had slightly lost touch with him of late, but he was a constant companion growing up. My early memories play out to a Merle Haggard soundtrack. He sang songs about Colorado and Montana, which even then seemed a long way from Alyth. I knew he didn’t like cities, liked trucks, had no time for ‘your so called social security,’ didn’t have much luck and liked whisky.
My father was a Johnny Cash man, but when he left, Johnny’s records, which he left behind, went unplayed. (It would take me a decade to rediscover the records and Johnny Cash’s version of the world). My uncle played guitar and sang in a band - Driftwood, for anyone in Perthshire who remembers - and Merle Haggard was his idol. My uncle taped Merle’s records, and my mother played bootleg Haggard on a near constant loop throughout the seventies. (I had a sneaking suspicion Merle would have appreciated the bootleg element).
Merle Haggard was big, just not quite as big some of his country contemporaries, and he didn’t experience the late career revival that brought the likes of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton back before the public. He was a songwriter and a versatile singer (and an accomplished mimic; he had Johnny Cash to a tee). He cornered the market in down-at-heal ballads, sang often of liquor, women, outlaws and his dirt-poor background.
His biggest hit ‘Okie From Muskogee’ topped the Country & Western music chart in 1969 and defined Haggard ever after.
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take not trips on LSD
We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street
We like living right and being free.
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in California do
A paean to small town America and a tribute to a way of life under threat as the sixties drew to an exhausted close. The irony of Merle Haggard singing a eulogy to clean living was probably lost on many. To say that Haggard had a chequered past would be an understatement. Johnny Cash first encountered Hag during his now legendary prison concert in San Quentin. Hag was in the front row, serving a three year sentence for attempted robbery. It was not his first time inside. Haggard would later be granted a full and unconditional pardon for past crimes by then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, so beginning an unlikely friendship.
Most of the country greats, the men anyway, saw the inside of a jail cell at some time or other: WIllie Nelson (marijuana possession), Glen Campbell (public drunkenness and assaulting a police officer), Johnny Cash (dexedrine smuggling), George Jones (public drunkenness), Randy Travis (public drunkenness & indecency). Indeed many country singers wrestled publicly with a welter of addictions. In later years Merle would sing wistfully of his past habits:
Watching while some old friends do a line
Holding back the ‘want to’ in my own addicted mind
Wishing it was still the thing that even I could do
Wishing all these old things were new.
In a career spanning six decades, Merle Haggard topped the US country charts thirty eight times (including the 1980 duet ‘Bar Room Buddies’ with Clint Eastwood,), a record beaten only by George Strait and Conway Twitty. Haggard spent a lifetime capturing in song exactly what middle America was feeling but often not saying, from echoing Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’ and ‘Fightin’ Side of Me,’ to condemning the US Supreme Court’s decision to protect flag burning under the second amendment with ‘Me and the Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn.’
Always honest about his failings, his last recorded songs touch upon ageing, death and loss, his loves, his children and his legacy. He observes laconically, ‘I’ve not aways been the man I am today.’
I am going to close with one of my favourite Haggard songs, ‘I Wear my Own Kind of Hat’, the chorus of which I knew by heart as a youngster. Haggard was a whimsical wordsmith. It took several years before I knew what I was singing about:
There’s two kind of lovers and two kind of brothers
And two kind of babies to hold
There’s two kind of cherries and two kind of fairies
And two kind of mothers I’m told, I’m told.