Merle Haggard died yesterday and I cried. It kinda snuck up on me. I was listening to him sing with the Strangers and my face got hot and ugly for a second and then it just happened. All the heaviest cuts — “I Can’t Be Myself,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “If We Make It Through December.” One hard, masculine truth after another, scratching the surface and leaving it scratched.
I never met the man. But like a lot of dudes that have more-than-occasionally made a mess out of things and boxed themselves into a corner, Merle was the s**t-kicker voice in my ear reminding me that it’s all part of the deal. For many of us, expectations and reality are miles apart and the pieces never seem to lay right. There are tough days and tough breaks and a lot of times you’re guilty of letting yourself down.
Merle’s tough breaks came early — his parents were displaced Okies who moved to California and lived in a converted boxcar. His dad dropped dead of a brain hemorrhage when the kid was only eight, and Merle punked around juvenile detention centers, railway stations, bars, and jails until Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Cash showed him that his voice was a tunnel out of the muck and mire. The genius of Hag is that long after he’d tunneled his way to success, the alienation and sadness and f**k-you-too mentality were still there on full display. While all the Nashville showbizzers sang stock romance and twangy bulls**t, he was for the losers, the squares, the ex-cons, the lonely schmucks who walk around America wondering what the hell to do with themselves. He named his band the Strangers for a reason.
I remember somewhere in Oklahoma or Kansas or some such Western place, I was in a motel years ago listening to Mr. Haggard sing. I was alone, traveling across the country for the umpteenth time, pursuing my shoestring music career, going from one dive bar to the next. I used to gig “Silver Wings” at that time, Merle’s heart-wrenching aviation ballad, as well as a bastardized and Yiddish-ized “Okie From Muskogee” on piano. I can’t remember if I was headed to California, or if I was on my way home to Philadelphia, or if I was just sitting still. My voice was shot, my songs were not connecting, I was broke and aimless and far from my loved ones for yet another month. I sat and strummed along with Merle, his version of “If I Could Only Fly” (one of the most vulnerable performances in country music), and my big Jewish tears came flowing onto a stained quilted comforter.
Years later now and I’m still chasing after something, still singing in the bars. I’ve had a comical string of disappointments and also many moments of total joy. Haggard is one of those guys I lean on to remind me that it’s just like that — accept it and just keep digging, keep tunneling. Make your own path with it and maybe lift a few people up along the way. Whether it was casinos or state fairs or the Grand Ole Opry, he did that for 55 years. He notched 38 number-one country hits, receiving all the adoration and regalia that goes with them, and yet he was still digging and he was still pissed off. And after all those decades on the road, all those songs… he got sick, the shows were postponed, and he laid in a bed in California and waited to die on his birthday.
Merle really got me yesterday and it was a good cry.
Adam Weiner writes songs and sings in Low Cut Connie, a rock’n’roll act out of Philadelphia.