I wasn’t expecting it to, but Merle Haggard’s death on his 79th birthday last Wednesday knocked me for a loop, because he’d been such a big influence on me (and millions of others) for so many years. There’s going to be a private funeral for him today on his property in Palo Cedro in Northern California, and wouldn’t you know the ruggedly independent country singer/songwriter and musician preplanned his own service.
A fellow Californian, Haggard was born near Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley—the son of Depression-era Okies—and, growing up, got in trouble with the law and served time at San Quentin prison. I came from Santa Barbara, a couple of hours away on the coast—dad was a Depression-era Arkie—but we had cousins who lived in Folsom, in the Central Valley, because they were waiting for their boyfriends to get out of the penitentiary there. One of them gave me a photo of herself wearing a fringed vest and a cowboy hat, signed like this: “From Mary, Your Cowgirl Who Loves You.” My first wife got really upset about that.
I first saw Haggard years earlier, when I was still a teenager and he and his band The Strangers came to perform at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. A friend and I had snapped on some square-dance shirts my mom had sewn and hand-painted for my dad (sunflowers and red diamonds, mostly), and gone to the concert after downing a quart and a half of Jim Beam. Haggard—handsome and rebellious, with a cool, don’t-give-a-shit attitude but a sensitive side, too—became an instant role model for me. My buddy and I sat near the front row and, drunk and obnoxious, I kept yelling out, “‘Branded Man‘! ‘Branded Man’!”, Merle’s big hit at the time, until he finally shot me a hard stare and said, “We’ll get to that one.”
At college in Arizona a few years later, this same friend and I had business cards printed for a fake radio station (“Keep your radio up to par—KPAR, 1550 AM”) and used them to score interviews with country stars like Haggard. We climbed aboard his parked tour bus one night and, tape recorder rolling, I had the effrontery to ask Merle why he got into “ruts” with his music: a string of prison songs (“Branded Man,” “Lonesome Fugitive”), then a run of songs with patriotic themes (“Okie From Muskogee,” “Fightin’ Side of Me”). Merle looked irritated but replied patiently, “Oh, I don’t know that we do that.”
This wasn’t long after my buddy and I had gone on the college TV-station variety show and—strumming borrowed, unplugged electric guitars—sang “Okie,” along with Merle’s voice cranked up high on a record player. Once again, several bottles of whiskey were involved. I can still see my friend passed out in the men’s room 45 minutes before the performance, his Levi’s and cowboy boots sticking out underneath the stall.
“Okie” was a signature song for Haggard, an anti-hippie/anti-war-protester anthem that struck a chord with patriotic Middle Americans—the Silent Majority so derided by the country’s media/academic elite. My brother had just joined the army and volunteered for Vietnam, and my Depression-era aunts and uncles from the Texas Panhandle identified strongly with Merle’s point of view. While he offered different explanations for the song over the years, Haggard told one interviewer: “That’s how I got into it with the hippies … I thought they were unqualified to judge America, and I thought they were lookin’ down their noses at something that I cherished very much, and it pissed me off. And I thought, ‘You sons of bitches, you’ve never been restricted away from this great, wonderful country, and yet here you are in the streets bitchin’ about things, protesting about a war that they didn’t know any more about than I did.”
Seven or eight years later I was walking the flat streets of Bakersfield, reporting a magazine article about the birthplace of country music’s “Bakersfield Sound.” Bakersfield country—raw and loud, with minimalist lyrics, and twangy as all hell—had been pioneered by the likes of Haggard and his pals Wynn Stewart and Sherman-born Buck Owens. Buck and Merle had been married at different times to the same woman—an incredibly sweet and talented singer named Bonnie Owens. Bonnie agreed to talk with me for my story one night during a rodeo dance at the Kern County fairgrounds. After the interview I asked her to dance to a slow song, and she agreed. Stupid as it was I wanted to feel what those guys had felt with Bonnie, if only for a few minutes. And, secretly, I was hoping some of her magic, maybe some of theirs, would rub off on me as well.
There’s something very affecting about the way Bonnie and Merle related to each other in this accompanying video clip, which I first saw two years ago at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. (The couple later divorced, alas, though they remained good friends.) That may be why one of my favorite Haggard songs is the poignant “Holding Things Together,” about a guy trying to rear a little girl by himself after his wife splits.”When it comes to raising children, it’s a job meant for two,” Merle sings. With that simple line, I always thought, he laid out the trouble with single-parent families—to me the most far-reaching, gut-wrenching result of the “anything goes” ethic ushered in by the ’60s counterculture.
Throughout the ’80s, ’90s, and Oughts, I continued to subject my family and friends to Merle concerts, in places ranging from Angels stadium in Anaheim, California (the closing act there was a monster-truck rally), to a civic auditorium in Branson, Missouri, to the Cowboys Red River nightclub here in Dallas. I dragged my then-fiancee Jeanne to the show at Cowboys, too dumb to realize yet that a rowdy, boozy Haggard show in a crowded honky tonk was no way to woo a refined Park Cities lady raised on Broadway musicals. (For some reason she agreed to become my second wife, anyway.) As a journalist and would-be storyteller, I was continually inspired by the stripped-down craft and soulfulness in Haggard’s performances—especially in some of his lesser-known stuff, like “The Farmer’s Daughter” and “Me and Crippled Soldiers (Give a Damn).”
At today’s funeral that Haggard planned himself, country singer Marty Stuart was scheduled to officiate, and Marty’s wife Connie Smith, like Haggard another great country star, was to sing “Precious Memories.” Connie and Marty also were to sing a duet on Merle’s hit, “Silver Wings.” I’m betting that the service will be spectacular, befitting this one-of-a-kind artist, and that there will be many tears for everyone’s loss. RIP, Merle. And thank you.