By Tom Ehrich
On my drive across the USA last year, I made a brief pilgrimage to Bakersfield, CA, a hardscrabble city that gave the world a hardscrabble performer named Merle Haggard, perhaps the greatest of all male country singers.
(The queen of that genre, of course, was Tammy Wynette. When Merle and Tammy performed together, all the muses bowed their heads.)
Farther along, I took another detour, this time through Muskogee, OK, a sad old place that Merle Haggard raised to immortality by singing of its homespun values, “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee….We like living right and being free.”
Like his singing partners Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and their hero Hank Williams Sr., Merle’s haggard face was a map of hard times. His father died young, his mother couldn’t keep “the only rebel child in a family meek and mild” on the right path. “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied.” And so he “turned 21 in prison.” He chose to stay put while a friend escaped and was caught after killing a sheriff and returned to San Quentin to be executed. Haggard imagined his friend walking to the gas chamber and asking the warden, “Let my guitar-playing friend sing my request.” “Sing me back home,” it went.
Merle Haggard himself went back home yesterday. It was his 79th birthday.
Country music was the music of America’s working people, the unpretentious folks who build houses, drive trucks, make cars, and grow the crops we eat in the cities. Iris DeMent sings of her mama doing chores, singing “old gospel records with the phonograph,” and imagining herself on stage at the Opry, in Nashville.
Like much of that world – NASCAR, football, patriotism, church, auto racing – country music became big business. Pretty men who were “all hat and no cattle” stood at microphones, backed by violins and soundstage engineers, and sang lyrics that had about as much authenticity as Donald Trump’s patriotism or right-wing Christianity’s religion.
Merle was succeeded by interchangeable men who all seemed to be named Travis. But he was an original. So is his fellow “outlaw” Willie. So are Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. They sang of real people messing up their lives, making sacrifices for others, getting grounded again, losing it again, husbands who tried to be loyal to their wives and wives who chose to “stand by” their men.
They were the guy at the hardware store who helps you think through a home repair and teaches you how to do it -- without any thought of being paid -- not the lawyer or consultant who starts the clock the minute his phone rings. They were the teachers who never earned big bucks and now can’t get a shred of respect, not the banker who cheats to get ahead and struts like a peacock. They were the guys and gals who do what it takes to feed their families, whether or not anyone is watching, not the hairdos drawing maximum preen from every purchase they make. They were the people who actually love their country, not the phony patriots who just want to hate and pummel.
Singers like Merle, Willie and Tammy present anthems of real life. How many times have I listened to Willie sing, “I should have loved you better,” and recognized my own failings as a career-driven husband? My face was never as creased by struggles as Merle’s. But I shared his respect for the common clay – and came to see that, despite youthful dreams of being a glittery star, I came from common clay and am part of it myself?
Merle Haggard was never the angry right-winger that angry right-wingers wanted him to be. His next song after “Okie from Muskogee” was meant to be an anthem to interracial marriage. He was a non-conformist, as, in my own way, I have discovered myself to be.