The only thing that I miss lately in all music is somebody that will put out a melody that you can whistle. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything happening like that. —Merle Haggard
I’m not sure there’s anyone who was raised in or around Oklahoma during the 1960s and 70s that doesn’t have a Merle Haggard story. Even if they never actually saw the man in person, his music affected Oklahoma and the people who live there even now. Never mind that he wasn’t actually born there. His song Okie From Muskogee gave both the town and the state a reputation it still tries desperately to hold onto, even though Haggard himself shifted and became more liberal over time. His songs struck a nerve with people who struggled to find jobs, to work the land, to stay out of jail, or to stay sober. That was Oklahoma then, and in many ways is Oklahoma now. As news of his death spread across the Internet yesterday, the stories began to appear. I saved mine until today.
I met Haggard twice, neither time with a camera available. The first time was when I was 13, a scrawny, shy little kid with glasses. We were in Tulsa for one reason or another and as we came out of a restaurant there he was, standing on the sidewalk with what I assume were some of his band members. Mother recognized him and whispered to Poppa, “That’s Merle Haggard!” She was trying to be discreet, but that never was one of Mother’s better traits. The song man heard her and walked over to say hi.
Haggard was still young then. I remember the dark, curly hair sticking out from under his black hat. His smile was big and friendly. When he shook my hand, though, his skin felt rough and dry, like someone much older, someone who was used to doing hard labor. I also picked up on a distinct aroma, one which I wouldn’t be able to identify for a few more years. Yeah, never mind what the song says, Merle was about as big a pot smoker as Willie, he just didn’t make as big a deal about it.
Merle had a distinct sound, one of those you could recognize the instant the record started playing. He didn’t go in for the studio string section that was popular in Nashville. He kept his music real, guitar-centered, a touch of banjo, with a little bit of steel thrown in at just the right place. He didn’t need to do any vocal tricks, he just sang a song with a good melody, one you could whistle if you wanted. He told stories that resonated not only in Oklahoma but all across the country. Whether it was the 60s or 2010, he had a connection with how people felt and a unique way of putting that into song.
The man never shied away from being honest about his opinions or his politics. While conservatives loved him in the 70s, he didn’t feel any loyalty to a party and his views shifted more to the left as he grew older. In a 2010 interview with Patrick Doyle for Rolling Stone, Haggard made a statement that caught his more conservative fans by surprise.
t’s really almost criminal what they do with our President. There seems to be no shame or anything. They call him all kinds of names all day long, saying he’s doing certain things that he’s not. It’s just a big old political game that I don’t want to be part of. There are people spending their lives putting him down. I’m sure some of it’s true and some of it’s not. I was very surprised to find the man very humble and he had a nice handshake. His wife was very cordial to the guests and especially me. They made a special effort to make me feel welcome. It was not at all the way the media described him to be.
He also became a more outspoken of the legalization of marijuana. In a different interview that same year, Haggard said:
Well, I’m kinda like George Carlin. I think that there ought to be a time where everybody should have all the drugs they want and there’d be nobody in charge, sort of like… now!
The second time I met Merle was back in 2001, outside a club just North of Atlanta called Cowboys. I was on my way home and recognized Waylon Jenning’s vehicle parked next to the tour bus. Waylon hadn’t been doing well and I was rather surprised to see him out, so I pulled into the parking lot and as I got out of the car Waylon and Merle stepped out of the bus. Haggard’s hair was grayer, of course, but his eyes still sparkled, his smile just as broad, and his handshake just as real. He was in the middle of touring and had just stopped by for a moment to see Waylon, an old friend. Regrettably, I was on a tight schedule and couldn’t stay to listen to them swap stories.
Country music today is barely a shadow of what it was back when Haggard was consistently at the top of the charts. Music has changed, the industry has changed, and the world is a very different place. Still, he never stopped. Haggard’s songs remained real, relatable, and as country as the red clay of Oklahoma, which is saying something for a boy raised in a boxcar in Bakersfield.
Farewell, Merle. Thanks for all the music.