“His heart was as tender as his love ballads.” –Dolly Parton, speaking about Merle Haggard on his death, April 6, 2016. Ironically, it was also his 79th birthday.
I grew up mostly in the Foothills of North Carolina.
We didn’t listen to a lot of country music, but it was always on my periphery. Like a lot of people my age, I went through my Garth Brooks phase, and Reba still holds a spot in my heart…same with Dolly. But the Outlaws–Johnny, Waylon, Merle, Willie, Kris, Hank Jr.–were rarely played around me. I don’t think my parents had anything against them, but the Outlaws weren’t on the radio stations in Charlotte, NC, so I just didn’t know them.
I mean, sure, I knew their names. You couldn’t be Southern and not know Johnny. And Waylon sang the theme to “The Dukes of Hazzard” to me each week. Even narrated the show, so I knew him. But I didn’t really know their music.
When I was 18, though, I spent one beautiful Sunday afternoon driving around the mountains a few counties away. I stopped my pickup truck at a small gas station to fill up and get a Mountain Dew. At the counter was a carrousel of cassette tapes, mostly Greatest Hits compilations and 70s rock. As I spun the carrousel around, I saw the name Merle Haggard. It was a name I knew, but I was pretty sure I’d never really heard his music, so I added the tape to my purchase.
I wish I knew the name of that compilation, but it definitely wasn’t a typical Greatest Hits. I know for a fact Mama Tried wasn’t on there, and neither was Okie from Muskogee, but I’m sure budget played a lot into the track list decision.
At that age I was usually listening to U2 or Ruby Soho by Rancid, but that Merle Haggard tape stayed in my truck’s tape player for months. Songs like Branded Man and Workin’ Man Blues dealt with the issues of living with a criminal record and work ethic, respectively. Sing Me Back Home tells the story of a prisoner being led to his execution who asks for his “guitar playing friend” to sing him back home with a familiar song. I hadn’t heard music like that before, and between the message and that Bakersfield sound, I couldn’t stop listening.
In an NPR interview, Merle said, “I don’t like music that has no message of any kind,” and that showed with every lyric he penned.
I kept listening to “the Hag” over the years, and in the early 2000s, when I briefly lived in Fort Worth, TX, I got a chance to see him play at Billy Bob’s Texas Honkey Tonk. I was expecting to see a bluejeans/cowboy hat-wearing country singer. Instead, he strolled out on stage wearing a black suit and fedora. Besides his attire, the main thing I remember from that concert was me grinning through almost the entire show. Sure, I wasn’t raised on Merle Haggard, but I knew a legend when I saw one.