Merle Haggard Captured America’s Spirit with Grit and Integrity

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I met Merle Haggard in 2008. He had just written a song about Hillary Clinton and wanted to sing it for me. So I went up to his home, in view of Mount Shasta, in northern California, and we spent the day together. The song was not one of his best, but he was a big Hillary fan; his other political business that day was to lobby passionately for the legalization of marijuana. He did not deny the legend that he wrote the words “We Don’t Smoke Marijuana in Muskogee” while stoned.

It was a good day. He talked a lot about Johnny Cash, who had inspired him to write true songs about his life. I introduced him to the music of Amy Winehouse, especially “Rehab,” which inspired him to tell me about his cocaine addiction, which–he said–he quit by going cold turkey on his boat.

A few years later, in 2010, the folks at the Kennedy Center honors contacted me. They were honoring Merle, needed a tribute written for the program, and Merle had suggested that either Dolly Parton or Joe Klein write it. They wanted Dolly to sing at the celebration; they asked me to write.

Here it is:

You’re driving through the southern Illinois cornfields, shuffling your iPod—as I was, a few months ago—and that voice comes on, pure and effortless as a mountain stream, and your first reaction is a satisfied, goin’-home exhale even before your brain registers that it’s Merle. The lyrics aren’t fancy, just brilliant simple, slicing right down to the truth; the guitar is gritty, deep and driving. But…wait a minute. What on earth? Those lyrics: this is not your regulation country music song. It’s about a white man in love with a black woman:

If my lovin’ Irma Jackson is a sin

Then I don’t understand this crazy world we’re livin’ in

This is Irma Jackson, written in the late 1960’s, at the height of the civil rights movement, the same vintage as Okie from Muskogee, but not released until years later because they wouldn’t let him. This is, in fact, a peak Merle Haggard listening experience: down-home but dangerous, smooth as silk but lacerating, filled with love and longing, manliness and despair. He’s pushing the envelope, as he so often does, without even trying.

Was there ever a country music singer with a better name, with a more perfect voice? Certainly, he’s ballpark in both categories with his old friend, Johnny Cash. Both are giants, but there’s a significant difference between the two: Johnny sang in prisons; Merle lived in them.

He was born Merle Ronald Haggard in Bakersfield, California, in 1937, the son of a railroad worker who migrated from Oklahoma (and I’m wondering if Woody Guthrie, riding hobo in the central valley during those dust bowl years, ever wandered through the Bakersfield yard and jammed with the guitar- and fiddle-playing James Francis Haggard). The Haggards lived in a converted box car, in the Oildale neighborhood, which was about as glamorous as it sounds. His father died when Merle was nine. He was raised by his mother, Flossie Mae Harp, who became immortal when Merle wrote:

And I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole

No one could steer me right, but mama tried, mama tried

He really did turn 21 in prison, but he was “only” doing four years for armed robbery. It was his fifth stretch in jail; the first came when he was 13, caught shoplifting from a ladies’ lingerie store. I once asked Merle why he kept getting into trouble as a kid and he said, “I was interested in life, very inquisitive. I didn’t like to be restrained.”

It was only after he experienced the ultimate restraint–doing time in solitary at San Quentin, busted for running a gambling and drugs operation from his cell—that Merle decided crime just wasn’t going to be a growth industry for him. He knew he could sing; and he was learning that he could write. He chose to write about the things he knew best—love and pain and pride and dreams. “Almost all my songs are about my family,” he told me.

And, over the course of 40 or so years, we’ve gotten to know the Haggard family pretty well. We know that mama tried. We know there weren’t any family legends about Grandma Harp, but for seventy years she loved—a memorable little pause here…grandpa. We know that being called an “Okie” was something like an ethnic slur back when Merle’s dad worked the railroads and that the old man wasn’t shy about throwing his fists when someone slurred him. He was proud to be an Okie, even though he wasn’t from Muskogee—and Merle wrote that song, his most famous, in about 30 minutes while riding through Oklahoma on tour. He has given various explanations for why he wrote it, depending on whom he was talking to; my favorite is that he was celebrating his father’s voice and sensibility, but Merle may have just been goofing around between tokes.

Country music is an American hybrid, a mixture of folk ballads and bluegrass, sprinkled with jazz, polka and waltz, big band charts, and also– ridiculously, but triumphantly—Hawaiian pedal steel guitar and Swiss yodeling. Think about that for a moment. Given the transcendent weirdness of all these elements, it was inevitable that people would try to tame the sound, get control of things, when the big money started rolling in during the 1950s. Others, like Merle, rebelled against that with a roiling, electric sound and a relentless search for the hard truth of life as our people live it. As the Dixie Chicks later sang about the soulless songs emanating from the industrial product-line on Music Row, “they sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard.”

It is, I suppose, ironic that the kid who couldn’t stand restraints became the musician whose art celebrated no-frills country classicism. His style was not adventurous; it was a return to the music’s spiritual, gut-bucket roots. He was all about the epiphanies you can create when you refuse to sling bull—taking the things we all know, suffer and laugh through, explaining them in a way that makes everyone from a night-shift waitress to a nuclear physicist think: oh, absolutely, you got that one right, Merle. There are places he won’t go: there’s longing, to be sure, but no whining. There’s pride, but no bragging. There’s toughness, but no brutality. There have been more than 70 albums, 38 number one hits. The integrity of it all is simply stunning. If Merle is singing it, you know it’s true.

And so you’re driving through the Tehachapi Pass, just north of Bakersfield, literally a baking field this dry kiln afternoon—as I was, a few months ago—dipping down into the San Joaquin valley, blinded by the setting sun, and that voice comes on again. An older Merle this time, a man who has loved and won:

That’s the way love goes, babe

That’s the music God made

For all the world to sing

It’s never old; it grows.

That’s Merle’s art, too. Timeless; it grows—especially on a lonesome highway, when it makes you feel fine and easy, like you’re heading somewhere important, somewhere deep into your life.

Correction, October 22

The original version of this story misstated the name of a county in California. It is San Joaquin Valley, not San Joachim Valley.

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