As you surely know by now, Merle Haggard passed away this past Wednesday. I will make no attempt to present any sort of list of his greatest work here; even before his death brought out the obligatory tributes, one could find any number of websites offering far more comprehensive lists than anything I might be inclined to offer. Suffice it to say that, over the years, I have come to appreciate the man and his music.
It was not always this way, though.
Growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, the local AM country station provided a constant soundtrack to our home life. And this was when Merle was at his most omnipresent. At first, he was just another singer with a whole lot of airplay at a time when I desperately was looking to expand my musical horizons beyond my parents’ music. Come 1969, though, he became something else in my eyes – and these eyes came to view him in something much less than a favorable light.
Even if you were never a country music fan…even if you have never heard the song so much as once…if you are of a certain age, you have undoubtedly heard of “Okie From Muskogee”. With lines like “We like livin’ right and bein’ free” contrasting with “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy like the hippies out in San Francisco do”, the song pulled no punches in its attempt to contrast “Us” with …“them”. This was a song that resonated very differently with listeners, depending on what side of the generational divide one might be on. And, in that era – with young men being drafted and sent off to fight a war that made no sense to many of them; with college students taking to the streets and saying “enough is enough”, rejecting the status quo embraced by so many of their parents – that “generation gap”, as it was constantly referred to back then, was quite wide and deep, indeed. There were those who mocked the song for its unabashedly old-school attitude, and there were those who embraced it for those same values.
And, although I do not recall my father ever coming out and saying it in so many words, there is no doubt in my mind as to where he stood in matters of the song, its message and its messenger, and the lifestyle that the song espoused. Dad was very much old-school in his world view and his attitudes…the stereotypical lunch-bucket factory worker, busting his butt to make ends meet but insisting that Mom had a responsibility to stay at home and raise the kids rather than going out and finding a job to help make ends meet. It was a matter of pride on his part…the sort of pride ironically born of humility, a total lack of pretense masking a fierce insistence on doing things the right way, not for any sort of recognition whatsoever, but rather solely for the sake of doing the right thing.
At the same time, Dad’s oldest child was closing in on thirteen when “Okie” was released. For any number of reasons, my relationship with my father had already become quite complex, even before adolescence and its effects on the parent-child dynamic had begun to take hold. The world in 1969 was becoming a far cry from the mid-1950s world that Dad espoused and lived. And, however pure his intentions, these attitudes as applied to his children caused difficulties far beyond the normal conflicts associated with that point in a child’s growth. In our family, dissent – hell, even open expression of independent thought – was dealt with very harshly in those days. The result was a very silent rebellion against oppressions both real and perceived, against the societal attitudes that were forced upon me and upon my life.
And, make no mistake about it, “Okie From Muskogee” – and, by extension, the man who wrote and sang it – came to symbolize to me an attitude of contempt toward those who marched to a different drummer than did their parents. That he followed “Okie” up with “The Fightin’ Side Of Me” – an in-your-face tune that said, in so many words, “if you don’t love it, leave it” to those who were protesting the war in Vietnam – very much cemented my opinion of him. I will admit to feeling no small amount of glee every time I heard Pure Prairie League’s mock-tribute “I’ll Fix Your Flat Tire, Merle”, or his being name-checked when Jerry Jeff Walker spelled out “M-O-T-H-E-R” in “Up Against The Wall, Redneck”.
But, then, something happened. Slowly but surely, I grew up. And the things I learned after I knew it all had an effect on me in many ways – including my attitudes toward those with whom I had not seen eye-to-eye over the years. It was not an all-at-once thing – you do not necessarily need a smack upside the head to open your eyes; rather, there were moments of conversation over the years that randomly occurred that shed things in a different light. There was the late-night chat with Dad regarding a neighboring couple who frequented the restaurant where I worked. When I commented how they were two of the nicest people I had ever met, he observed as to how that didn’t seem to help much in how their kid turned out…with a clear between-the-lines implication as to why he had been so hard on me for all those years, and an equally clear implication that he seemed satisfied with the results of his approach. There was a conversation with Mom where she revealed that at one point our family had qualified for assistance – something that Dad would not hear of for so much as a moment. There was the time when Dad and I were discussing our respective coin collections, and he lamented how he had to sell one of his prized coins as a way to help keep the family afloat when he found himself out of work due to a strike with no temporary jobs out there to tide him over.
And, over time, Merle Haggard’s songbook revealed itself to me in a different light as well. If the lyrics of “Okie From Muskogee” painted a portrait of a quaintly dated utopia, it also conveyed a pride in staying true to one’s values. I came to realize that songs like “Workin’ Man Blues” (with its declaration “I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be”) and “If We Make It Through December” might well have hit Dad closer to home than I had ever realized. And then there was “The Way I Am” – one of Haggard’s later songs, where he sings of a person whose dreams have been pushed aside by the realities of life:
“Wish I enjoyed what makes my living
Did what I do with a willin’ hand
Some would run, but that ain’t like me
So I just dream and keep on bein’ the way I am”
Dad’s story, indeed.
It might be just as well, though, that “It’s All Going To Pot” – Merle’s duet from last year with Willie Nelson, along with its accompanying video showing the two enjoying a well-known controlled substance – did not come out until several years after Dad’s passing. On the one hand, maybe – just maybe – seeing Merle partaking of a doobie might have convinced Dad that not all illegal drugs are created equal. On the other hand, I am sure that he would have felt something of a sense of betrayal from a man who once proclaimed “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”. Dad was very much one who believed that a man was as good as his word. Whether Merle might have been singing “Okie” with tongue firmly planted in cheek, whether he might have been guilty of pandering, or whether there was another dynamic in play…whatever it was, the likelihood that Merle was probably quite familiar with pot at the same time he did the song would not have sat very well with a person who frequently tended to see life in black-and-white absolutes.
No matter, though. As we all go through life, things change, things evolve. My relationship with Dad was nowhere near the same at thirty that it was at thirteen, and that is a very good thing. And I could probably say the same thing about Merle Haggard. It goes without saying, of course, that I miss my Dad very much. And – although it will not be at the same level, nor should it – I think I am going to miss Merle, too…much more than I ever expected back in 1969.
Which, again, is a good thing.