Music by VICE

Merle Haggard and My Dad and Me

The world has lost one of its most iconic voices and songwriters, and all we've got to soothe the pain are the man's own recordings. And his ghost.

by Kim Kelly
Apr 7 2016, 3:27pm

Yesterday, right after the news about Merle Haggard’s death was confirmed, I picked up my phone and sent my dad a sad text about it. Dad’s response came immediately: “That’s a shame, the end of a legend. He’s the end of an era.”

He was right, of course—the world has lost one of its most iconic voices and songwriters, and all we’ve got to soothe the pain are the man’s own recordings. And his ghost.

Merle Haggard was born in a boxcar in 1937, grew up on the plaintive strains of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, and—when he wasn’t busy getting arrested for hopping trains and shoplifting—occupied himself by eking out the first stirrings of what would become his signature sound. A stint in the infamous San Quentin prison straightened him out (seeing Johnny Cash dazzle his fellow prisoners in 1958 can’t have hurt) and Haggard’s career launched in earnest, bolstered by his real-life outlaw cred and a voice that wouldn’t quit. His deep, soulful croon and hard-edged twang went on to grace 38 chart-topping hits and many, many albums (including a few Grammy winners), and while the Bakersfield sound send shockwaves through the country music industry when it first debuted, that innovative sonic stew of gritty country, shit-kicking honky-tonk, soulful jazz, and heartfelt blues he stirred up with his Fender Telecaster has yet to be precisely replicated. Merle was one of a kind—an outlaw, a poet, a giant.

Talking to my dad about Haggard used to be as comfortable as stepping into a well-worn pair of work boots. Like Hank Jr. and David Allan Coe, The Hag wrote the kind of songs my dad likes best—sly, honest, take-no-shit anthems for the working man, written by bonafide outlaws who thought what they thought and didn’t care how anyone else felt about it. Songs about the bar, the highway, hard work, and home—those were Merle’s calling cards, and those are the things that mattered most to the man who raised me, things he passed down to me through actions, if not words. He left the talking to the radio in his dusty gray pickup truck, and to the rickety stereo in the kitchen, and once, to the Delia’s gift card he gave me for my birthday, where, out of greeting options like “Happy birthday!” and “Hello, beautiful!” he’d pointedly ticked the box that read, “Don’t forget where you came from.”

When it comes to Haggard, everyone knows “Okie from Muskogee,” “Mama Tried,” and his patriotic rallying cry, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” but that the song that always hits me hardest is “Workin’ Man Blues,” because like so many of his best songs, it comes armed with an immediate hit of recognition. “I been a workin' man dang near all my life / I'll be working long as my two hands are fit to use / I'll drink my beer in a tavern, sing a little bit of these working man blues,” he crooned back in ‘69, pouring one out for the American blue collar workers who bought his records and packed his shows—the ones who went to work in the factories, the ones who went to Vietnam, and the ones who stayed behind. He understood their pain, and their frustration, and their worries; he spoke their language, and he made them feel appreciated in the midst of a rapidly changing society that told them they weren’t.

Decades later, even as smooth-skinned bourgeois like Trump and Clinton reduce them to caricatures and tussle over their votes like soup bones, those men are still here, and they’re still listening. They’re the men who raised me, and the ones I see every year at Christmas. My best friend’s dad works in finance; kids I knew in college had fathers who worked as doctors, prosecutors, accountants. I have a friend now whose dad is running for governor. But my dad’s been a construction worker since he was 18 years old, and he’s taught me a lot about what it really means to be working class—and what he didn’t say, he showed me every time he put on a Merle Haggard record. Hard work, honest living, ramblin’ fever, and not letting the bastards get you down were the gospel he preached on songs like “Hungry Eyes,” "Big City," and “Green, Green Grass of Home,” but he also made it clear that it was just fine to raise a little hell. My mama tried, too, but Dad and I are both still wild.

Haggard was a principled man, even when those principles were unpopular. The uproar over the seemingly anti-hippie “Okie from Muskogee” has faded into memory now, but when it was first released during the middle of the Vietnam era, it was hugely controversial. Unfazed, Haggard doubled down on his message of staunch patriotism with “Fightin’ Side of Me,” and whenever that song came on, it underlined the message that, if you truly believe in something, you should stick to your guns and not back down. It also shows that it’s alright to admit that you were wrong; in interviews, Haggard sometimes expressed regret for writing “Okie,” because he hated being pigeonholed as a “political” artist; as he said in 1981, the song “made me appear to be a person who was a lot more narrow-minded, possibly, than I really am,” and it clearly bothered him. Nine years later, he said, “It made people forget that I might be a much more musical artist than they give me credit for,” and he went on to wrestle with the true meaning of those lyrics about draft cards and Old Glory for the rest of his life.

Dad and I are more alike than you’d think from looking at us, even though he’s usually sporting camo and I prefer black leather. Our matching eyes, sandy hair, and the way my accent drops into a burr when I’m back home shooting the shit with him mark us as kin, but there’s a lot about my life that my dad doesn’t understand, and a lot about his that I’ll never know; he doesn’t talk much, and when he does, there’s not a lot of soul-searching going on. The Hag and others like him formed the connective tissue that bound us together, even after I left home, went to college, moved to Europe, and then moved to New York City with a British boyfriend in tow. He’s still back home in rural New Jersey, working construction by day and posting up at the gun club at night; on the weekends, he goes hunting, fishing, or shooting with my uncles and cousins, or disappears into the woods for hours on end while I tool around Brooklyn or hop between metal festivals in countries he will never get around to visiting. One thing we’ve always agreed on, though, is that outlaw country is the best country, and Merle Haggard is one of the greats.

Even as I got a little older, a little taller, and sank deeper into my obsession with heavy metal, I could never quite shake the urge to sing along whenever Dad threw on a Charlie Daniels jam or “Country Boy Can Survive”—I still can’t, and the older I get, the more these old songs mean to me. They sound like home. They talk about the kind of people I grew up with, that raised me, fed me, hauled me around to soccer practice, eyeballed the tattooed boys I brought home, and whupped my ass once in awhile when I got lippy. Neither of us have ever gotten the chance to see Haggard play, and the thought that we’ve missed our shot altogether makes my heart ache.

Country singers like Waylon, Willie, Hank, and especially Merle spoke to the people who will ultimately decide this coming presidential election: the working class, the people who are broke and frustrated and live well outside the metropolitan media hotspots that dictate the national conversation—either because they want to, or because they have to, because running off to the big city isn’t a choice that everyone gets to make. Merle understood that, and that’s why we loved him so damn much. He made it OK to stay home and take care of your own, and OK to hit the road and ramble, too. He left the choice up to us, and never stopped listening.

Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; follow her on Twitter.

Country music
personal essay
Merle Haggard