I’m not quite sure who dubbed Merle Haggard as “the Poet of the Common Man,” but he was right.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born April 6, 1937, in California to parents who migrated west from Oklahoma during the Great Depression. He died last week on his birthday at the age of 79.
As they would say down at the car lot, a lot of miles was on that truck. Haggard lived a relatively long life, but it was not just from a hardscrabble upbringing, but a hardscrabble existence.
I met and spent a short time with Haggard in 1996. He was heading to a concert in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when Hurricane Fran decided to show up at the same time. His road manager called and asked if he could come a couple of days early to Hiawassee for a concert at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds. I gladly obliged.
Haggard asked if we had any fishing tackle and if we could get him a license. I went to town and accomplished both. I sat with him for a little while on the banks of Lake Chatuge. I don’t remember much about the fishing or the conversation, but I enjoyed the time.
Haggard was not just a singer but a songwriter. When he wrote or sang about prison, mama or getting drunk, he spoke with a perspective like no other. He went to prison, he got drunk a lot and I’m sure he disappointed his mama along the way.
In the era of President Richard Nixon and the highly protested war in Vietnam, Haggard wrote “Okie from Muscogee.” The song was an alternative to many of the anti-war anthems of the times.
“Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear,” Haggard wrote. “Beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen. Football’s still the roughest thing on campus and the kids there still respect the college dean.”
It was a little bit far-fetched, but a needed tonic at the time.
He also wrote of being out of love. Songs such as “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “If We Make It Through December” from the pen of man who had clearly been there.
I think my favorite Haggard song was “Mama Tried,” a song written from the perspective of a young man in prison. It earned him two Grammys and an induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole. No one could steer me right but Mama tried,” Haggard wrote.
Haggard spent three years in California’s San Quentin Prison where he was inspired by a concert in 1958 by Johnny Cash. The men later became friends and had an admiration for each other.
Haggard was much married, although his final trip down the aisle lasted 25 years. He struggled with problems including drugs and alcohol. And he lost the ownership to many of his valuable songs in a skirmish with the IRS.
Haggard was an architect of the Bakersfield sound that produced a number of artists including the late Buck Owens. For a brief time, Haggard was a member of Owens’ backup band and is credited with giving them their name, The Buckaroos.
He died April 6, which ironically was his 79th birthday. He had cancelled several dates on a concert tour with Willie Nelson citing a battle with pneumonia.
I was hoping to hear him at Chastain Park in Atlanta this summer, but now my memories will be only those in his recordings.
Fortunately for us, the Poet of the Common Man left us much to enjoy.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.