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An Okie from Muskogee: The Faith of Merle Haggard

In this June 28, 2015 file photo, singer-songwriter Merle Haggard performs at the 2015 Big Barrel Country Music Festival in Dover, Del. Haggard died of pneumonia, Wednesday, April 6, 2016, in Palo Cedro, Calif. He was 79. (Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP, File)He died on his birthday, which sounds like a song he would write. Merle Haggard passed away Wednesday of complications from pneumonia at his home in Northern California. He was 79. With a career that spanned six decades, the Okie from Muskogee sang straightforward country songs that were deceptively subversive.  

Born near Bakersfield, California in 1937, Merle grew up with a father who worked as a carpenter for a railroad company. The family lived in an old boxcar that his father converted into a home. At the age of nine, his father passed away. His sudden and tragic departure caused a young Merle to run away from home.

This began a series of run-ins with the law, with Merle bouncing in and out of juvenile detention and later the infamous San Quentin State Prison. But this wasn't any fault of his mother. Because, Mama tried, which Merle chronicled in his classic "Mama Tried."

I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole.
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried.
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied.
That leaves only me to blame 'cause Mama tried.

Interviewed by Salon later on, Merle said, "Going to prison has one of a few effects. . . It can make you worse, or it can make you understand and appreciate freedom. I learned to appreciate freedom when I didn't have any." It would be in prison that a young and troubled Haggard would hear Johnny Cash play, which led to him to join the prison band and contemplate a future in music.

Little did he know how bright and different that future would be.

He brought to prison some skill on the guitar, but while he was in prison one might say he came to understand and embrace the freedom to play the guitar the way he wanted to. Prison can be an isolating and lonely place, but the course of his career would prove that he did his best work on the outskirts.

Nashville country music at the time was smooth. Artists like Patsy Cline, Hank Thompson, and Hank Williams were like audible pieces of butter smeared on the toast of listeners' hearts.

Merle was not. He was twangy with a pointed and hard style that left you wanting more. Instead of butter, he was more like a cheese. You wanted more of him but knew there was something more going on than the straightforward lyrics let on.  

Take his song "Mama Tried." In his uncanny and characteristic fashion, Merle was upholding and honoring traditional values in the song, despite the fact that he was not living up to them. He was simple yet complex. He was straightforward, yet subversive.

Listen to "The Bottle Let Me Down." The guitar hits you at the beginning with strength, only to be followed up by equally witty and strong lyrics. "Tonight your memory found me much too sober. . . The one true friend I thought I'd found—tonight the bottle let me down." But towards the end, in his characteristic "do as I say and not as I do," he sings: "I've always had a bottle I could turn to, and lately I've been turning every day."

Or consider the genius of his "Working Man Blues." Merle gives voice to the toils and diligence of the working man. Willing to go anywhere, do anything, in order to provide for his family—except one place. In the final lyrics, Haggard sings:

"Well, hey, hey, the working man, the working man like me
He's never been on welfare and that's one place he will not be."

Many saw Merle as the voice of the conservative, but in true Haggard fashion, he also gave a nuanced and subversive voice to the anti-war movement. In "Fighting Side of Me," we hear both sides.

"I don't mind 'em switching sides, and standing up for things they believe in."

Though he upheld their ability to exercise their rights, he also warned about the extent of exercising those costly rights.

"When they're running down my country, man, they're walking on the fightin' side of me."

Merle Haggard was easy to enjoy but hard to define. He was married five times, and his second wife was a bridesmaid to his third. With more than three dozen number one country hits, Merle gave voice to the voiceless and gave a reason for "even the squares to have a ball." Complexity characterized his life and music, but when it came to his outlook on life and God, Merle had a simple response.

Speaking to CNN, Merle said:

I am smart enough to know that I have been gifted and have had a better than average shot at everything. I have been blessed many times. I walk a blessed man's path. I believe in the heavenly Father, and if he is not there, then there is somebody disguising himself and answering my prayers. I am a deeply religious man, and I believe that if you give it half a shot, that he will help you. And he certainly has me.

Over the coming days, many will try to brand the "branded man." But maybe instead of trying to explain him, the best thing we can do is learn from him. In life, mistakes are inevitable and failure is certain, but with God, second chances are unlimited.

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