Merle Haggard’s baritone. I mean, c’monnnnn.
It’s smooth. It’s strong. It’s unmistakeable.
Yes, I’m talking about his voice in present tense even though he died today.
That’s the beauty of artists, of people who create. Their physical presence is missed by their family, those who love them most. But because they are artists, writers, musicians who have living, breathing documentation of their life — their talents and connection to people are preserved for all time.
Artists are timeless beyond the grave.
It’s why, years later, we actually can feel the love between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and learn lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder and weep at photographs of the Dust Bowl or little John-John saluting his father’s casket.
But music as an art form is the highest to me. It puts a melody to words, feelings and images. It speaks. It binds. It heals. It has staying power.
The Hag may have died today, but through his music, he stays.
If I ever find a place… I wanna be
I think I’ll stay
I think I’ll stay
The Hag was an Okie. A real one, not just in song. In case you have been living under a rock since 1969, more specifically, his parents migrated to California in the Depression, true Okies from Muskogee County, a little spot down I-40 that still seems to have a penchant for producing country music talent.
“Okie from Muskogee” was a piece of music that gets the political conversation flowing. It did in 1969 and it does in 2016. Good writing does that. Bluesy, “it’s-so-country-wild-mustangs-come-running-at the-first-note” lyrics do that, too. Having Jerry Reed on guitar on the studio version doesn’t hurt any either.
And when the Beach Boys and Grateful Dead both cover your most famous song, which happens to be an antiwar anthem, it’s pretty evident you knew what you were doing as an artist.
The thing about Merle is his best work wasn’t even his most popular work. The cult classics are the songs only those who bought his albums know — the crowd that adored him for keeping Bob Wills’ music a foundation for country musicians to build upon just as much as they adored him for his uniqueness and the Bakersfield Sound. The cuts that received little radio play for whatever reason, that’s where you find the spirit of Bob Wills, deep within the soft-hearted outlaw.
In 1994, Merle re-recorded his hit “Ramblin Fever,” originally released in 1977 (the year I was born).
In 1994, I was a newly licensed teenager driving the Oklahoma roads in Daddy’s old ’79 Chevy truck. I didn’t even know Merle had a new album that year — aptly titled 1994 — because the truck only had AM radio. I’d listen to Oklahoma State baseball games, the farm report and classics from the Texas Playboys, Hank Sr. and ’70s Merle and Waylon.
I could tell you all about wheat and beef prices and which tractor dealers were having weekend sales and rake you over the coals on Roy Clark and Red Steagall trivia. But new music? I wasn’t aware for a few years.
During that time in my life, Merle’s classic words spoke to me, a teenager in the ’90s. In a way, I was somewhat of an outlaw myself in that regard. Don’t get me wrong, I loved (still do) Van Halen, et al. But while my friends were standing in line together for Soundgarden tickets, I was taking solo drives on dirt roads while Merle’s storytelling made my heart sway.
Good writing does that. Bluesy, “it’s so-country-wild-mustangs-come-running-at-the-first-note” lyrics do that, too. Art is life.
“Sing Me Back Home” starts out with a verse about a prisoner on death row, but when I heard it at 17, the day they played a marathon of The Hag’s songs on KVOO, it reminded me of when I was baptized. To this day, I associate it with that personal milestone of my faith.
I remember one time when I did something I wasn’t supposed to, “Mama Tried” came on the radio shortly afterward. To a scaredy-cat teenager who had a pretty guilty conscience, I thought it was a sign. An omen. So I undid what could have gotten me grounded. Things like that you don’t forget because they have a slight comedy factor.
“A Place to Fall Apart” was my soundtrack for boys. Maybe it still is.
When I was living in the third largest city in the nation after college, I quite literally sat in my bedroom and listened to “Big City” on a loop. My sense of adventure and curiosity had waned and I wanted nothing more than to be back home on the prairie in a two-stoplight town. I thought of it day and night. I’d change up the lyrics and sing…
I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today
Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in Cleveland, Oklahoma
Over and over and over again, I’d croon to the beat.
As a woman in her late 30s now, I hear Merle’s “Love Will Find You,” and it is kind of a pep talk. Because, well, you know, I do sorta hide myself away. Because I’m happy. And, well, you know, heartbreak is stupid and I’d rather, well, you know, just avoid it and depend on myself. It’s so much easier.
But Merle, oh Merle. He was on to something, you know?
You can’t hide yourself away from the problems of today
You can’t hide yourself at night, just turn off the bedroom light
And you can’t try to hide your feelings
They’ll be heavy on your mind
You can’t hide yourself from love
‘Cause love will come and find you every time
And if you’re fighting with love you have no way to win
You might as well go on, give on in
And through the years, I’ve come to know
Love commands and love is never blind
You can’t hide yourself from love
Love will come and find you every time
Music will find you, too.
The value of music is more than any one person could express properly in words.
But Merle’s words — with his ornery chuckle mid-lyrics, waiting for the fiddle to saw — kinda say it all.
He may be gone, but guess what?
Music, that’s what.
I think the Okie From Muskogee will stay.
The mascot for the common man was anything but common. Legends never really die. And neither do the bookends of life we know as outlaws and artists.
You know, I could say goodbye and leave today
But I think I’ll stay
I think, I think I’ll stay
Merle Haggard live in Virginia, 1984
“I Think I’ll Stay”
My “Oklahoma Legacies” series is dedicated to chronicling life in my great home state, because ol’ No. 46 makes my heart beat pretty steady and strong. Every person and every place has a story — past and present. These are Oklahoma’s. Click here to see all the posts in my #OKlegacies series.