If you're not a fan of watching legends fall, it's been a tough couple of weeks. First, the great novelist, poet, fisherman, and gourmand Jim Harrison (he who wrote Legends of the Fall) cacked in his writing chair. And now comes word that Merle Haggard, "the poet of the common man," after suffering a bout of pneumonia, died at home, though on his parked tour bus. A fitting end for a man who wrote more good road songs than just about anyone. (From "Ramblin' Fever": My hat don't hang on the same nail too long / My ears can't stand to hear the same old song.) They say God takes greats in threes, but The Scrapbook suspects this quota has already been filled; the Hag counts as at least two greats all by his lonesome.
It's not because of his 38 number-one hits, from his antihippie anthem "Okie from Muskogee" to his lament of a death-row inmate he served time with, "Sing Me Back Home." (While Johnny Cash sang at San Quentin, a young and desperate Haggard actually did time there on burglary charges.) It's not because of his Kennedy Center Honor, or his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, or because he helped invent the Bakersfield sound, the hardscrabble, steel-guitar and fiddle-laced Western-swinging honky-tonk soundtrack brought to us by the descendants of Steinbeck's Okies, raw-boned folks who'd pushed west to hold out hope against what life had offered them. (Haggard's father, a Santa Fe Railway man who died when Haggard was nine, housed his family in a converted railroad car.)
It's because whenever Haggard sang a tune, he threw his arm around you, taking you into his confidence. He let you know that whatever you were facing—divorce or aging or too much drinking or prison stints or the dimming of creative fires or reconciliation with your Creator—these were all things he had faced down in real life and in song. His songs came already lived-in. If the five-times-married former lush sang you a drinking song, for instance, it wasn't Carrie Underwood sneaking sips of hard lemonade between awards shows. The man had lived his gig. He knew of what he spoke.
While obituarists have labored overtime to explain Haggard's appeal to everyone from old-country stalwarts to the Brooklyn neckbeards who seek to appropriate him for cool points, nobody explained his formula better than Haggard once did himself: "I'll tell you what the public likes more than anything else, it's the most rare commodity in the world—honesty."
One of our favorite drinking songs is Haggard's "The Bottle Let Me Down." Which, of course, is about much more than drinking. It's about lost love and disappointment and betrayal and denial. The uncomfortable stuff of life. Whatever your ailment, Merle understood. He sang about these things beautifully and intimately. The bottle might have let him down, but he was incapable of doing the same to us.