Merle Haggard, Rest in Peace

It’s been a long time since I cried about an entertainer’s death. Steve Goodman passed in September 1984, just before the Cubs clinched the National League East. I cried bitter tears for that sad irony. And I expect I cried when Harry Chapin died. I still miss Harry.

But yesterday was different. Learning about Merle Haggard’s death was more personal. Merle has been a part of my life for around thirty years.

At 79, a lung cancer survivor, Merle Haggard succumbed to double pneumonia. He was ill and frail, and he couldn’t hold out for another tour.

The first time I even heard of Merle Haggard, Jim and I saw him in concert. It was the late 1980s, and he was on a concert bill with three other big-name acts. Honestly I can’t remember which one we bought tickets for. Merle is all I can remember. Merle Haggard and the Strangers. The ensemble work of their music, the fun they seemed to have, his smooth voice, all left me a fan.

In 1988 he was performing near us. I desperately wanted to get tickets but couldn’t figure out how to make it work out. You see, his performance date was on my due date for delivering my baby. We skipped that concert, and the baby was born a couple of days later.

In 1991 he substituted for Reba McEntire after her band was killed in a plane crash. Jim and I went to that performance but were pretty disappointed. He seemed to be quite drunk and it wasn’t a good show.

But we had one more chance to see him recently. Three years ago he performed a few miles from us. The concert was not very spontaneous, but at 76, the old guy could still sing and make the fans happy, including us.

I’ve never been the kind of fan, of his or anyone’s, to follow all the news reports or learn the full biography, or to follow performances around the country. I couldn’t have bought all of Merle’s albums if I tried (though I have at least eight.) With more than 40 albums and 38 number one hits, stretching across decades, Merle was prolific. He toured even more than he recorded, spending much of his life on a bus.

When I read the news yesterday, I cried a little, and cried some more, and found my eyes leaking a few more times during the day. And as I listen to his music in the future, likely there will be more tears. But in truth I will have lost very little of Merle Haggard, as my relationship with him was through his recordings. As long as I can still listen, I’ll still have him in my life.

I can’t pick a favorite song, but there are a few that are especially meaningful to me. Here is just one:

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13 thoughts on “Merle Haggard, Rest in Peace

  1. Jim Wheeler

    I can’t say I was a particular fan of Merle Haggard but his passing gave me a bit of a jolt anyway. He was an icon that’s part of my past in more ways than one. I was born in the same year as he, and both my parents were born in Oklahoma. The Great Depression left its generational marks on my family as on his, and that, perhaps, resonates more than any other factor. (I did not go to prison.) The passing of celebrities I’ve know are like milestones, flashing briefly in the headlights and disappearing in the gathering dusk.

    Nice tribute, Melanie.

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  2. shoreacres

    I enjoyed his music, too. He played in Houston last April. As a matter of fact, the concert was scheduled for April 1, and many thought it was an April Fool’s joke that he was coming. A friend and I tried to get tickets, but he was playing a smaller venue, and we dallied too long.

    I like the song you chose. But my favorite still is the Willie and Merle duo. I suppose this is my favorite video of them, and now I’m tearing up a bit. When Willie leaves us, I’ll probably make pilgrimage to Luckenbach. Or something.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      The whole Pancho and Lefty album is one of the greatest ever written/performed. Maybe that’s my play for tomorrow. 🙂 Today I listened to That’s The Way Love Goes. Lots of great ones there, too, but the combo with Willie was really special.

      I’m sorry you didn’t get tickets. That would have been a treat. Thanks.

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  3. Jim Ruebush

    I enjoyed a couple of TV shows that gave a look into the more personal side of him. I always felt he was an astute observer of people and human nature. He was an excellent writer of lyrics. To top all that off, he could deliver with his voice. He had a voice I will always like.

    Thanks for the nice post about him. We’ve had fun with several of his songs as we joked around.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      You know if I wrote what I really feel, it wouldn’t look quite like this. There are too many tiny stories and memories from the last 30 years, and especially those years Son was old enough to notice and join in. xoxoxo

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  4. KerryCan

    I wasn’t a big follower of Haggard’s (although I do love “Mama Tried”) but I can relate to how you felt at hearing of his death because I think it’s just how I felt when I heard Pete Seeger had died. To know that that voice was gone from the world . . . But, as you say, we are lucky to still be able to hear recordings of these voices and be moved by them.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      The voice is not just the audible one but also the poetry. When you look at my first paragraph and I note Harry Chapin and Steve Goodman, I’m talking about two of the best songwriters of the century. Their ability to tell stories is hard to match. The same is true for Seeger and Haggard. We can see ourselves in their words.

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  5. Mrs. P

    What you said about always remembering Merle through his music aligns with a thought I have always had in terms of what I do with blogging, children’s books and paintings. When I die, I don’t want people to be sad, I’d prefer to share some of the joy I had in life through my creativity. My grandmother did that…she left her paintings and I always had pleasurable moments looking at her life through her art.

    Hopefully, in the long run, Merle will be remembered, not by his mistakes but by his music…the thing that really helped him turn his life around.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I agree with the thought. I think sometimes it’s better to remember people with a less objective eye, not fully discarding what we know about their failures, but choosing to focus on their successes. Thanks for the thought.

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