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: