Merle Haggard, Requiescat in Pace by Robert Reavis
This tribute was penned by our Okie friend Robert Reavis, who frequently comments on this site.
Country singer, song writer, and middle American poet, Merle Haggard, died at his home in California this past Wednesday at age 79. To paraphrase one of his acquaintances, the blind poet Ronnie Millsap,“ his life was almost like a song but not too sad to write.”
In many ways Merle Haggard was an old Ghost Rider in the Sky who had roots in Oklahoma that dried up with the dust bowl that sent his mother and father to California, where Merle was born. To be exact it was Bakersfield, California on April 6th, 1937, where he was raised in a $500.00 boxcar the old man had converted into a home. At nine years of age the “old cowpoke”, his father,
“ went ridin out one dark and windy day,
where upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way.
When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows Merle saw,
plowin through the ragged skies and up a cloudy draw.”
Yes, at age nine he had lost his father and by age eleven his mother had lost him, in the sense of any influence over him whatsoever. She had to turn him into the authorities with whom he spent his teens in and out of trouble. Haggard later remembered being locked up at least a dozen times for every dishonest and delinquent offense you could imagine, from robbery to car theft. And like many young bulls without an older bull around, “ his brand was still on fire and his hooves were made of steel, his horns were black and shiny and his hot breath you could feel.”
Of course, his luck ran out, as it usually does for men wanting to do everything their way, and he was finally in 1957 corralled in San Quentin prison, where he spent several years. There, “ a bolt of fear went through him as ghosts thundered through his sky, where he saw the riders comin hard and heard their mournful cries.”
Johnny Cash was one such Ghost Rider who visited the prison. Haggard heard Cash call his name,” If you wanna save your soul from hell a ridin on our range, then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride, tryin to catch the devils herd across these endless skies.” Or as Merle later put it simply, “ I saw the light.”
Unlike Hamlet, Merle Haggard survived his crisis and went on with his life as a poet and singer, seeing what a lot of us see but never notice.
I saw him perform a few years ago in Oklahoma when “ His face was gaunt, his eyes were blurred, his shirt all soaked with sweat, still riden hard to catch that herd” and thinking to myself, “But he ain’t caught em yet.” In fact, by all accounts, he was still writing songs and planning on still doing full performances as recently as this past February. Alas, he didn’t survive his last bout with pneumonia and was pronounced as he would say, “ graveyard dead” April 6, 2016.
Hard to say how long poets like Merle Haggard and their songs will survive, but I would imagine quite a while because he had a gift for gratitude that saved him from the vestibule of hell where so many lesser poets become entranced. Of course, he knew there were tears in things, and he knew decadence, sadness and what some call the hard realities as if those are the only kind. In his world he never ignored these things but simply noticed them, and, like all good poets, moved on to the higher tears of joy, friendships, places, and people.
If the beginning is more than half the whole, “Land of Many Churches“ is a good album in which to discover to his full range of talent and to hear his gratitude. It’s probably there that singers like him will be most remembered for the long term. Because like all of us:
“They got to ride forever in that range up in the sky
On horses snortin fire, as they ride on hear their cries…..”