It’s taken me a few days to process the death of Merle Haggard. As much of a Country music fan as I am, I didn’t think he was one of my favorites. He was definitely my father’s favorite. My mother used to tell of how my father, an Army officer, left, as a Sinatra fan, for a one month training exercise down in Texas one year and came back a Country music aficionado. So, for me, Country music became a part of my childhood soundtrack. I seem to remember most of the Country we listened to when I was a kid was more Country & Western, with a distinct emphasis on the Western. But at some point, my dad became Merle’s biggest fan.

As I said, Haggard wasn’t one of my favorites. He always struck me as your crazy uncle who went to prison and came out a rabid Right Wing Conservative. I preferred Johnny Cash, for his music and his inclusive, more counter-culture views that meshed with my growing up in the Sixties and Seventies.

However, I came to appreciate Merle more at the end of my dad’s life when, bedridden in the last stages of cancer, he wanted the CD player stacked with a constant stream of Merle Haggard songs. In one of our few conversations about Merle Haggard, my dad said that he was one of the few singers who could really articulate what it was like to be a kid in the Depression. I couldn’t immediately think of two experiences more different than Merle Haggard working cotton fields in a labor camp in Bakersfield with his Okie parents and my dad, the son of an immigrant, bringing in extra money doing odd jobs in a factory town in Vermont. But upon reflection, I see the connection.

The family members I know who lived through the Depression share the same odd mix of can-do “if we work hard enough, we can get through this” optimism, with a cynical belief that, no matter how well things are going now, it could all go down the tubes in an instant — tempered with a belief that many people will promise you pie in the sky, but few will deliver. While those of us in the Boomer and later generations were shocked at the banking collapse, no child of the Depression was. Certainly Merle wasn’t. While many point to his songs about his hardscrabble childhood — Mama’s Hungry Eyes, Tulare Dust, If We Make It To December — as classic stories of the Depression experience, I always thought Rainbow Stew really got the attitude.

There’s a big, brown cloud in the city
And the countryside’s a sin
The price of life is too high to give up
It’s gotta come down again

When the world wide war is over and done
And the dream of peace comes true
We’ll all be drinkin’ that free bubble-up
And eatin’ that rainbow stew

When they find out how to burn water
And the gasoline car is gone
When an airplane flies without any fuel
And the satellite heats our home

But one of these days when the air clears up
And the sun comes shinin’ through
We’ll all be drinkin’ that free bubble-up
And eatin’ that rainbow stew

When a President goes through the White House door
Does what he says he’ll do
We’ll all be drinkin’ that free bubble-up
And eatin’ that rainbow stew

Eatin’ rainbow stew in a silver spoon
Underneath that sky of blue
We’ll all be drinkin’ that free bubble-up
And eatin’ that rainbow stew


Give it a listen.

Yes, I’ve said that Merle wasn’t my absolute favorite Country artist. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate his incredible talent and his place in the Country Pantheon. Like the very best in Country Music, his songs were deceptively simple on the surface — speaking in common language about elemental things. Yet they masked a complexity and a profundity that made them First Cousins to a Greek Tragedy.

One of the very best examples of Country Music’s power was the Merle Haggard song Kern River. On first listen, it’s about an older man looking back on his younger days, when he took greater chances, one of which caused the death of someone he loved. But the more you listen, you more you see the universal. The Kern River becomes a Rubicon — something that, once crossed, changes everything. In this case, the narrator has left behind the chance-taking of his youth. He’s calmer and more cautious now. That makes him safer, but it means he’ll never again know the heart-pounding exhilaration of his youth. He can “cross on the highway”, but he’ll “never swim Kern River again”.

I grew up in an oil town
But my gusher never came in
And the river was a boundary
Where my darlin’ and I used to swim

One night in the moonlight
The swiftness swept her life away
And now I live on Lake Shasta
And Lake Shasta is where I will stay

There’s the great San Joaquin
Where the seeds of the dust bowl are found
And there’s a place called Mount Whitney
From where the mighty Kern River comes down

But now it’s not deep nor wide
But it’s a mean piece of water, my friend
And I may cross on the highway
But I’ll never swim Kern River again

Give this one a listen.

So, yes, Merle Haggard was never one of my favorite Country artists. But he was, hands down, one of the best there has ever been or will ever be. I’ll be listening more and listening more closely.

And I bet, in short order, I will be calling him one of my favorites.

RIP Merle. Thanks for all the music.