Knowledgeable political sages and strategists keep trying to tell you that a developer and reality-show host who lives in a penthouse in New York City somehow had his fingers on the heartbeat of working class folks in America, especially the kind that lived in towns in the Midwest, Southwest, central California and everywhere else where the factory closed, the dime store is charging a dollar and the honky-tonk bar and the white wood church stare at each other from across the street.
Don’t you believe it. If you want to know who had his fingers, and an aching heart on the heartbeat of regular folks, listen to some of the songs of Merle Haggard, the poet of hard times, too many beer bottles in the garbage bag, hopes beat on by betrayal, hard-won mistakes and love lost and regained to last and endure.
Haggard — whose face often resembled his name in later years — died at the age of 79, and the whole world of country music that could remember back more than past the birth of “American Idol” mourned and felt the loss: from Dolly Parton to Travis Tritt and any old singer who can still put a hitch and twang in his voice and make it sound like forget-me-not cards from a high school sweetheart, or the train fading over the horizon.
Haggard hard a hard-knock life and sang like a writer. His songs weren’t much full of hard-to-decipher metaphors, or veiled, hidden meanings. He was, after all, inspired to become a songwriter and singer when hearing Johnny Cash as a prisoner in a prison. He was a scion of all the families that moved out west during the Depression, the self-proclaimed Oakies, leaving lost farms and jobs behind in the dust bowl that was then Oklahoma. They settled in central California, principally Bakersfield, the flattest area in California, right between the mountains and greenery of Northern California and the goofy Hollywood skyscapes of L.A.
Haggard got famous for a time for maybe the wrong reason. He penned a song that seemed to express the silent majority of the days in the 1960s who scowled at hippies, druggies and liberals. It was called “Okie from Muskogee,” a midsized town in Oklahoma, and derided such things as burning draft cards and smoking weed, as in “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” which, for Haggard, apparently was a little white lie, given that he admitted to smoking the very same stuff before or after concerts.
He was a nitty-gritty, authentic country singer who could play and write, and his music always sounded like the real stuff in real life. He was up there and around Willie Nelson, who was famous for smoking marijuana and also looked as if he left half a beard on, and another type of country man, Buck Owens, who wore glittery jackets and had a wavy hairdo and a voice that oozed twang (not to mention a national television show).
As a writer and singer, Haggard was right up there with Hank Williams, minus the flashy, rock-star personality, the charisma and the early death. Look at pictures of his young-man version and you could see how he could get in trouble with women. He had that pitch-black-hair handsome stuff going for him like Cash and Elvis, but he was also, up close and personal, a lot more raggedly real.
His songs were about marriage and how hard it was, money and how not having enough put a worry and a scowl on your face, survival, the thing with booze and what too much of it did to you and how it made a train wreck of families.
In his love songs — which were often frisky as well as sorrowful — he echoed George Jones in his rueful delivery and regret-filled lyrics.
You don’t have to quote Merle. You can find all that you need to know in his songs, just the titles alone, from the great ones: “Will We Make it Through December,” “If We’re Not Back in Love by Monday,” “I’m going to Break Every Heart That I Can.” The titles are like a book of life, a life he lived: “I’m Always on the Mountain When I Fall,” “A Drunk Can’t Be a Man,” “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today,” “After I Sing All My Songs,” “Ain’t Your Memory Got No Pride At All,” “Are the Good Times Really Over,” “Beer Can Hill,” “Better Off When I Was Hungry,” “Bottle Let Me Down,” “Amber Waves,” “Cocaine Blues,” “Daddy Won’t Be Home Again For Christmas,” “Don’t Seem Like We’ve Been Together All Our Lives,” “From Now On, My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers,” “For the Good Times,” “Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Ham Boogie,” “I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar,” “From Graceland to the Promised Land.”
The titles — hundreds of them — read like a book of plainspoken notes and poetry from a guy writing things down at the end of the bar, waiting to catch the bus to work or the train out of town, missing what he’s missing, savoring what he got, pride in country and country music, regret at the mess we make of things.
Haggard, if you listen to him, has a familiar hitch, distinctive as a particular memory that comes rushing at you out of nowhere, in his voice. It’s a little tremulous something, a kind of lingering over a note without stretching it to the breaking point. Loretta Lynn does it in her new (yes, new) album “Full Circle,” and there are versions of it in most of the great country singers.
The songs sounded good on the radio, but they look and sound good on YouTube, too, like a revelation sitting next to you for inspection and comfort.