When I moved into my first college apartment at the tender age of eighteen, neither I, nor my roommates owned any sort of sound system. We had a transistor radio with a broken antenna to pull in Tiger games from the voice of the Midwest (WJR in Detroit) and a cassette player. Not a boom box, mind you, with real speakers and perhaps a tweeter or something. A cassette player, with one tiny, tinny speaker. You had to flip the cassette to hear side two. Jim was the guy that was as broke as I was, staying home while our other roommates pursued theatre interests and sorority girls. I don’t know how many times we flipped that solitary cassette, but I would bet I could still sing every song it played. I bet Jim could, too.
The other two roommates had decamped within a matter of months, both claiming that they just couldn’t live with people who insisted on them paying their fair share of the bills. What had been an austerity budget before became a sustenance budget, spending only what we had to to stay alive while shouldering our share of the house as well as the shares of the absent renters. It meant a lot MORE evenings that consisted of baseball radio broadcasts and hundreds of repetitions of the cassette tape. There were only two artists...side A was Roger Miller, he of “King of the Road” fame (though that song was NOT on the cassette) and side B was Merle Haggard.
Jim was perhaps six months older than me, we’d graduated together from the same high school. We’d known each other for years, yet both of us admitted years later that we weren’t sure that we would get along. We wound up being best of friends, bound together by hard times. You work with a person, you create a friendship. You starve with a person, you become brothers. I’m still humbled, all these years later, that I was selected to be the best man at his wedding. There are ties that are forged by eating Cost-Cutter Macaroni and Cheese with only butter because the milk is gone. Shit, we were grateful we still had the butter.
With all respect to Roger Miller, who I loved then and love still, our bond was forged by Merle Haggard, the poet of the common man. His grasp of hard times and his lyrical hopes of better days to come was a thing to hold on to when you felt that the world was aligned against you. We were two boys who thought they were two men, together but alone, far from the girls we loved and loath to admit defeat and move home to our parent’s houses. When Merle sang, “Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”, we did. When “Misery and Gin” would play, we would both fall silent for two and a half minutes. I don’t know what he was thinking and I never shared my thoughts. It sure seemed like Merle knew what we were both thinking.
By this time, Merle had been consigned (along with Hank Jr, Cash, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson) to “Outlaw” Country, meaning that he was too old to be considered marketable in the post-“Urban Cowboy” era. While they still had a few tricks up their sleeves, separately and together, the Country music we had grown up with was largely vanquished. The upstart artists called themselves “Young Country”, and while many made the attempt to describe the forefathers’ music as “Classic Country”, the implication was clear…if you ain’t “Young Country” you are “Old Country.”
Merle Haggard was born in a converted boxcar in an oil town not far from Bakersfield. He lost his father when he was a boy. He was in and out of jail as a youth, even while “Mama Tried” to raise him better. He was a guitar-playing inmate in San Quentin when Johnny Cash played a concert there in 1958 and Merle thought he could see a future for himself. As a boy, he’d hopped on freight trains to go see the country. He eventually found himself in solitary after getting caught making “spud” (a potato-based intoxicant) talking to the man in the next cell…the soon-to-be-executed “Red-Light Bandit” Caryl Chessman.
Upon his release, Merle dedicated himself to his music. He could sing, he could yodel like Jimmie Rodgers, and play both the guitar and the fiddle. By 1970, he was appearing on network television alongside the man who had inspired him on “The Johnny Cash Show”. Merle was an Okie in spirit but wasn’t from Muskogee, or even Oklahoma. What the hell, it was a convenient rhyme. He went on to have a long and storied career, with dozens of gold records and millions of fans.
When Merle died last week, after a long period of being ignored by the Country music establishment, my first thought wasn’t about his family or his legacy. My first thought was about Jim. About where we were then and where we are now. Neither of us finished college and neither of us stayed with the girls we had pined for all those years ago. Yet today, each of us can claim to have come through the fire, at times with only one voice on a cassette tape telling us that it was possible. It was a voice that had been there, from a man who wouldn’t deny his past and wasn’t giving up on the future.
When I was a kid, my Mama used to cry every time she heard “If We Make It Through December”, because that was when the U.A.W. lay-offs happened. But Mom and Dad always made it, just like Merle did. I was fortunate enough to grow up with both of my parents alive. Dad would always look skyward when I played the Nelson-Haggard duet, “Reasons to Quit”.
Like all of us, we want to go out on top. Merle’s career ended with an album co-written and performed alongside Willie Nelson, followed by a tour with the “Red Headed Stranger.” The album went to number one on the Country charts the week it was released. The halls they played were jammed. Pneumonia was the ultimate winner, ending the tour early and sending Haggard home for his coda. He predicted that he would pass on his 79th birthday and was correct.
With only Loretta and Dolly and Willie alive, the rafters of Country music sag with Merle’s passing. Yet when only the music remains, the sound of a cassette player in a shitty college apartment is a symphony to the people that lived it.