Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Georgia Evening With Merle Haggard

Magic Moments And Timeless Music

“Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
And give me all I've got coming to me
And keep your retirement and your
So called Social Security
Big city turn me loose and set me free.”

                     BIG CITY by Merle Haggard

By Doc Lawrence

He told me that the Beatles were “our second best country band.” The Strangers, his legendary band, embodied solid country music and yes, Merle Haggard had a high opinion of the boys from Liverpool. I was blessed with a couple of hours with him before a concert performance at the fabled North Georgia amphitheater, Lanierland Country Music Park. He took the stage very late before a sellout crowd and opened with one of his biggest hits “If We Make it through December,” that told of a joyless Christmas when a good father just lost his factory job. 

The lyrics sting: “I don’t mean to hate December.”

Merle Haggard was as authentic as his heroes Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Bob Wills.  I asked him about “new” country singers. “Nothing against them,” he replied, “but the music doesn’t have much melody.” His favorite place in America? “Lafayette [Louisiana] has great honky tonks where families come to have fun.” He expressed disdain for what he perceived as needless nightlife regulation: “Those people don’t need rules or laws. They have a good time and don’t hurt anybody.”

Stereotyped by early hits, Haggard would show another side in his later years, singing “Jesus Christ,” by Woody Guthrie on the soundtrack for “Capitalism: A Love Story,” a Michael Moore movie. He recorded  “Hillary,” a musical endorsement for Hillary Clinton in 2008. ”What we need is a big switch of gender. Let's put a woman in charge,” the song advised. Haggard’s recording of “Don’t Be Cruel,” is worthy of Elvis, another performer Haggard respected.

I asked him why there was no movie about his life. “They’d need James Dean to play me,” he replied, “and he was dead before I was a star.” Actually, Haggard in his early years bore a resemblance to Dean.

“The band bet me this morning when we left Pennsylvania,” Haggard told the audience, “that I couldn’t get drunk twice in one day. Well, I showed ‘em.” It didn’t matter if this was true because he performed a long set, singing many of his hits while flawlessly playing his custom Fender, accompanied, as always, by The Strangers.

On the road during a 50-mile drive home to Atlanta late on a fairy tale Saturday night, I was happy, unaware that I would never see Merle Haggard again.

A man whose early life was too often interrupted with jail time and prison, he rose above his past to become a singer and songwriter with huge influence on American popular culture, transcending Nashville and Bakersfield boundaries. One of his most enduring songs proclaimed that he was sick of dirty old cities and longed to be turned loose and set free. His melancholy song, “If I could only Fly,” played in my mind after I heard the sad news that Merle Haggard left this world on his birthday.


  1. the real deal, Doc he really was

  2. Never met the man nor know his music. But your words edify him in my mind. Must check him out on Youtube.

  3. As per usual a well written but more importantly, heart felt tribute.