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Ladies and Gentlemen, my tribute to Merle Haggard

When news came of his death, I was saddened more than I would have expected for someone I did not know personally. Of course, part of the sadness was the realization of what I had lost: there would be no more albums, which though Merle hadn’t had a radio hit since 1989’s “Rainbow Stew,” his albums from the first 16 years of this century were a refreshing return to roots after the mid-career lull of the late ’80s and ’90s. I was also sad that I would never see him in concert again — when I heard of his death, the first thought that came to me was that seeing him on stage was the closest I’ll ever come to seeing Hank Williams on stage.

So what is that I love so much about this man and his music? It may not be what you might think. Merle is perhaps best known for his 1968 hit, “Okie from Muskogee,” which took aim at the ’60s counter-culture movement in a celebration of traditional, Anglo-American values:

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take no trips on LSD
We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

I’ve read that Merle regretted how this song marked him as a combatant in a culture war that generally he was not interested in fighting. When I saw him perform with Kris Kristofferson in 2010 in Norman, Oklahoma, it was noteworthy that “Okie from Muskogee” was the obvious hit not on the set list.

The song belongs partly to a subgenre of country music that I would call disgruntled white-guy music. Songs in this genre are the musical equivalent of a tantrum in response to social changes. Famous examples of this genre include Hank Williams Jr.’s “Country Boys Can Survive,” Charlie Daniels’s “Simple Man,” or more recently Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” This is not the type of music that, when lost, makes the heart heavy with grief.

I think what strikes most people about Merle Haggard is that he represents a degree of authenticity. We believe he is blue-collar when he sings “Working Man Blues.” We recall he did time in San Quentin for breaking and entering, and so we believe he is speaking about himself when he sings “Mama Tried”:

I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried

Whether singing about an impoverished upbringing in “Hungry Eyes” or “Tulare Dust” or about prison life in “Sing Me Back Home” (or the hazards and benefits of drinking in “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “I Threw Away the Rose”), there is something credible and authentic to the content of Merle’s songs and his presentation of them.

His repertoire was broader than these frank prison, drinking, and “hurting” songs. Many of the songs in his catalog have an implicit and occasionally an explicit Christian confession. In fact, he recorded an entire album of religious songs in the early ’70s. In his 1977 tribute to Elvis, “From Graceland to the Promised Land,” he movingly sings,

It’s a long way from Memphis to that mansion in the sky
But he kept his faith in Jesus all along
It’s a long way from Graceland across Jordan to the Promised Land
But Jesus finally came to lead him home

In Merle’s music this commingling of profane and religious elements does not seem schizophrenic. It seems an honest report of the actual happenings of his life, coupled together with a sense of grace that confronts and redeems. Merle was by no means the first country performer to sing about sin and grace: Jimmie Rodgers (compare “My Rough and Rowdy Ways” and “The Wonderful City”), Hank Williams (“The Lost Highway” and  “I Saw the Light”), Kris Kristofferson (“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Why me?”), and Billy Joe Shaver (“Ain’t No God in Mexico” and “Jesus Christ, What a Man”) come to mind, among others.

And this brings me to the heart of what I have to say in tribute to Merle and his music, especially as a Christian and a priest. As much as contemporary Christian music should appeal to me, at least if one considers my outward religious credentials, I find much of this music saccharine and utterly removed from the dialectic of sin and grace where my life (and that of Christians this side of glory) is actually lived. Such music seems so grossly to exaggerate the potential for Christian holiness and sanctification in this life and doesn’t really seem fitting for pilgrims of the night like me.

The cast-out Adam doesn’t need to pretend he is still in the garden by feigning the melodies of Eden. He needs a music that, while it doesn’t relish or glorify life east of Eden, at least acknowledges its complexities, a music that owns his complicity for the miserable state he finds himself in. East of Eden, he is confronted with his moral failings, and discovers to his dismay the ensuing hunger, toil, and alienation of his state. If he can accept all this disorder, along with his responsibility for it, then he might be ready to hear sweet strains of the gospel.

In the music of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Billy Joe Shaver, and, of course, Merle Haggard, exiled Adam finds a soundtrack that acknowledges his fall, and thus he is met by the possibility of grace and redemption. This music often flips from profane to sacred only because it was composed east of Eden for pilgrims on their way to the Promised Land.

Farewell, troubadour. To paraphrase Merle’s tribute to Elvis:

It’s a long way from Bakersfield to that mansion in the sky
But he kept his faith in Jesus all along
It’s a long way from east of Eden across Jordan to the Promised Land
But Jesus finally came to lead him home

In the meantime, as I remain here east of Eden, I’ll keep listening to these angels of Jesus, angels of light, singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night.


Fr. John Mason Lock is priest-in-charge of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, a parish in the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey. His other Covenant posts are here.

The featured image comes via merlehaggard.com.


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