Merle, Hank, and The Art of the Song

“I look for songs in the world around me”—Merle Haggard

I’ve been taking Merle Haggard for granted, for too long.  And suddenly, he’s gone.


Merle Haggard (, photographer not identified)

Merle has been a part of my life since the ’60s, so much a fixture that for me his contribution is hard to assess.  In order to explain his appeal, the temptation is to descend into intellectual frothery, like a review of the new Hank Williams movie in The New Yorker by one one Amanda Petrusich, who describes Hank’s catalogue as bridging the gap between “what the body wants (whiskey, sex, vengeance) and what the mind has vowed to forsake (whiskey, sex, vengeance)”—whatever that means. She goes on to characterize Hank’s status among country fans as “a high-water mark for sad-sack troubadours.”

Maybe Amanda Petrusich’s not old enough to remember the Sad Sack comic strip, but for those who are, that’s a slander.

There’s a better review of the film (which I guess I’ll have to see) by Michael Smith in The Tulsa World:

“I Saw the Light,” a film biography about country music legend Hank Williams, is the cinematic equivalent of a Wikipedia entry.

This dreadful movie hits the man’s historical mileposts, showing his alcoholism and his death at 29, but it gives no insight into the creation of his music.

It’s as though songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Hey Good Lookin’ ” just happened.

That’s how tone-deaf the film is in understanding how a singer-songwriter crafts his music. The only thing this movie has cookin’ is boredom. . .

No, I haven’t forgotten Merle.  Michael Smith gets to the heart of the problem: Merle Haggard was really fine singer, a vocalist with, as John Lincoln Wright once said to me, “such a pretty voice.”  But he was an even greater songwriter, and ultimately that will be his legacy.  There was talk, while Merle was alive, of a film about his life—and what with losing his father, youthful truancy and crime leading to prison, there is plenty of history—but we have to hope that if it’s ever done, it won’t be another “cinematic equivalent of a Wikipedia entry.”

The question is, as Michael Smith implies, and Amanda Petrusich ignores: How do you bring the songs to life?  Can you explain “how a singer-songwriter crafts his music”?  I don’t know the answer.  Maybe you just look harder at the songs.

Merle Haggard’s father played fiddle, and it was said, sang (and looked) like Jimmy Rodgers.  James Francis Haggard died of a stroke when Merle was only 9.  Was that where the seeds were sown?  Or was it just the powerful musical talent just bursting through, part of his wild, youthful rebellion.  It was if he was born writing songs: when he was not running away, getting into trouble,

Through it all, the songs still flowed.

Over decades of trouble, fame, and more trouble, Merle Haggard never stopped making up songs. The country-music star seemed afflicted with a song-writing compulsion, much as Woody Guthrie was.

He penned his first ballads as a child. By later life, he claimed to have written 10,000 of them. . .

He had always composed, he said. He described his childhood self staring out of classroom windows, thinking of songs. Haggard recalled an uncle telling his mother, “if you want that boy to amount to anything, you better take that guitar out of his hands” (Jill Leovy, Los Angeles Times)

Thank God she never did.  And the world became the grist for Merle Haggard’s songwriting mill.  Much, much later, in 2004, Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn reported:

Merle Haggard, the country music star who really did turn 21 in prison, just like it says in one of his songs, figures it cost the IRS nearly $100,000 the day an agent came to his ranch near here to try to figure out what goes into writing a hit.

Haggard’s tax return was apparently kicked out by the computer for too many business deductions and the agent wanted the songwriter to show him how the 200-acre spread in the mountains helped him do his work.

During a walk around the grounds, Haggard explained how a creek inspired one song, a flower bed led to another and a bulldog jump-started a third.

“Finally, this fellow looks at me and says, ‘Why, Mr. Haggard, everything you do is a write-off,’ and he started pointing out other things I should have declared,” the songwriter says, laughing so hard his whole body shakes.

“What he saw was that writing for me is an impulse. I don’t sit down with a pencil and paper and try to come up with songs. I look for songs in the world around me.”

I suppose in a sense every songwriter looks “for songs in the world around me,” but Merle Haggard had the gift of not only seeing what in his life needed a song, but of telling the listener why.  That’s really the function of any kind of writing, or art (and Merle considered country songwriting an “art form”), but Merle had the knack of telling it in simple, direct, and hauntingly melodic language.  LA Times writer Jilly Loevy again:

Simplicity was his creed, Haggard told Hilburn in a 2003 interview. “You’ve got to remember songs are meant to be sung,” he said. “You are not writing poetry.”

Meaning it is not just meant to be read, as poetry in the modern age has become, but sung.  It’s not ‘poetry’ in the literary sense, but “Life’s Like Poetry”:

Life’s too short to think about right or wrong
And the only thing I wonder about is where you’ve been so long
Baby finding you gave my whole life reason and rhyme

But life’s like poetry and in my poem bay
Until now there’s always been a missing line

Merle wrote that song for Lefty Frizzell, not long before Lefty died.  Ever since he was a teenager, Merle idolized Lefty, and masterfully made Lefty’s vocal style his own (Merle’s first club performance was after Lefty heard him sing in the green room, and insisted he perform on stage); listen to both Merle’s and Lefty’s recordings of “Life’s Like Poetry”:

(from the 1975 ABC album, The Classic Style of Lefty Frizzell)

(from the 1975 Capitol album, Keep Movin’ On; Merle’s long-time Capitol producer Ken Nelson succumbed, partly, to the lure of the ‘countrypolitan’ sound on that recording, which makes Lefty’s better.)

Merle was not only a deceptively plain wordsmith, but he was also a storyteller.  Indeed, all of his songs, one way or another, tell a story, implied or directly.  Again, that’s true of most songwriting, but Merle’s little (or sometimes large) stories draw not only on his own experience, but do so in a way that draw the listener in as well.  They never fall prey, as so many self-styled ‘singer-songwriters’ do, to heart-on-your-sleeve autobiography.  Merle’s own experiences and observations are the starting point; in an almost startling transformation, they become universal.  As Merle said of Hank Williams,

“There are lots of people who have written hits, but most songs don’t stick with us because you know and I know and the songwriter knows he’s just telling us about something that never really happened. But then you listen to Hank Williams’ ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),’ and everybody knows this ol’ boy had his heart stepped on more than a few times. That’s what I’ve always wanted people to feel when they hear my songs.” (quoted by Robert Hilburn)

In a magazine/website called Performing Songwriter, interviewer Bill Demain in 2007 asked Merle, “Any advice for songwriters?”

Songwriting is an individual task. Mine comes from inside somewhere. Unexpectedly. I may go a year and never write anything, then write five songs in one day. I’ve been scared that it was over with a lot of times. I thought, “Well, this is it. I guess I’m not gonna write anymore.” And then I’ll come back and write something. It’s drawing from experience. Lefty Frizzell once said, “You don’t have to have lived the things you sing about, but you got to believe them.” And I think that’s true. But it’s better if you’ve experienced it.

Robert Hillburn came to see Merle in 2004, apparently armed with a folder of song lyrics.  He showed them to Merle, who after discarding one,

picks up another piece of paper. It’s “House of Memories,” a slow, haunting ballad also written in the mid-’60s but not one of his biggest hits.

“Now, here’s a song I still like,” he says. “It feels a little more me. To me, every word fits in the song. Nothing is in there just for show. That’s one of the most important lessons a writer can learn. You can’t fall in love with a $50 word or what you think is a clever rhyme and try to squeeze it into a song if it doesn’t work.”

(from the 1967 Capitol album, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive)

Aside from many of Merle Haggard’s classics, like “Mama Tried,” “Swinging Doors,” “Someday We’ll Look Back,” and so many others, the song that always affected me the most was “The Farmer’s Daughter” (from the 1971 Capitol album, Hag).  It’s a simple song about a father coming to terms with his daughter marrying a “city boy from town,” whose “hair is a little longer than we’re used to.”  The singer has to not only reconcile himself to losing a daughter, but he has to realize he trusts her judgement.  The song speaks to everyone who has married girls whose fathers looked askance, or worse, and to every father who has married off a daughter.  But it’s also a song of reconciliation and hope, on many levels, composed while the ‘counter-culture’ of the ’60s and the Vietnam War were still stirring up bitter passions. Merle himself was identified with the traditionalists (“Okie from Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me”), but his real interests as a writer were in the personal, not the political.  Here the personal transcends the political, and becomes universal:

The Farmer’s Daughter

Tonight there’ll be candlelight and roses
In this little country chapel that’s almost falling down
There’ll be tears in this old farmer’s eyes this evening
When I give my one possession to that city boy from town

His hair is a little longer than we’re use to
But, I guess I should find something good to say
About this man whose won the farmer’s daughter
And will soon become my son-in-law today

Mama left eight years ago December
And it was hard to be a Dad and Mama too
But, somehow we made home of this old farmhouse
And love was all my baby ever knew

He could be the richest man in seven counties
And not be good enough to take her hand
But, he says he really loves the farmer’s daughter
And I know the farmer’s daughter loves her man

(Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

This wonderful performance is from a live concert; not sure of the date:

Merle Haggard died on his 79th birthday, April 6, 2016. /CL

UPDATE 16Nov17: The YouTube recording of the live performance above has been taken down.  Ah, the impermanence of the Internet!  Anyway, here’s another live performance of “The Farmer’s Daughter.” It’s just as wonderful, I reckon:

This entry was posted in Country News, Hillbilly Journal, Songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Merle, Hank, and The Art of the Song

  1. Judy Butler says:

    Another legend gone. He left an immense legacy in his songs that so eloquently spoke the life he lived. I admired him so much for his honesty and just plain humanity. He’s one of the last great ones of country music.

  2. Christy says:

    I read Merle Haggard’s (“as told to”) autobiography, “Sing Me Back Home”. He definitely let it all hang out — which took some courage, since he painted himself as quite a jerk more than once or twice. I had to respect the guy for his honesty and his self-awareness. It was an interesting book and I recommend it. He was one of a kind, that’s for sure.

  3. Lynn, saw this post after reading your superb take on Guy Clark. Somehow I missed it the first time around. It’s spot on. As Cambridge’s own Fred Allen once said, you write so well I want to stick my quill back in the goose. I like the way you quote and use recordings. High art, this. Thank you.

    • Howdy Peter! Thanks for the high praise (quoting Fred Allen, no less!), especially coming from one with an elegantly-contructed blog of his own (of which I was unaware). Readers, click on Peter’s name and you’ll be taken to unexpected realms, like “Cassius Marcellus Clay & Violence at Political Rallies”—who could resist? Thanks again! /CL

  4. Pingback: No Particular Place to Go | Hillbilly at Harvard

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