The River's Badge

Friday, April 8, 2016

Merle



Tonight I listened to some Merle Haggard songs. And I sang along. And I cried. 

I didn't want to ever have to write this. I've written a lot of goodbyes on this blog; some were pretty tough to get through. This one is the toughest. You see, Merle has always been with me. He's tied up in a box with some other people I've had to say goodbye to -- my best friend, my mom, the me that used to be.

I've read a bunch of articles this week about Merle. Some got it right; some just wanted to say something that would appeal to those who barely knew him. Tonight, this is about him and me. 

I was the new kid in a new town, a new school; the strange outcast who was too shy to make friends. And then I found one. I think she actually found me. I was a music geek, but my music was the Monkees and the Box Tops. Hers was some new guy named Waylon Jennings and somebody else named Bobby Bare. She was a country singer -- in a band, no less -- at age eleven. The only thing I knew about country music were my parents' two LP's, one by Buck Owens and one by Ray Price, from around 1963. Sure, I liked those albums. When you're a kid and purchased music is scarce, you listen to whatever's handy. But when I got my little transistor radio, I tuned it to the Top Forty. That tiny radio was sort of my lifeline, especially after moving to a new town that wasn't even a town like I thought it would be, but an industrial strip of land between two towns. Top Forty radio was my salve. 

And then I met Alice and she made it clear that she wasn't one of the mindless pre-teen dolts who worshiped Strawberry Alarm Clock. She knew what she liked and that was that. And she didn't care that it wasn't "cool".  So, I, too, decided I liked country music. I didn't know anything about it, but I was keen to learn. The first country album I bought was by Waylon Jennings, and then I think I picked up one by another new guy, Charley Pride. 

Together, she and I discovered Merle Haggard. This was when I finally understood what all the country music fuss was about. This guy was different. This guy was brash. His guitar twanged even twangier than Buck Owens', and his songs actually said something. It didn't hurt that he was cute, as we were wont to describe men at our ripe age.

After playing Merle's album over and over and over, I was determined I was going to buy a guitar. Alice said she'd teach me how to play. So I saved up my...allowance or tips or however I acquired money...and I finally forked over twenty-five dollars for the red Stella guitar that I'd admired in Dahmer's Music's window for what seemed like forever. Alice came over every Saturday and showed me the different chords. My fingers stung like bee stings, but I finally developed enough callouses to be able to chord along with "Swinging Doors" and "Sing Me Back Home". Shoot, Alice even taught me how to play the lead part in "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive" -- the only actual fingering I've ever...and since...been able to play. And I'd play along with Merle's records for hours.

The very first song I ever wrote had these lines:

1967, you taught me how to play
All those Merle Haggard songs
Man, he had a way

It wasn't until I tried songwriting years later that I understood how deceptively simple Merle's songs were. Most of them had three chords -- four at the most. "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" has only two chords! And yet he still managed to say something, with so little. I can't do that. Hardly anyone can.

As time went on (and time seemed so much longer then), I bought a JC Penney tape machine so I could play and sing songs and rewind the tape to hear how "great" my performance was. I was possessed. At sixteen, I graduated to a top-of-the-line one hundred dollar reel to reel recorder, and the first thing I recorded was a three-part harmony version of "Silver Wings" (by bouncing the tracks). I sort of wish I could find that tape now, because as I remember it, I sang the hell out of that song. 

"The Best Of Merle Haggard", with its fold-out cover, was my music bible. After that, I blithely followed every turn in Merle's road, because I knew I could count on him. I loved him. 

Nineteen sixty-eight was the nadir. My autobiography (now out of print, but since they're my words, I guess I can quote them) devotes a whole chapter to a seminal moment in my young life:

In the fall of 1968, Merle was coming to town to put on a concert!

After all the semi-to-not-even-semi-famous acts Alice and I had seen live; artists who only played the little-town circuit, because either everyone had long ago forgotten them, or nobody even knew their names yet; after all our dreamy wishing that we could have the chance to see Merle Haggard just once in our (so far, pretty short) lives; finally!

Alice and I made sure we were first in line at the box office; waiting, waiting; in an inexplicably short clutch of way older people; some probably as old as forty! until the bored fat ticket guy walked up to his little booth with a Styrofoam cup of coffee and flipped up the metal screen.

You girls like Merle Haggard, huh?”

 Yea. Uh huh.

“Well, there ya go, little missies”, his sweaty paw sweeping the tickets in front of Alice’s face, as if expecting her to run her fingers across his meaty palm. Old dudes should leave little kids alone.

There were other people on the bill, too – that new guy, Charley Pride. That old guy, Freddie Hart, who hadn’t even had a somewhat hit by 1968. By the time 1971 rolled around, though, Freddie scored a monster hit; and Alice and I knew him when!

The day of the concert, Alice rode the bus home with me, because we'd arranged to leave from my place to go to the show.

We straggled into the motel office, and Mom whispered to me, "Guess who just checked in!"

Mom was perplexingly giddy. I was oblivious; unable to put the obvious two and two together.

Mom whipped the registration card out of its slot and waved it in front of our faces. Damn! It was Merle Haggard!

Merle Haggard was staying at my place!
Alice and I stared at each other; frozen in space; overwhelmed with…perhaps… the vapors, although neither of us actually fainted.

What would we do? This new knowledge obviously required some action on our part. A girl can’t just walk in her front door, have her mom tell her that the greatest, cutest artist of all time was their new house guest, and then nonchalantly whip out her life science book and start studying for a quiz.

So, what did Alice and I do? We stalked Merle Haggard.

It was only four o’clock in the afternoon. Neither Merle nor we had anyplace we needed to be for awhile.

Merle and Bonnie weren’t staying in the main (old) section of the motel. They were in room number twenty-seven; a few doors down from my big brother’s old room.

No offense to Mom, but room 27 wasn’t exactly the crème de la crème of MF Motel rooms; but Mom was probably suffering from the vapors, too. Mom had always been star struck. We’d had a few formerly famous singers stay with us. They’d always, sadly, traveled alone. They did one-night stands in local bars, backed by a local pick-up band. Stars whose last (and only) hit record happened in 1959. Merle was a whole, different, high-rise story.

Had I been casually minding the office and looked up to see Merle Haggard alighting my doorway, I most likely would have stared, slack-jawed, and said something completely inappropriate, like, “What are you doing here?” Then I, too, like Mom, would have grabbed the first room key my fingers could locate; never taking my eyes off Merle, and the key would have slipped out of my hand and sailed up and hit him in the face. At which point, I would have rounded the corner of the check-in desk and begin patting Merle on the face, repeating how very sorry I was, and did he maybe want to lie down, and should I get him a glass of ice water?

And then I would have killed myself out of sheer humiliation.

On second thought, Mom handled things much better than I ever could.

Since the newer section of the motel consisted of one long curvy rectangle, Alice and I commenced to walking around and around and around the complex, slowing down each time we approached their room. Giggling; making nonsensical conversation; conversing about country music, because there were no doubt things that Merle needed to learn about the music industry from…two eighth grade schoolgirls.

No one in room twenty-seven stirred; as much as we unwittingly tried to annoy them.

Alice and I skulked back to my room.

“I have an idea!” I light-bulbed.

“Let’s get out my battery-operated record player! I’ll grab the 45 of “Mama Tried”; we’ll go outside, down the little hill opposite Merle’s room, and play it!”

And thus we did.

We set the player on a tree stump. We played it. Several times.

The battery, in fact, started to wind down. Merle was singing fine, and suddenly, his voice dipped; began sounding woozy. “Mama tried to….rai-eeh….ssse….meeeee bettt-er….”. Then, all of a sudden, he started singing really fast and high; like a chipmunk.

Merle never mentioned this unfortunate incident in his memoirs. Perhaps scenes like these were de rigueur for him. I would say that he peered out from behind the curtains of his room; petrified; but had the curtains moved a flick, Alice and I would have seen it.

However, Merle was not simply an apparition. At a point when I finally realized I had to flip the case down on my Eveready battery-deficient music player, he suddenly appeared!

There he stood, outside his room, holding his little fox terrier on a leash!

We never made eye contact. I’m sure Merle thought better of offering us any encouragement. Would we barge into his room? Offer to share a bottle of Coke? Start listing all our favorite Merle Haggard songs? Start singing them to him? No doubt Merle didn’t want to take that bet, and no doubt he would have lost. We would have done that. There is absolutely not a shred of doubt in my mind.  

So, alas, after we realized that the two of us “new friends” were going to remain strangers, the time neared for us to get ready for the show. The concert started at 8:00. We got there around 6:00. Of course we snagged front-row seats.

After Charley and Freddie and the others finished their sets, Merle took the stage. He did all his hit songs; Bonnie singing backup. Merle did his impersonations of Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, Hank Snow, and Johnny Cash.
He gazed out upon the front row, and HE SMILED AT ME!

It had never once happened to me in my life, but now everything suddenly went black.

After the show, Alice and I went around to collect autographs.

Freddie Hart wrote, "To Shelly, a little doll". Freddie said to us, "Didn't I see you girls walking around the motel?"  So, we weren’t invisible! Somebody actually noticed! After all our hard work! Honestly, we were almost impossible to miss, considering. Which leads me to believe that Merle really had been spooked.

I, therefore, after 45 years, would like to apologize to Merle Haggard. We were harmless. Really.
It wasn’t too much time later that Merle recorded, "Today I Started Loving You Again". I read once that when he was writing the song, Bonnie told him to lose the second verse. In my mind, Merle is writing that song in room number 27 at the Modern Frontier Motel; trying his best to block out the antics of two deranged school girls; Bonnie leaning over him, giving him advice. I'm pretty sure that's not true, but that's the story I choose to tell, to myself.

Merle doesn’t know it, but he shoulders a heavy burden for me. I learned to play the guitar by strumming Merle Haggard songs. The world I shared with Alice is bundled up in a pretty baby blue bow fashioned out of Merle Haggard songs.

Little does he know.       

And, no, I really am not crazy.

Alice passed away in 2000. We hadn't talked for a long time. When my son called to give me the news, I was nonchalant. 

Then I fell apart. 

My husband had been nagging me -- "You can write a song; just try." I said I couldn't. That's not how I wrote -- not in verse, for God's sake. After that phone call, I settled into the chair in my room and stared at my guitar in the corner.  I thought about Alice and I thought about Merle, and I paced over and grabbed that guitar and the words tumbled out. 

My dad and my mom died a year later. 

I could no longer listen to Merle, because the sadness was too much.

Merle did some concerts -- he toured with Willie Nelson and he toured with with Kris Kristofferson -- and I passed up all my chances to see him. I didn't say it out loud, but I wanted to remember Merle the way I wanted to remember him.

I was right. I'm glad I didn't go. 

I wanted to remember nineteen sixty-eight. 

I listened to "Sing Me Back Home" tonight. 

And I cried.

I don't know if I'll get over it. I don't know if I'll ever be able to listen to a Merle Haggard song the same way again. There are too many memories; too many goodbyes. 

This one hurts, more than I am able to acknowledge. 

This one breaks my heart...again.







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