It was December of 1973 and New York still had an AM country music station and I was writing about the Long Island suburbs but thinking about Appalachia, where I used to work.
Three years earlier, I had been at the Hyden mine disaster, Dec, 30, 1970, when 38 men were blown to Kingdom Come, which remains just about the saddest event I ever covered.
Now, back home in New York, I was still thinking about Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, and the country station was playing a lot of Merle Haggard, singing “If We Make It Through December.”
One of his lines is: “Just got laid off down at the factory,” which means he cannot afford presents for his little girl.
Sure, it's a tear-jerker, but that's what country is, or should be.
The song hits a universal theme -- parents wanting to provide for their children; in Appalachia I saw a lot of people living at the margins, and the song cut deep.
That’s my major impression of Merle Haggard, who died Wednesday on his 79th birthday, a balladeer of the working class and hard-living men and long-suffering women. He was what country used to be, before it turned slick and uptown on us.
I never met Haggard when I was privileged enough to wander around backstage at the Ryman Auditorium in funky downtown Nashville and chat casually with Johnny Cash and June Carter and Bobby Bare and Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.
Haggard was probably out on the road, living up to the label of outlaw, and doing a good job of it.
As Don Cusic notes in his fine book, “Discovering Country Music," Haggard was a symbol of the outsider, the working class, an American type, then and now, writing “Okie From Muskogee,” a defiant celebration of otherness.
When I helped Barbara Mandrell write her book, "Get to the Heart," she noted that she did not cover Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," but that she loved performing Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee." (Mandrell noted that Haggard and other men got away with romanticizing the double standard in cheatin' songs.)
In this primary season, politicians exploit resentments galore but don't talk often enough about the economic inequities, the stacked deck, the rich getting richer, the great people who pay off politicians and park much of their money offshore, so it cannot possibly trickle down to people who just got laid off down at the factory.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.