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.
"....the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)
"The day after my 80th birthday, which overflowed with good wishes, surprises and Covid-safe celebrations, I awoke feeling fulfilled and thinking that whatever happens going forward, I’m OK with it. My life has been rewarding, my bucket list is empty, my family is thriving, and if everything ends tomorrow, so be it.
"Not that I expect to do anything to hasten my demise. I will continue to exercise regularly, eat healthfully and strive to minimize stress. But I’m also now taking stock of the many common hallmarks of aging and deciding what I need to reconsider."
--Jane E. Brody, my pal in the NYT newsroom, oh, a few years back, in the Personal Health column, Sept. 13, 2021.