I'm from East Bakersfield, right at the end of Highway 58 before it takes you to the desert. My grandma cleaned houses until her body wouldn't let her anymore. My grandpa is a retired truck driver and smokes a pack a day. It used to be Camel Straights but they got to be too expensive so now he buys Seneca, king size, unfiltered, at a reservation in Porterville. And I've never seen him happier than when he said he saw Merle Haggard's steel guitarist there.
I was born into country music. I didn't have a say in the matter. I was given my grandpa's surplus Merle Haggard LPs as birthday presents before I even knew what rock and roll was. I knew the words to "Mama Tried" a solid decade before I heard of Elvis. When I look back on my childhood, my fondest memories are of sitting in my grandpa's tiny yellowing living room in a cloud of smoke listening to Merle Haggard records while he drank coffee and said almost nothing. Merle Haggard wasn't the beginning and the end of country music — he was the beginning and the end of music. Period.
I knew he'd been sick this last few months. But he had been sick before. It was expected. He treated his body like hell. But he always survived the mythological country music vices. The straight-out-of-the-bottle whiskey guzzling, the mountains of cigarettes, the shoeboxes full of cocaine. He had lung cancer and beat it. He was unkillable.
But by Easter Sunday, sitting at a family reunion with people who knew Merle Haggard personally, well enough to call him Merle without pretense, it felt different. Merle was very old now. He was about to turn 79. He had pneumonia, and he'd been in the hospital, and now he was canceling tour dates. I asked my uncle if I should be worried this time.
"Let's put it this way: His bus driver retired."
The air went out of the room. He'd had the same bus driver longer than I'd been alive.
"He likes being off the road," my uncle continued. "He's discovering Netflix now. He called me up and asked if I'd heard of House of Cards. I said 'Yep, I sure did, three years ago, pal.' I figure he's about twenty years behind on television. He spent way too much time in that damn bus."
We all laughed, but we were laughing to keep from saying good-bye. If Merle Haggard was off the road, Merle Haggard was about to die.
When I finally got the inevitable news, a thousand images came into my head at once. The image of him approaching my mom at Safeway and asking her what kind of salt he should buy. The image of his tour bus pulling away from a Walmart Supercenter at midnight as the employees stood at the door dead silent. The image of him sitting at a corner booth in his go-to greasy spoon, eating chicken fried steak on a Sunday, while I sat listening to the place turn suddenly into a church. The image of two twentysomething dudes sneaking slugs of whiskey in the men's room at one of his last hometown concerts, bragging that they shared his weed doctor.
When Johnny Cash died, it was like part of the American landscape vanished, like we lost the Grand Canyon. But when Merle Haggard died, speaking as someone born in Bakersfield and descended from Okies and Arkies who knew exactly what the Dust Bowl was, it was like losing a member of my immediate family, like there was one less place to set at my grandma's table.
Because Merle Haggard wasn't a singer to us. He wasn't a songwriter. We never called him the "working man's poet" or waxed philosophic about his role in the Bakersfield sound and how it shaped rock and roll. He was too important for that. He was the center of our culture. He was a part of every family gathering and every drive. A man who not only sang about my family, but to my family, without mythologizing or patronizing or getting any of the details wrong. To use my grandma's phrase, "he sang my life."
Haggard's songs were tough, undecorated songs about the struggles of common people who were barely getting by in a country that wasn't particularly receptive to them. They made you feel like somebody was in your corner through the struggle just to exist. He empathized with people who worked with their hands. And he never got patronizing about it, because he knew what it was like. He'd been there. You could hear in his smoke- and alcohol-ravaged voice and unaffected singing style that he had been there.
What Merle Haggard had is what separated Bakersfield country from Nashville country. He didn't try to sing pretty, he tried to sing honest. He tried to write honest. The great Merle Haggard songs, like "Mama Tried" or "Workin' Man Blues" or "The Bottle Let Me Down" or "Kern River," they didn't dress up for you at all. They sounded like they'd been kicked around by dust devils for a few months before he recorded them. They sounded beat up and hard-traveled. And that worked. He just went and told his story and played his songs. He could play any city in the country by being exactly who he said he was.
That made it all right to be from Bakersfield when a lot of people weren't all right with that. When people might physically recoil at your destitution or wonder if you could read. Here in your corner was Merle, and he was truthful about where he came from, about being an ex-con who had lived in a boxcar in Oildale, and people were fine with him. He legitimized people like my grandparents and all of the other displaced people in the parts of California people try to get away from. He legitimized everybody who got up before sunrise to drive trucks or pick cotton in some of the most desolate towns in America. Towns where it never rained. Towns of dirt and canals and corrugated sheet metal. Every time he had a hit record, he told you it was perfectly normal to wake up with a pack of cigarettes on the kitchen table instead of any food and stare out at a highway. He made you think that you, too, could do something besides stand in a field or sit in a truck, but that if you had to, well, that was all right too.
After he died, I thought about the California he knew, and how it left the world long before he did. The clubs he played are all gone. I've driven by many of the places where they used to be, and not a trace remains. The Lucky Spot on Edison Highway in Bakersfield is long gone. It's a parking lot abutting two shuttered antique stores. The ruins aren't even there anymore. And the place he was from has become almost unlivable. Oildale is so overrun with crime and drugs and destitution that it's impossible to imagine escaping it. If you walk through it, you feel a bone-deep grinding misery that will physically cause your chest to tighten. And Bakersfield now has the deadliest police force in America. Merle Haggard's California, the honky-tonks, the Dust Bowl survivors, the labor camps, is fading away.
The physical traces of what molded him have almost been erased, or relegated to museums, which will make him tougher and tougher to understand as he's slotted into the history books. But I can say this. If you want to get to the soul of the man, you have to look past "Okie From Muskogee," his sad lapse into jingoism with "The Fightin' Side of Me," and his accidental reputation as a conservative, which he spent much of his career undoing. You have to think about the misery he escaped, what it took to survive the Dust Bowl, to survive an oil town or an agricultural town. You have to think about people at the bottom in the towns nobody on TV talks about. You have to think about songs like "They're Tearing the Labor Camps Down," which I consider his masterpiece.
It describes the misery working people have to see in America, the despair they have to carry with them. It understands the deep sorrow of feeling left behind and doing everything you can just to hold on. It's desperately hard to make it in America, and he understood that. His career was a constant reminder of that. He never, ever forgot how tough it is for common people to get by. If you asked the people in my family, most of them one emergency away from going underwater, what they think about Merle Haggard's passing, they would be very clear with you. The best songwriter ever in country music is now gone.