Merle Haggard, 1937-2016

On November 4, 2013, my wife and I got into our car in the early morning hours.  From our home in Queens, N.Y., we were bound for Kingston, N.Y., a drive of some two-and-a-half hours, allowing for traffic.  It was quite a drive, but it was worth it, because we were on our way to see Merle Haggard for the first time.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.  Before we were out of the metropolitan area, our car had broken down; by the time we’d gotten it seen to, our chances of making it to Kingston in time for the show seemed vanishingly small.  Our tickets, which we’d bought months before, went unused.

Country Musician Merle Haggard

On April 30, 2014, we got a second chance.  This time Haggard was closer to home, playing a show at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, N.J., a town we’d visited at least once before.  This time the vagaries of my 1992 Plymouth Acclaim weren’t going to thwart us: We could get there by train via New Jersey Transit.

The Northeast was hit by torrential rain storms that day, and New Jersey Transit was seriously messed up, including the line to Red Bank.  We got into the Red Bank area via another line, however, and were lucky enough to secure a taxi at the train station.  We were 20 minutes from the theater, with more than 40 minutes to make the trip.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t to be.  Our taxi driver turned out to be unfamiliar with the area (meaning, perhaps, the entire Western Hemisphere) and unable to navigate it without the aid of his taxi’s GPS.  Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t have mattered, but on this particular night his GPS kept directing him to roads which were closed due to flooding.  Unaware of any alternative routes, he was reduced to driving randomly in whatever direction he could, hoping that he’d get far enough off course that his GPS would recommend a different route.  An hour or so later, he dropped us back at the train station where he’d picked us up.  As matters stood, we felt lucky to have achieved even that.  We returned to New York City.  Our tickets, which we’d bought months before, went unused. haggard3

On June 26, 2015, Haggard returned to the New York area again, this time to perform at Westbury Music Fair, a venue I knew well, having spent my teen years on Long Island.  By this point Haggard was at the top of my “Country Stars I’ve Never Seen List,” and—despite circumstantial evidence suggesting that Fate didn’t want us to see Merle Haggard live—we bought tickets months before and resolved to make the attempt one more time.

At last Fate seemed to have run out of cards to play.  The 1992 Plymouth behaved itself and the Long Island Rail Road, which was bringing my wife out to Westbury, was delayed no more (if no less) than usual.  We made it to the theater without serious difficulty, and were there in plenty of time to see Haggard make his appearance.

I’d love to say that the concert was a transcendent experience, after all the effort we’d put into three years of attempts to see him.  In reality it was a solid, professional outing for an old master who was clearly past his peak and not in the best of health, but who knew how to make the most of what he still had.  He sang most of his greatest hits and some unexpected tunes as well—and, if sometimes he growled the lyrics more than sang them, or needed a breath where he hadn’t needed one 30 years before, he still put over the songs with authority and, aided by a crackerjack band, kept the audience applauding until he made his final exit.

And the old lion could still roar.  When a female spectator called insistently for some song that Haggard didn’t feel like singing, he muttered under his breath and then said aloud, “Huh, I thought it was my show, not yours.”

When my wife passed along the news of Haggard’s death today, I thought back to that night, and to the two frustrating nights we’d spent in previous years trying to see him.  I was deeply glad that we’d finally managed to pull it off, to see and hear him in what turned out to be the last chance we’d ever get.

I wish I had something profound to say about the man and his music, but I don’t.  Haggard was never among my core favorites, though I have many of his albums and enjoy listening to them, but he was one of the all-time greats, and the country world will not see another like him.  He was a tough, no-nonsense guy who, later in life than most people do, made himself into a tough, no-nonsense musician.  He died rich, famous and, I hope, happy after a decades-long career spent doing it his way.

I’d have traveled hundreds of miles to see him.  I’d have braved storms and floods to see him.  I’d even have braved the Northern State Parkway to see him, and I’m glad I did.


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