Mama tried, but Merle Haggard never sounded like he was trying. The faint catch in his voice was just enough to signal a stranger's breath rather than something inside your own head. Look up and the stranger was real, his brow knit, his flat eyes scanning the horizon for tornadoes.
In his youth Haggard was repeatedly imprisoned, which separated more than his body. He sang about being alone, but he didn't sound lonely -- way past that. The silver wings taking her away, the bottle failing to chase his memories, those were just facts, not quite regrets. Merle Haggard's voice sounded like Miles Davis' trumpet, beauty veiled by scars.
Haggard found a way to keep the pain from stopping him, and we desired that relief. Avoidance costs you, though. After sharing his solace for an hour, we could cry again. Got to.
How does a guy who loved Merle Haggard respond to his passing?
Pull on the ancient Justin boots and the most faded Wrangler shirt. Take out the trash. Sort through the junk mail while the baseball broadcast rolls. Sip some beer and tequila. Don't shave. Listen to the music.
It seems right to start with some songs not derived from the hit '60s era. In Max D. Barnes' "In My Next Life," a dustbowl farmer tells his wife his vision of an impossible future. In Michael David Fuller's "If I Could Only Fly," they're apart and he's helpless. In Haggard's own "Kern River," he retreats to the mountain from the water where she drowned. In "Sometimes I Dream" (by Merle and daughter Jenessa), he doesn't know how to deal with broken love -- "Seldom I laugh and seldom I ever cry." It's all about sadness, but not exactly sad.
Haggard gets his kicks by yodeling darkly on Jimmie Rodgers. He waves his American flag. He teams up with the most mournful Dixieland band you ever heard -- New Orleans knows funeral music, after all.
As the hours pass in quiet imbibement, it doesn't feel necessary to hear "Sing Me Back Home." And since Merle's voice lives in practically every country singer who followed him, it doesn't feel necessary to weep.
The day of Merle Haggard's death, April 6, was also his birthday. And my mama's. Peace be with you, wherever you are.