On Silver Wings: Remembering Merle Haggard

MerleIt was cold, windy and gray the day that I heard Merle Haggard died — in other words, a typical Midwestern spring day. It seems right, though, given the news.

Merle Haggard and I began our relationship when I was just a wee thing, living with my folks in the hinterlands of Northwest Ohio. My mom was a fan of old-school country music; she often told the story that one of her dreams involved dancing with Kris Kristofferson. I couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 at the time, but I vividly remember going to see Merle perform at an outdoor venue somewhere in Indiana. I can’t tell you a single thing about his voice or what songs he performed, but I can tell you that we sat on wood benches to hear him play, and I remember a sense of the whole thing feeling right somehow, like I was supposed to be there, and this is what people did — listened to singers tell stories and entertain people sitting on benches.

(As a sidenote, this may never have happened. Although my childhood was painless and drama-free, I seem to have near-total loss of memories. This is one of the few that I have. I also have a memory of lining up cats in the dining room, and my mother tells me that never happened. So take this with a grain of salt. The feeling is what matters, people; it’s music, not a Congressional hearing.)

I digress.

Haggard died April 6, 2016, on his 79th birthday in Palo Cedro, California. He’d still been touring and performing, although his concerts set for this month had been postponed due to his ongoing bout of pneumonia, which was, in fact, what claimed his life. He’d released an album last year with Willie Nelson, “Django and Jimmie,” and the making-of videos for that record, which you can watch on YouTube, show that although he had slowed down, his wit, voice and talent were still strong. Dressed in a flannel workshirt and trucker hat, Haggard was vital, quick with his words and vocally powerful.

One of the songs on that album, “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” tells the story of Haggard’s relationship with the legendary singer; the two first met when Cash performed at San Quentin prison in California in 1958, where Haggard was serving time on a burglary charge. This is where Haggard’s life gets really interesting: While in prison, he was not a happy man. He was angry and got angrier still when he learned his wife was expecting a child by another man. He had planned to escape; he was convinced not to do it, and the man he had planned the escape with shot an officer and was brought back for execution. It was only then that Haggard decided a change was in order, and after his release, began to concentrate seriously on music. It was a good choice; channeling the same outlaw spirit of Johnny Cash, Haggard had an incredible career, racking up 38 No. 1 hits along the way.

Out of all the memorable songs that Haggard wrote and recorded, the one that has always stuck with me has been “Silver Wings,” first released in 1969 on his seminal “Okie from Muskogee” live album (Capitol). Though “Silver Wings” was never officially released as a single, it has remained popular with audiences and in 1999, the band Whiskeytown (you know … Ryan Adams’ band before he and his hair went solo) released it on a Bloodshot compilation tribute to the Knitters.

“Silver Wings” is a fairly simple song. It’s about someone who’s lonely because the one they love is leaving them on a plane. Haggard’s voice — the way he sings the song and the words he uses — elevates what could be trite into something that is genuinely poignant. “But you locked me out of your mind // Left me standing here behind,” he sings. That’s some truth right there. There’s a lot of reflection and hanging on until there’s really just a pinprick of a memory on the horizon. As he says, “Slowly fading out of sight.” Clocking in at less than 3 minutes in length, it’s just enough time to feel wistful but not enough time to wallow, and that’s what makes a country song great — brevity.

In his role as Hank Williams, the British actor Tom Hiddleston has a line that speaks to the outlaw country movement’s appeal. While talking to a reporter, Williams says, “Everybody has a little darkness in ’em. They may not like it and don’t want to know about it, but it’s there. I’m talking about anger, misery, sorrow, shame — and I show it to ’em. They don’t have to take it home.” It’s the line from the movie — the one nearly every reviewer, interviewer and article quotes. There’s a reason for that — it’s the truth. And for singer-songwriters such as Haggard, Williams and Cash, it was their reason for existence. Not to get all epically black and white, but these mens’ demons bubbled just under the surface, and both Haggard and Cash could have gone the way that Williams did. It was only fate, God’s grace or pure dumb luck that saved them, take your pick.

I have to believe that Haggard would have been a bit bemused or uncomfortable with the tributes pouring in after his death. He was a man who spoke through his music and lived his life, taking it as it came along. He wasn’t one for naval-gazing. Like many men of his generation, he wasn’t particularly touchy-feely. As to whether that’s good or bad, it’s hard to say, and in the end, probably not relevant. What Haggard did was give a voice to his experiences, which resonated with a lot of people. He was plain, and that’s not a pejorative term in this context.

In 2010, Haggard was recognized as a Kennedy Center honoree. It was the same year that Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey were recognized, and in the official photos, you can see how different Haggard was … although Winfrey also had a hardscrabble beginning, she’s spent her adult life working hard to scrub it from her countenance. Haggard, on the other hand, wore his past like a mantle, his life etched across his face and in his bearing. He was always slightly apart from the mainstream, forging his own path and going his own way.

Haggard’s legacy lives on in country music today in performers such as Ryan Bingham, Jason Isbell, Nikki Lane and Tim Easton. Every time someone manages to crank out a record without compromising, or write a good song that works equally well in multiple genres, they’re traveling the path forged by Haggard and the rest of the original country Outlaws. In that regard, Haggard’s spirit, and perhaps a little of what originally made cowboys capture the American imagination, will forever live on.

Sara Farr

Sara Farr

Sara Farr is currently an adjunct marketing instructor at the School of Advertising Art. Previously, she worked as a graphic designer at Variety for six years, and spent 10 years before that as a music writer for various Midwestern and Los Angeles-based newspapers and magazines. Her work appears in “The Little Black Book, Music: Over a Century of the Greatest Artists, Albums, Songs, Performances and Events That Rocked the Music World.”

One Response to On Silver Wings: Remembering Merle Haggard
  1. Shawn C. Baker Reply

    Beautiful piece. A brilliant send off to a wonderful artist.

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