(Pictured: Merle Haggard, 1993.)
(I wasn’t planning to post again until Saturday, but stuff happens.)
Linus believes the Great Pumpkin will choose his pumpkin patch because of its sincerity. “Everywhere you look, there’s not a shred of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” If that seems quaint, it’s because we can no longer tell the difference between the two. In fact, we don’t care. The appearance of sincerity is enough for us.
Looking like you care is often every bit as useful as actual concern. It’s a guise you take on, and then take off when people are no longer watching. I do it myself, and so do you. We are often required to demonstrate concern about things that don’t really matter to us. We do it to please an employer, a customer, a spouse, or a family member when we wouldn’t give it a second thought otherwise. To navigate these situations, the appearance of sincerity is usually enough. (It’s certainly less emotionally taxing than maintaining the real thing.)
But when many of us are projecting an image that may not reflect what’s in our hearts—from the workplace to the marriage bed to wherever the hell—real sincerity lands like a punch in the face. Honest emotion and true wisdom legitimately earned are to the appearance of sincerity what a glass of straight Kentucky whiskey is to one of those fruit-flavored Bud Light concoctions. You’re knocked square on your ass; you realize that your phony bullshit is just playacting, and there’s a whole ‘nother level of real out there.
As I write this, it’s been about two hours since I learned of the death of Merle Haggard. Oddly, this loss hurts me more than the recent deaths of Glenn Frey and Keith Emerson, even though the music of the Eagles and Emerson Lake and Palmer ranks far higher on my personal hit list than that of Hag. Losing Haggard is painful because the truth-tellers are going, and they’re making damn few new ones. When they’re gone, we’ll lose whatever chance we have at knowing what’s real and what isn’t.
Merle Haggard did not project the appearance of sincerity. He sang with authority. He wasn’t acting like a country singer, like those dudes singing about dirt roads and skinny-dippin’ in the crick despite having a suburban upbringing and a college education. He was doing the only thing he could do, based on who he really was, on the places he’d really come from, on a life he lived a day at a time.
“I turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole / No one could steer me right but mama tried,” goes one of his most famous songs. I remember being horrified by that image when I first heard it as a kid—even more so when I realized that Haggard had done time, that he must have known boys just like the one in “Mama Tried”—and probably could have ended up as such a boy. Years later, at a time supposed to be “morning in America,” he wondered aloud whether the good times were over for good. And as I played that record on the radio, a young man in his early 20s just starting out, I worried that he might be right.
When authority speaks, you’d best pay attention.
Saturday night is not always a party. Sunday morning does not always bring redemption. We are not destined to win all the time, in love or in anything else. Country music—any form of art, really—is lying to us if it fails to acknowledge all that. In truth, the only thing we know for sure is that we’re gonna have to deal with some shit. Maybe times will get better, and maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be a happy ending, and maybe there won’t.
Merle Haggard sang about that, at the end of 1973, a recession-wracked year that was just the beginning of an awful time in America’s national life, in the only way he could: with mingled pain and hope, and a willingness to face the future even though it comes with no guarantees. He sang with sincerity, honest emotion, and true wisdom legitimately earned.
“If We Make It Through December” was Merle Haggard’s lone Top 40 hit, reaching #28 on January 19, 1974; it spent four weeks at#1 on the country chart in December 1973 and 1974, and is his second-biggest country hit of all time behind only “Okie From Muskogee.” I haven’t seen it mentioned much amongst the many Haggard tributes online since yesterday, but to me, it’s his monument.