The one time I met Merle Haggard was in 2002 after a show in Athens, Georgia. I waited awhile until he emerged from his tour bus.
“My favorite song of yours is ‘Wishing All These Old Things Were New,” I told him.
He thanked me but also seemed surprised. Haggard had nearly 40 number one hits, from the 1960s through the 80s, and here was a kid telling him his favorite song was something he put out just two years prior.
But part of why I liked it is I felt it stood up to his most famous work but likely wouldn’t get the same attention.
More importantly, it was also simple.
“Watching while some old friends do a line,” went the first line.
He was singing about doing cocaine:
Holding back the want to end my own addicted mind
Wishin’ it was still the thing even I could do
Wishin’ all these old things were new.
You don’t have to guess what he’s talking about. The lyrics get right to the point. Virtually all of his lyrics are like this.
Merle Haggard wrote like people talk.
That sounds easy. It’s not.
Perhaps my favorite example of how good he was at this sort of street-level writing style is his 1979 song “Footlights:”
I live the kinda life most men only dream of
I make my livin’ writin’ songs and singin’ them
But I’m forty-one years old and I ain’t got no place to go when it’s over
So I hide my age and make the stage and
Try to kick the footlights out again
This sounds like he’s sitting down for an interview and talking about what it’s like to be a country star getting older.
It doesn’t get any more straightforward than “I make my livin’ writin’ songs and singin’ them.”
And yet none of this sounds dumb at all. In theory, it should.
I’ve always marveled at this.
Country music as a genre is stripped down straight talk, but no one did it quite like Haggard.
Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are among the greatest American songwriters, but when you read their lyrics it sounds like what we typically think of as songs. It feels like you’re reading lyrics.
Haggard’s writing always read more like a monologue. A conversation on a porch.
It sounded like people talking.
In my career as a political writer, I’ve admired pundits like George Will and Bill Buckley. G.K. Chesterton and Russell Kirk were also an influence on me at a young age.
But I’ve never wanted to write like any of them. It’s actually really hard to write like that.
I’m a southern guy who loves punk, heavy metal music (and old school country), professional wrestling and corny jokes.
There ain’t nothing fancy about me.
In my role as a political editor, I often get submissions from young writers who’re attempting to sound like what they think good writing should be. It reads like they’re trying too hard. Probably because they are.
I tell them: You very well might be the next George Will, Bill Buckley or Christopher Hitchens. But it takes a while to get there, if you ever do. Regardless, you should never try to be something you’re not.
Be who you are and what you are.
That’s why I’ve always tried to write like Merle Haggard.
I want you to get the point of what I’m saying and quickly. I want to the words on the page (or computer screen) to sound like I’m talking to you in the simplest manner, without it sounding silly or juvenile.
The words should speak for themselves. No need for rhetorical flourish.
The Houston Chronicle noted in 2010, “Merle Haggard was about to take the stage in England one night in the late 1980s when a song came to him. He quickly dictated parts of it to four people standing in the wings before going out to play.”
It’s hard to write like you’re just talking without sounding stupid.
But that’s what Merle Haggard did every time he wrote a song.
That’s an art too.