One of my favorite photos of Merle Haggard.
My Tribute to Merle Haggard
By Richard Mabey Jr.
I really don’t know where to begin. Merle Haggard is my hero. I write “is my hero” because even though dear old Merle has gone to be Home with the Lord, he will remain to be my hero. I think that Merle Haggard was one of the absolute, hands-down, greatest Country Music songwriters of all time. He truly was the working man’s poet.
Back when I was in high school, there used to be a radio station in the New York and New Jersey area called WJRZ. I don’t know why I remember the call letters, but I do. It was located on the AM radio dial to the far right of 77 WABC. I believe it was at 97 on the AM radio dial.
At any rate, my good uncle, Howard Kemmerer, used to drive me to school sometimes. Uncle Howard lived close to the old Mabey Homestead. Uncle Howard was a manager at the A&P in Boonton, three towns away from me. As you rode westward on Route 202, starting at Lincoln Park, you would traverse Towaco, then Montville, then arrive in Boonton. I went to Boonton High School, because Lincoln Park did not have a high school.
Uncle Howard would play WJRZ on our ride to Boonton. I remember this so well. It was the fall of 1969, I was beginning my junior year of high school. And one morning, lo and behold, a song came on the radio that just caught my ear. It had been written by a man named Merle Haggard. I noticed right away that Merle sang with a certain cry in his voice. His voice rang out with sincerity. The song that they played on WJRZ that morning was none other than, “Okie from Muskogee.”
There was a line in that song that just rang true to my heart. When I first heard Merle Haggard sing, “a place where even squares can have a ball,” I felt like I just wanted to go to Muskogee, Oklahoma to live. You see, I was far from being a cool kid. The fact of the matter is that I was a square.
I was very shy. I was a very serious, earnest, honor roll student. I wasn’t really good at sports. I was in my junior year of high school, working like a madman to earn my Eagle Scout. I still went to Sunday School every Sunday. Then after Sunday School, I went to church. Then, on Sunday nights, after supper, I went to the Youth Fellowship meetings at my church. I was a drummer in the school band. Basically, I was the square that Merle Haggard was celebrating in his song, “Okie from Muskogee.”
I remember that we used to have study hall times at Boonton High. They were, of course, the free periods when you didn’t have any scheduled classes. Well, during these class times, you could go to the library and study. I remember this so very well. That very day, after hearing Merle’s song, “Okie from Muskogee,” I went to the library during my study hall period. I looked up Muskogee, Oklahoma in the big atlas. Then, during that same study hall time, I researched more about this magical place of Muskogee, Oklahoma, where even squares could have a ball.
From that moment in time, in that morning in Uncle Howard’s car riding to school, listening to Merle Haggard sing for the very first time in my life; I became a devoted fan of dear old Merle Haggard. I would save my allowance and lunch money to buy a Merle Haggard album. While the rest of my buddies were buying rock music albums, I was buying Merle Haggard albums.
I cried when I read that Merle had passed away. I believe, with all my heart, that Merle is in Heaven now. But still, I am immensely sad. I’m 62 years old, and I’ve been a devoted Merle Haggard fan ever since I first heard him sing on my Uncle Howard’s car radio, back in the early fall of 1969.
Merle Haggard was real. There was nothing phony about Merle Haggard. He was truly the working man’s poet. I am immensely glad that I got to see Merle in person at Silver Springs in Ocala, Florida, about three years ago.
I am lost for words to convey how much Merle Haggard touched my heart with his poetic lyrics and songs. I think that he was one of the single greatest song writers of all time. The world has lost a very talented songwriter, musician and singer. Merle Haggard was truly a great man.