When old things become new: a goodbye to Merle Haggard

John J. Thompson

I realize it should not come as a surprise when a 79-year-old man who lived as hard as Merle Haggard did finally leaves this world, but when I heard about his passing I had to pull over for a minute. We are losing our musical sages at a much greater clip than we are minting new ones. The math here is unsettling, to put it mildly.

Plenty of people will write brilliant obituaries of this fantastic American treasure. They’ll detail his massive impact on country music and they’ll celebrate his championing of common people. I’ll read and enjoy many of them. But when I heard about his passing I immediately thought of one song: “Wishing All These Old Things Were New,” the lead track to his somewhat obscure 2000 album If I Could Only Fly. The production is stripped down and direct, not only acknowledging Hag’s age and mileage, but celebrating both. It's an oddly spiritual and wistful lament that, not entirely unlike B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” considers the way life's fleeting pleasures lose their luster over time. Two tracks later, on the beautiful ballad “Turn To Me,” Merle assumes the voice of God as he offers a patient reminder of his only true source of help. “When walls close in around you,” he sings, “I’m the one who sets you free. When you need someone to turn to, turn to me.” It’s an intimate and experiential portrait of God’s love and care in the darkest of times. Coming from the voice of Haggard, it is pure Gospel gold.

Besides his compelling voice, one of Haggard’s greatest assets was the way he captured glimpses of sanity in an upside-down world. His songs, whether articulating slices of his own life or telling stories through other characters, were firmly grounded in the dirt of a world governed by law and consequences — even as they aspired to transcend that dynamic. As a young artist, Haggard shared openly about the hard lessons learned during his wild and criminal youth (he was an inmate at the infamous San Quentin penitentiary, where he was inspired to pursue music by Johnny Cash’s famous performance there in 1958). For the last couple of decades, however, he assumed the duties of a leathery prophet pointing toward a coming Kingdom. It was a gig he was especially good at.

Both directly and by inference, Haggard often looked forward to all things being made new.

In Revelation 21, we find John’s description of the New Jerusalem. After seeing the old heaven and the old earth pass away, he describes the arrival of a new heaven and a new earth, in which there would be no crying, mourning or pain. Jesus, from His rightful throne, proclaims that He is in the process of making everything new. Both directly and by inference, Haggard often looked forward to all things being made new. The way he imbued his supposedly “secular” songs with eschatological longing and hard-earned wisdom was something truly special. Even his joyously bawdy numbers rang with soul and landed with a wink.

And just like that, another of the greats has stepped off the stage. He leaves an incredible body of work, yet the loss will still be felt. I hope some young songwriter listening to Haggard’s work will be inspired to blaze a fresh musical trail the way he did after hearing Johnny all those years ago at San Quentin. We need more songs about old things becoming new. Godspeed, Hag, as you make your journey to that new country.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure