Merle Haggard had a problem. His star was quickly rising in the world of country music, but he was afraid a skeleton in his closet would come back to haunt him. He had spent three years in San Quentin. His fear was that some morning he might pick up the newspaper and read a headline about his doing hard time.
While in San Quentin, he found inspiration for a career in music when Johnny Cash performed for the inmates. He met Cash years later when his career was starting to take off and told him he feared that once people found out about his prison record it would end up being his undoing.
Cash, whose own past included some ugly chapters, gave him a piece of advice that not only relieved Haggard of his fear but proved to be a pivotal turning point in his career. The man in black told Merle to pen a song about his days in the pen and people would appreciate his honesty.
Haggard set about writing a song that told the story of how his mother raised him right but how he instead chose to do wrong. The lyrics revealed unflinching candor, “I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole. No one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried.” Mama Tried topped the charts in 1968 and became one of his biggest hits.
In an article written by Robert Hilburn entitled Hard Times, Truth and Inspiration, Haggard admitted that his first big hit, Swingin’ Doors, was written just to make money. “That’s the way a lot of writers start out. You are concerned about getting enough money for your family, so you try to figure out what people are going to like. You should never really forget that someone is going to be listening to a song, but you eventually start looking beyond just your audience to find something that also speaks to you.”
Haggard’s career was defined by songs that that not only spoke to him but spoke to others. During the Dust Bowl Depression years of the 1930s his parents fled to California with thousands of others from Oklahoma looking for work. The term Okie was a derogatory label that these poor migrant families had to wear as a badge of dishonor. I can imagine him enduring the taunts of other kids who called him an Okie when he was growing up. But his Oklahoma heritage inspired the song he may most be remembered for — Okie from Muskogee. Haggard’s song gave a whole new meaning to what it meant to be an Okie. It quickly became the anthem of the Silent Majority that resided in Middle America. It countered the counter-culture songs that filled the airwaves in the late 1960s.
I doubt that Merle Haggard would have reached his true potential as a singer had he not taken a detour through San Quentin. Mama Tried was a cautionary tale — a reminder that no matter how much someone may try to steer us down the right road it’s up to us to choose that road. The thing that Merle Haggard thought would wreck his career turned out to be the thing that took his career to iconic status. He became successful when he dared to sing about the experiences that shaped who he was.
“Too many people overvalue what they are not,” said Malcolm Forbes, “and undervalue what they are.” How many of us are guilty of overvaluing what we are not and undervaluing what we are? We are each created to be our singularly unique selves, so that we can fulfill our singularly unique purpose in life. When I can truly learn to be me then I’m on the road to being all I’m supposed to be.
Sometimes, as Merle Haggard discovered, it takes a detour to help us find our way.
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