Merle Haggard, Hero. By: Gino De Santis
I’ve always felt I had a way with words. Whether this sentiment is an accurate reflection of who I truly am, I’m uncertain of; however, sharing my feelings and explaining these feelings has always come easy for me. I’d like to begin by clarifying something…, I’m not writing this to get a response; moreover, I’m writing this to honor my hero.
My hero does not wear a cape, or fly around making people believe he’s capable of things that are physically and notably impossible, he’s the antithesis of this, my hero stands for something much greater in my opinion.
I grew up in a torn family and by the age of 8 my heroes (my mother and father) both failed each other and, consequently failed me. By the age of 17, I broke a few laws and got into some trouble. It was nothing serious, but I was teetering on the fence of good and bad; balancing between a life of trouble or walking the straight line in life. Although my parents, still divorced, attempted to help me as much as they could; my conservator and defender came in the form of a musician/songwriter….enter: Merle Haggard. I AM NOT trying to say that my parents are bad parents because they’re not. They’re just two normal people who wanted the best but couldn’t be their best together. They made mistakes, and they know it, yet so have I. I could’ve made their transition easier and I didn’t, and I regret that daily, nevertheless I’m still ultimately thankful for each of them. They are both still completely involved in mine and my family’s lives and for that I’m thankful.
I must say that I solidly and wholeheartedly believe that without Haggard’s music, I would’ve ended up on the wrong side life. Running around with the wrong crowd incarcerated and incorrigible could’ve been my alternate life. Haggard’s music is directly responsible for preserving me by keeping me on this side, the good side, of that fence I alluded to earlier. And although I had and continue to have an affinity for all music genres and types, I found something so filling in Merle’s music. His voice, amazing! His tone, timbre, method of delivery, ability to lead a band, and also his musical ability ignited a fire within me. Not just any fire, a fire that incessantly burns stronger and stronger inside of me. This fire has given me the strength to love and be loved, to give and share, to feel, to father, to be the best man I can be for my wife and kids, to be a good listener, to be a great friend, and to ultimately chase all dreams. I listened to Merle and vividly pictured every story he told. I lived his message. This fire has helped me in almost every situation in life, for Haggard has a story about whatever situation life threw at him. Literally, Haggard and his music is, without a doubt, responsible for much of who I’ve become. I’ve collected his music. I’ve studied his music. I’ve read his books. I’ve recorded every T.V. special, and I still find myself wanting more. I did this because his work mattered so deeply to me. While performing his music, I wasn’t after his fame, I was helping to distribute and spread his stories and sound by sharing Merle’s music with everyone and anyone. And many times, when the night was right, and the band was on; I believe he would’ve been proud of what we were doing with his music as we performed.
In my years following my 18th birthday, I began to have some great experiences singing; but most of my singing was done privately and behind closed doors. As I became braver and braver, I mustered up the guts to step out on the stage. Not only was the stage a niche where I would find an escape for all of life’s problems, I’d eventually notice that it was a place where I made people happy; and where I’d perform live for people for 23 years now. I was learning, developing, creating, and the music…, I always attempted to add to it. My duty was to ADD to it, not take away from it. To clarify this point, picture your ancestors and all they’ve done to get you where you are today. Would they approve of where you are? Have you taken advantage of their trials and tribulations and learned from their mistakes and added to humanity? These are the types of questions I asked myself as a performer. No, I would not please everyone and I’m not perfect, but I’m certain I was doing Merle proud. I was not riding on his coattails, I was ADDING to his music through my own vocal styling while adding even more by communicating via my violin/fiddle. Additionally, with the help of many great friends here in El Paso: Phil Telford, Herb Walker, Tony Quero, The Pineda Brothers, John Foster, Joe Rodriguez, Bill Radcliffe, Ted Scanlon, Neal and the Good Time Gang, Joe Seltzer, Jimmy Tomlinson, Borderline Band, all my musician friends who have passed on, and many many more who I know I’m leaving out. I took something from everyone I’ve played with and incorporated their styles into who I am today, so I learned a little about music. Country music became my thing. Now I’ve matured as a musician and have further discovered and experimented with other forms of music like Bob Wills and Ray Price, just to mention a few. The old stuff has meaning, and affected people like it affected me. Merle was responsible for ALL of this. I wanted to sing his notes, to play his music, and to tell the real story of life; Haggard’s music filled me so completely.
Today, my Hero has died. I can’t say I wasn’t expecting this, but how does someone ever prepare for death? How do we learn from it? And most importantly, how do we, the living, spread all the positive and good someone has done, and continue with their life’s creations, lessons, and gifts they leave behind once they’re gone?? It troubles me so dearly that his music is becoming obsolete, and that people really believe that it’s not worth much and needs to be phased out. Most people don’t even know who Haggard is, and I want to leave everyone with this message.
Merle is my hero – in every way, shape and form. He affected me so much that I will promise to carry and share his lessons, his music, and his story. I’m not knocking new country (yeah you knew I had to add this) but it’s horrible how the industry has used, stolen, and has created the irrational, simple minded, and stupid music of this day and age. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Only terrible music makes money today.” I cannot agree more. money has created the sickness, and I’m forever delighted I never took that offer years ago –(only a few know of this). I would’ve probably ended up just like Toby Keith.
I have some suggestions: Don’t just listen to music cause it’s trendy or cool, listen to EVERYTHING, EVERY BIT OF IT. Scrutinize it, put it under a microscope and observe it closely; and then, maybe then it may reveal it’s pureness. EDUCATE yourselves on what you hear. Nothing is more powerful than educating yourself on your music, for it’s a reflection of who you are and what’s inside of you. Educating yourself makes you dangerous. I stand firm that most of this new country would not stand up to the old, and would fail horribly if scrutinized and tested. Much of what I say is opinion, but it’s a professional one. The money schemes, the thinning meaning of it all will be exposed and It will not be played by musicians 25+ years from now because people will eventually educate themselves. Merle’s music is played everyday, every night, and there’s not a true musical country group that doesn’t play at least one of his songs. His music, the music that I love, will live on. I will teach my son and daughter to ‘listen’ and compare everything to Haggard. Furthermore, I promise to sing at least one song by Merle each time I take the stage, and this Sunday in Hatch I will be singing nothing but Merle Haggard songs.
Thank all of you for being my friends, for being my musical mentors, and for continuing to support real, live country music.
Thank you Merle, for everything!! You are my hero.
~Gino De Santis
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