Thank You Merle Haggard: Saving lives with the wisdom of lyrics learned from hard living

I have a lot to thank Merle Haggard for and I’ve been thinking about them all since his death on April 6th 2016.  He had a lot of great songs, but for me the most important and my personal favorite was ‘Misery and Gin.’  I was 12 years old when I saw the movie Bronco Billy by Clint Eastwood for the first time.  It was and still is one of my favorite movies.  It hit me at just the right time in my life.  Like the Clint Eastwood character in that movie, I was socially awkward up to that point, so I could easily relate to his quirkiness.  But the tenacity for which the Bronco Billy’s character stuck to his beliefs even in spite of a changing world held a lot of appeal to me—so I watched it often.  One particular time was as a late teenager, I had just been in a serious car accident running around with friends.  The driver crashed in a manner that should have killed everyone.  I had blood running down every part of my body, and every bone hurt.  It was probably the most fun I had ever had watching a movie was that particular time.  I had taped Bronco Billy on a new VHS tape off television and enjoyed watching it when I needed a lift—and as I  breathed a sigh of relief at still being alive, the Bronco Billy message resonated intensely with me at that particular time.  And of all the good songs in that movie it was ‘Misery and Gin’ which had taught me the most about life.  Clint Eastwood wisely allowed Merle Haggard to have an extended section of the movie to sing his new song and rolled it nicely into the events of the movie—and I never forgot it.

‘Misery and Gin’ was everything that I didn’t want to be in life. It was a parody of itself, a country song that espoused all the misery that drinking, picking up loose women, and bars filled with cigarette smoke entailed.   It was an extremely honest song and was one that I decided very early on that I wanted nothing to do with relating to lifestyle choices.  It reminded me of several uncles I had who lived that life, and I thought they were losers.  It gave me more conviction to turn away from that kind of life well before I was deep into puberty—and I am thankful for it.  Regarding the night of the car accident, I was with a friend in a hot rod car after a Christmas party for the place we worked.  That friend and I had a rival relationship; we would continually outdo each other on daring deeds.  We took outlandish risks to satisfy the inner daredevil in us—such as playing high-speed chicken with cop cars, fighting the biggest bullies in whatever number they presented themselves and performing any risk of physical manner that opportunity allowed like jumping across high-rise roof tops.  We did some really crazy things that should have killed us several hundred times over—and neither of us ever backed down from anything.  But you can only push things so far.  We both had a knack for coming out on top no matter how deep in trouble we got ourselves.  I think I was around 17 at the time.

One thing I had on this friend is that he had difficulty with talking to girls and women.  I was never afraid to talk to any girl anywhere about anything.  It was very easy for me, but for him it was extremely difficult.  He could never find the right words for the right girl.  So I’d hang that over his head whenever I could.  He’d respond by showing off more to compensate for his inequity.  I had arranged for three very attractive girls to race us back to his house after this Christmas party so he was showing off in his hot rod car to do his part in impressing them.  He let them get on the highway in front of us by nearly a mile and his plan was to blow by them at over 150 MPH—to show them how fearless and how powerful his car was—because we all know that girls like that kind of thing—the naughty side of them anyway.  That’s when his angle was wrong and there was too much traffic on the road and his Chevy, Nova had too short of a wheel base to maneuver quickly in any kind of evasive action so he fishtailed wildly into a retaining wall after blowing by the girls and the car spun endlessly through the heavy traffic before going airborne then flipping end over end down the highway.  Of course we didn’t wear seat belts in those days.

Miraculously we landed with the car pinned up against a retaining wall, nose down and pieces of the car strewn all over the highway.  We were both alive and hadn’t hit any other cars somehow.  But we were all sliced up from broken glass and the violence of the impacts.  The police came and arrested my friend for reckless operation, endangerment and a whole host of other violations.  I was free to go to the hospital.  Instead, the three girls took me home and helped me get all patched up.  I put duck tape on the deep cuts to hold the skin together and applied maple syrup to clot up the blood that was still dripping everywhere.  After all that was over, I watched Bronco Billy after popping some popcorn and having a nice cold Coke.  That is when I realized that life didn’t get any better than that.  A good movie, a nice drink, and the thrill of being alive—all I needed was a nice woman to share that kind of thing with. I met my wife about 9 months later—and obviously now I live a lot like Bronco Billy did in that movie—by choice largely because I decided to after that night.  It was a little more complicated than that, but looking back, it’s pretty easy to see.

Of that movie it was actually Merle Haggard’s song ‘Misery and Gin’ which communicated strongest to me.  I decided I wanted no part of living anything like that life.  While most everyone I have known before and since find appeal to that lifestyle—it doesn’t have to be a country honky-tonk, it could be a BW3s or a nightclub—drinking and hanging out with women who have made bad decisions in their lives and living a life of perpetual misery just wasn’t something I was going to do—and I never have.  Even that night in the car, it was my love of life which was the secret ingredient that the girls liked so much and why it was so easy to get them to come along and do whatever I wanted—including patching me up.  Of course nobody understood that—but I knew it was the promise of getting away from the misery and gin lifestyle that the girls had been trained which was their ultimate fate by a society stuck to that fate by their own bad decisions.  I offered a release from that, something of a lottery ticket.  It was very appealing to both the opposite sex, and the guy friends I had who clearly wanted to be a part of it whenever possible.

I used Bronco Billy to bond with my wife.  We watched it several times a month during our early marriage and she came to understand the words of Merle Haggard very well.  Without Bronco Billy, it might have been too difficult to convey to her what kind of life I intended to live.  She wouldn’t have understood.   But the mood of the entire movie was captured so nicely in that old Merle Haggard song and I have to thank him for it.  It put my life in a positive direction very early.  Without it, I probably would have still found a way, but it might have taken me a decade or two more to figure it all out.  Because of his song, I was able to accelerate the process and apply it much more quickly than if it hadn’t of ever been made.  So I’ll miss Merle Haggard. He made my life better in a lot of ways. He was certainly one of the greats and I’ll always be thankful.  Listen to the words and maybe it will help you too.IMG_0193

Rich Hoffman


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