Merle Haggard: truancy, auto theft, robbery, drug problems, prison in San Quentin, five-times married—all of this, according to your three writers in the June issue (Wayne Allensworth, Roger D. McGrath, Aaron D. Wolf).  Talented musician?  Yes.  “Merle Haggard: A Conservative American”?  When?  I suggest you check the definitions of conservative and sociopath.  I think I may need to order a subscription to the Journal of American Greatness.

        —John Coover
via email

Mr. Wolf Replies:

I completely understand Mr. Coover’s quandary and thank him for the lexical inquiry.  Far be it from Chronicles to advocate auto theft or serial monogamy—although I’m a little sympathetic toward the commission of truancy these days.  But then again, Merle Haggard didn’t advocate for those things, either—not in his music.  And that music was a reflection of what he aspired to be and to do, which was thoroughly conservative.  One of his best-known songs, “Mama Tried,” recognized the contradiction between personal piety (or the lack thereof) and noble aspiration: “Mama tried to raise me better / but her pleading I denied. / That leaves only me to blame / ’cause Mama tried.”  It takes a conservative to recognize that mamas are worthy of respect, that they have a particular job to do, that no childrearing is beyond the ability of an adult to disregard it through his own free will, and that blame is something that both exists and must be assessed.  Liberals may pay lip service to those things, but they will find no basis for them in liberalism.  A conservative knows that there are standards that transcend the common consensus of the day, and that we all must be measured by them.  Haggard was bold in his adherence to this sort of traditional conservatism, even when his songs defied the prevailing wisdom of “ideological conservatism,” which reduces all of life to political affiliation and expediency, and on which the editors of Chronicles have trained our rhetorical assault weapons for the last year.

And so far I’ve addressed only Haggard’s lyrics (and his asides during performances and interviews).  His musical compositions themselves were also conservative, as I wrote in “The Good Times Ain’t Over for Good” (Heresies).  Haggard was devoted to the transmission of uniquely American music, a synthesis of elements that trace back to Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, and the great Jimmy Rodgers, and beyond them to the folk music of the Scots-Irish, the Brits, and African-Americans.  Tradition, which is essential to conservatism, requires the receiver of it to respect what he’s inherited and to pass it on in such a way that it can be well received by the next generation while, at the same time, protecting the inheritance from corruption.  Haggard’s compositions were masterly examples of this kind of careful innovation.

“Conservatives” are not much known for producing art—music, poetry, novels, painting, film—these days, with a few notable exceptions, such as our filmmaker friend Ron Maxwell.  But I reckon that’s the result of our confusion of authentic conservatism with “conservative ideology,” the GOP, and Christian piety.  For conservatism to thrive again, we need to take a hard look at what’s on offer in our American culture and identify with what rightfully belongs to us, taking back what the left has attempted to steal.