The first time I heard Merle Haggard, I was in my Grandaddy’s 1994 Ford F150 in east Arkansas. The pace and tone of the song collided with the mood of the day. Being about 8 years old, I had a lot of questions by the time Mr. Haggard reached his resolution at the last chord. In case you aren’t familiar, the song is a bit of a downer.
“I wish a buck was still silver and it was back when the country was strong.
Back before Elvis and before the Vietnam war came along….
Before the Beatles and yesterday when a man could still work and still would.”
The change in the cupholder rattled while the two-way radio interrupted Haggard’s main question…
"Is the best of the free life behind us now and are the good times really over for good?"
He continues on in this way with many examples of how things have changed, and the listener feels pretty powerless. I picture his record label felt this too and likely told him he had to have some positive message or hope attached. It’s like Haggard begrudgingly changed a few words to the last stanza just to get it recorded. The effort falls a little short.
Stop rollin' downhill like a snowball headed for hell.
Standup for the flag, and let's all ring the liberty bell.
Let's make a Ford and a Chevy that'll still last ten years like they should...
The best of the free life is still yet to come and the good times ain't over for good.
Maybe it was the way he said it, but I wasn’t convinced. I didn’t like the ending as a kid. No real evidence like the rest of the song,
“wish a coke was still cola, and a joint was a bad place to be…”
Just a ‘hey stop doing that and, no, it’s probably not over.’
It put some pressure to do something, but no solid suggestion of what that thing might be. I think every generation could write their own version of this song. We all remember the best times as the times we were young. Relative to older age, things are simple when young. Case in point, I thought life was pretty good in that black Ford going to get a newspaper with country music playing and the windows down, even though the radio shook its finger and head at me.
“before microwave ovens, when a girl could still cook, and still would....“
My granddaddy died my senior year of high school. This was the same year I received my first text message and when Facebook was opened up to everyone without an email ending in ‘.edu.’ I'm thankful that I grew up without worrying if I was kicked out of a group text or if I was keeping up with everything socially after 3:00 pm.
I get why Haggard is miffed. I get that way too when I start thinking about how the world I knew took a sharp turn after that year. I’m thankful that my Grandaddy only thought
"back when Nixon lied to us all on TV.."
was as bad as it could get.
Now there is a bit of a disclaimer here I think we should take into account. Things have always been whatever you want to call “bad.” The internet has only brought awareness. When I take off some time from news, social media, and even counseling, things don’t seem so gloomy. My first sex trafficking client was introduced to that world in 1974. We think of sex trafficking as a new thing, but she assured me it is not. We only know so much about it because of the awareness that has been raised.
Covid has brought death and loss to many and certainly can be grieved. However, things cannot be getting continually ‘worse.’ Wearing masks is not necessarily worse than say, the Second World War. It feels a little sheepish to say having to carry a mask in my purse compares to a Holocaust and Normandy. Disrespectful youth, hate, laziness, deceit, extreme political views, and unjust behavior have always been and will always be.
We can accept this but also acknowledge, we aren’t helping anything. If it’s always likely that things will be imperfect, maybe Haggard is right. Now that I’m older, I kind of like the ending. I agree, if you don’t like the way things are, do something about it. Put your phone down. Play outside with your kids. Quit spending money you don’t have. I'm thankful that my childhood was seemingly better than now, but I have hope that I can provide some "good ole days" to my own kids. The only one keeping the “good times” away could be us.
"It's not the events that disturb people, it’s their judgment about things." Epictetus