Me, My Dad and Country Music

With Father's Day around the corner, Jim Meredith writes about a shared love for Merle Haggard

I love country music, and I don’t just mean the country music that the arbiters of cool tell you it’s OK to love (i.e., Johnny Cash). I’ve loved it for much longer than alt-country, or Americana, or nu-country, or whatever you want to call it began being championed by British music magazines about a decade ago.

I love country music because my dad loves country music. I was brought up with the songs of Hank Williams, Slim Whitman and – especially – the mighty Merle Haggard playing all the time.

Ours was a working-class home. Both my parents worked, and worked hard at bringing myself, my older sister and younger brother up well. They valued education, and there were books in the house. But it wasn’t a cultural home in the perceived sense: we didn’t sit around listening to classical music, or go to watch plays as a family.

I never had a piano lesson in my life (I did have a couple of guitar lessons from a nun who tried to show me the chords to ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ when I

wanted to learn how to play ‘Stray Cat Strut’) and The Guardian wasn’t the newspaper of choice in our home.

No, I got my culture from the television and the record player. From the Saturday afternoon John Wayne double-bills I watched sitting on my dad’s knee, to the classic James Cagney gangster films and late-night Hammer Horror movies as I grew older. And, at weekends, there was the music.

Slim Whitman’s ‘Indian Love Call,’ or Jim Reeves singing ‘I Love You Because’ during the day, and later – after the pubs had closed – there was Merle, drifting up from the darkened living room as I lay in bed, my dad singing along to ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’ and ‘Silver Wings’ and ‘Today I Started Loving You Again'.

Later, after I grew up and left home, I took my love of country music with me. It was the one thing that would always remind me of where I came from, who I came from. Wherever I travelled – first to England, then further afield – I always had a tape of Merle Haggard’s Greatest Hits with me.

I remember singing ‘Silver Wings’ (listen below) on stage in a hotel one night in Belize City after becoming friendly with the resident performer, a large Texan fella called Chubby, with tears rolling down my face because the song reminded me so strongly of home.

I recall having an argument with two guys from Andersonstown, who were playing in Ryans Irish Bar in New Orleans, about who was better, Johnny Cash or George Jones. It was a stupid argument. The answer, of course, is Merle Haggard.

For quite a few years now I’ve been reviewing country albums on the Ralph McLean show on BBC Radio Ulster on Friday nights. My dad listens in most weeks. He is always telling me to ask Ralph to play more Haggard.

I don’t see my folks as often as I should. My dad and I don’t talk enough, but when we do it’s about the loves we share: for country music and Manchester United Football Club, two things that have been a constant in both our lives.

There’s a Merle Haggard song he wrote way back in the year I was born. It’s called ‘I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am'. Although, lyrically, the song is about a hobo down on his luck, the song always reminds me of my dad. I take a lot of pride in him. He’s done the important things – marriage, kids, grandkids – and he’s done them right.

He’s a loving husband, and a proud father and grandfather. I have friends who are estranged from their fathers, and some, sadly, whose fathers have died. At the risk of sounding like the title of a corny country song (and what’s wrong with that?) I can only say that I’m thankful that the dad I have is my dad.