Forgotten Misses: Merle Haggard, “In My Next Life”

by

May 1, 2010

In My Next Life
Merle Haggard
#58
1994

Written by Max D. Barnes

Sometimes forgotten singles weren’t even hits in the first place. In that spirit, we introduce the sister feature of Forgotten Hits.

Merle Haggard would’ve sounded great on the radio in 1994, as he returned with his strongest single in years. Haggard scored his first top ten hit in 1965, and still reached as high as #4 in 1989. But as the wave of new country stars overwhelmed playlists, he was one of many legendary artists who could no longer get a seat at the table.

Sadly, one of his best songs was lost in the shuffle.  “In My Next Life” tells the story of a farmer and his wife.  The farmer is plagued with guilt and insecurity because he feels he has been failure, as one more season of drought has proved the death knell for his family farm.  He stands by his wife, both of them in tears, and tells her:

In my next life, I want to be your hero,
Something better than I turned out to be.
I spent this life behind a plow and harrow.
In my next life, I’ll make you proud of me.

The second verse pulls no punches, as it takes place at the man’s deathbed. Before he repeats the refrain as his dying words, the greater truth of this situation is revealed, as listeners are given the details that the man himself cannot see:

The muscles in his arms, just like his run down farm
Soon withered up and slowly disappeared.
One hard working man, two hard working hands,
Were giving up after all these years.

His aging eyes grew dim, and the lady that worshipped him,
Sat crying on a chair beside his bed.
Her hands caressed his brow, she said, “It’s alright now,”
And as he slowly slipped away he said,

In my next life, I want to be your hero…

The man in this song bears resemblances to my father that go beyond the shared name of John, and it is impossible for me to listen to the song without being deeply moved. My father was a master electrician who worked with his hands all of his life. Though we were always well provided for and often did quite well during economic boom years, he struggled toward the end of his life, as his age made it more difficult to find a job.

Yet he always found a way, and was back at work on what became his final project – a bank on the lower west side of Manhattan – when he started experiencing back pain. What was first assumed to be a side effect of long subway rides was diagnosed as pancreatic cancer, and five months later, he was gone.

In his final weeks, his biggest concern was not his failing health but the fear that the mortgage on our home would leave his wife and family without the stability he always wanted for us. This man who had been a spectacular success by all important measures, who was indeed worshipped by his wife and children, feared that he had been a failure. I have no painful memories associated with my father other than seeing that emotional suffering paired with the already devastating physical suffering with which he was afflicted.

I wonder if this song captures a universal truth about men who made their living working with their hands, particularly those who were self-employed and didn’t have the security of a union or retirement plan. My dad used to be in awe of my ability to write and speak in public, two skills that he always felt beyond his abilities. I would retort that if he tried to do what I do, he’d stumble over his words and make some grammar errors. If I tried to do what he did, I’d be dead from electrocution in seconds.

Recent professional successes for me have reminded me more than ever of the absence of my father, who I know would be so proud of me, and it hurts that he isn’t here to share in them. So on a Saturday morning when Dad is anything but forgotten, I celebrate a forgotten single that deserves the audience that it never received upon release.


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Category: Forgotten Misses
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  1. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Beautiful post.

  2. Paul DennisNo Gravatar says:

    You are so right Kevin – this is a lost classic. It is a damning indictment of country radio (or of the tastes of modern listeners) that this was not a major hit. This isn’t one of my top ten favorite Hag songs, but then it’s impossible to stuff 50 immortal classics into a top ten !

  3. MichaelNo Gravatar says:

    Good freaking call on this single. Thank you for reminding me of it. This was my first exposure to Merle Haggard when I got into country music in my early teens. A very touching write up, Kevin and a nice way to kick of a Saturday morning, indeed!

  4. CMWNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve always liked this song, so it’s cool to see it highlighted in this way… kinda surprising that Haggard didn’t have a hand in writing it, since it’s such an exact match for his ‘poet of the working man’ image. 1994 and 1996 were two of the first Hag albums I picked up, so they’ve got a special place in my memory. As others have said, a very touching write-up, Kevin.

  5. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with Paul that, while this single isn’t among my favorites of Haggard’s, that’s only because his catalogue is so rich. I didn’t discover this one until several years after its release, but it’s one of its eras biggest missed opportunities.

    (Great idea for a new feature, by the way).

    Something I’ve always railed against is the idea that criticism is supposed to be “objective,” and I think this exceptional piece of writing bears this out: The finest music writing is informed by the way a writer’s personal experiences and perceptions interact with a piece of music. And this is truly a fine piece of writing, Kevin.

  6. BobNo Gravatar says:

    Wow. Never heard the song before but I can see how it moved you. I know some people who almost never listen to music. Don’t know how they get by without it.

  7. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    Definitely an underrated gem.

  8. Tara SeetharamNo Gravatar says:

    Kevin, this is a lovely write-up.

  9. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar says:

    Just … great.

  10. insanNo Gravatar says:

    this post is dedicated to everyone , that anything but forgotten.

    the lyrics and the story is inspiring.

    i salute to ur father, and the farmer in that lyric. great attitude of men

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