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

CU Archives spotlights posts from deep in the Country Universe archives.  Today, on the fourteenth anniversary of my father’s death, I bring back the first entry of Forgotten Misses, which was inspired by his memory.  

Original Publication Date: 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.

5 Comments

  1. A wonderful article Kevin about a great song

    Unfortunately Curb gave no promotional attention to Hag for this single or the album 1994, or its follow up 1996 (which had the same generic cover art- if you can call it cover art – only black print on a gray background)

    The song did receive quite a bit of airplay around Central Florida and so a number of cover bands picked it up and performed it for the next decade or so.

    One area worth exploring as part of this topic might be songs that never became big hits for anyone, because too many artists released it as a single at about the same time (that wouldn’t happen today)

    I look forward to your next article

  2. I first heard this song on the Capitol Records box set released a couple of years after this album. I really liked it.

  3. Sorry for your loss, Kevin. Unfortunately, I also know what it’s like losing a parent with my step dad having been gone for nearly two years now. I miss him every day.

    This song has been coming up on one of my favorite Spotify playlists quite a bit lately, and I always think how it’s such a shame that it wasn’t a hit. It’s such a sad, but very beautiful song. It sounds like something that could’ve been a hit as late as 1992, but by 1994, the genre was moving in more of a rock and pop direction with more emphasis on upbeat line dance ready numbers, and as you said, most all the country legends were off the airwaves for good by then. And of course there’s the whole Curb thing, as Paul pointed out.

    Actually, I enjoy Merle’s entire 1994 album very much, and if only radio was still open to playing him (and Curb actually put some effort in promoting him), there are quite a few songs on there that could’ve been hits. I love James Stroud’s production throughout, with lots of great dobro playing. The sound of the record is pretty similar to the records Tracy Lawrence, John Anderson, Clay Walker, Tim McGraw etc. put out in the early 90’s, which Stroud also produced.

  4. Although Merle’s last solo charting occurred in 1999, all (and I do mean ALL) of his albums contain worthwhile material. There are some albums on which his voice is more shopworn than others, but no matter the condition of his voice, Merle could deliver. Moreover, Merle was never content to be an oldies act, with his albums running the gamut from A to Z , whether new material/old material/very old material, solo/duets or trio albums, jazz, classic pop, country, bluegrass or whatever. His 2015 album with Mac Wiseman (TIMELESS) is a treasure, but I could say that about 95% of his catalogue.

  5. You were lucky to have him. When i read this – 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 thought of the husband in Martina McBride’s “All the Things We’ve Never Done” (Jeffrey Pennig & Craig Bickhardt).

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