I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole

For those of you who are not Merle Haggard fans, this is not a missing chapter of my life that I forgot to blog about (current employer take note that you don’t need to redo the background check…). This is the chorus of one of my favorite Merle songs, “Mama tried”.

I was crushed when Merle Haggard died a few weeks ago.

I wasn’t raised on country western music, but I grew to love it during my shoe repair and saddle making days. I grew up listening to rock and roll, along with a healthy dose of classical (more on that below). My first real exposure to country western was in Tip Top Shoe Repair and Moccasin Shop. My boss Wayne played country western all day and would shut down the load machinery anytime one of his favorites was played. I’ll always remember him singing along with “Oh lord it’s hard to be humble, When you’re perfect in every way” by Mac Davis.

My gluepot, dye, etc. This has minimal drippings.


From that point onward, if there was music playing in any of the shoe repair shops or saddle shops, it was always country western. It was just part of the culture, and to this day I like to turn on some good country western when I work in my shop. Rock and roll, jazz, and classical just don’t cut it in a leather shop for me.

I first got introduced to Merle Haggard in Santa Fe, probably in Cerrillos Saddlery. His songs were old school and stir me to this day: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee…”, “Sing me back home…”, “If we make it through December…”.

My wife also loved Merle, and we decided that if our first baby had been a boy, we would have named him Merle. When our daughter was born, my friend Lynn suggested “Merle the girl”, but we settled instead on Emily.

These formative years in the saddle shop with Merle Haggard coincided with the rise of Prince, another musical legend who tragically died this week. Prince wasn’t played in saddle shops, at least not where I worked. I never got an early exposure to him, and as a result he never became part of my life. I’m listening to some of Prince’s music now in reaction to the news, and I can see his talent and appeal, but he wasn’t part of my early life.

Probably my earliest exposure to music was “classical”, which was playing regularly in my house growing up. My mother was a professional cellist in the Utah Symphony, and orchestral music was part of my childhood. We would see many concerts (I think when babysitters weren’t available…), I’d hear my mom practice regularly, and my brother and I would spy on her cello students until we were banned to our rooms. My father also loved music, despite his late start and limited skill at the viola. Every week he had his friends come to our house for string quartets. I became familiar with many great quartets by hearing them struggle with hard passages in our living room.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that my favorite instrument is cello and that my favorite work of music is Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites. If I had to pick one piece of music to bring to a desert island or a one-way trip to Mars, this would be it. I have several different recordings, and I listen to all of them fairly regularly.

My workbench in Athens GA

We now have such an intense focus on STEM education that we often forget the value of music and the arts in a complete life. I can’t say this for certain, but I’m pretty sure that neither Bach nor Merle would be part of my life if I hadn’t been exposed to them at formative stages. Once I take the time to learn and listen to a particular genre of music, I grow to appreciate it. I was introduced to Jay Z through an interview with him by Terry Gross. Then I learned more about him and listened to his music, and now I really like Jay Z.

But Bach, Prince, and Jay Z don’t work in my leather shop. That is the domain of Merle.

Author: edisonleatherworks

I'm a biochemistry professor and leatherworker who likes bicycles, travel, art, education, and music. Walking is my favorite form of transportation, and I regularly practice Tai Chi.

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