Thursday, April 7, 2016
I imagine there are a lot of people out there asking, "What's the big deal about another old country singer passing away?" and what's a guy who spends his time creating and writing about weird avant-garde music that most people find unlistenable doing getting worked up about country, that annoying, corporate, assembly-line pop music from the radio? Well, it's because Merle Haggard was one of a kind--because great songwriting is great regardless of genre trappings--and because the man's music and story clearly have that special quality that touches people's lives. In remembrance of a singular musical figure, I'd like to say what his music meant to me by considering three of my favorite Hag albums.
I first heard Merle Haggard's music about 10 years ago, when my mom and I saw him open for Bob Dylan in Portland--what a show, which included a surprise stage appearance (but no performance) by that other Bakersfield luminary Buck Owens, who passed away not long afterward, and also included Dylan performing a delightfully craggy rendition of Owens' "A-11." Merle's brand of old-school, steel guitar-drenched Bakersfield country immediately struck a chord with me and I became an instant fan. A couple years and about 15 albums later, I was a devotee for life, for countless reasons.
Branded Man was my first Hag record--it didn't disappoint my expectations after seeing the man perform. While in retrospect, it's a relatively minor entry in his classic string of 60's and early 70's releases, the songs and performances demonstrate all of the things that make Hag so special--it's got that hard-edged Bakersfield sound that stands in stark opposition to the contemporaneous Nashville production, which sounds almost baroque in comparison, and it's got a wide-ranging set of songs that deal with heartbreak, drinking, and jail--those country music wellsprings that seem to never go dry. What sets Hag apart from other singers on these subjects, though, is his authenticity. Sure, as a performer he imagines himself into many characters and situations, but it's always clear that there's a passion and powerfully true emotional weight that's informed by his difficult upbringing, his troubles with the law, and his struggles as an imperfect human being. And those track titles! "Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive;" "Don't Get Married;" "Gone Crazy;" "I Made the Prison Band"--the song titles are stories unto themselves! And yet, there's so much more depth to these songs than crying-in-your-beer earnestness; Hag's wry wit is never too far around the corner, be it expressed as the hallowed country music trope of cheesy wordplay (e.g., the ex-girlfriend whose grasping, materialistic aspiration was riding in a "Long Black Limousine" and, after a fatal car crash, finally gets to, or turns-of-phrase like "if you're trying to break my heart, you don't have very far to go"), or in the carefree expression of lovesick madness that is "Gone Crazy." Through it all, it's plainly evident that Hag--the man who sat in the San Quentin pen serving time for armed robbery while a certain so-called "outlaw" performed his act for the prisoners--isn't just singing these words, he's living them. Even at this early stage, he proves through consummate songwriting that he can't be pinned down to a reductive conservative ideology, tackling the subject of cross-cultural relationships in "Go Home." I'd be remiss if I didn't mention those buttery smooth vocals--from the swooping highs to the reedy lows, there are valuable lessons for any singer to be gleaned from Hag's impeccable phrasing and his ability to wring emotion out of the simplest melodies.
Hag's second album, Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down may be a bit less sophisticated than Branded Man, but it stands tall next to Buck Owens' Together Again/My Heart Skips a Beat and I've Got a Tiger by the Tail as one of the purest, hardest-hitting exemplars of the Bakersfield sound ever recorded. This is the record I reached for first when I got home yesterday--it's got two out-and-out hits in the dual title tracks, with that aforementioned wit present in droves (every track seems founded on a cleverly worded conceit), it's got that slinky steel guitar running roughshod all over all the tracks, and in between, it's stuffed with filler that's as good as any top shelf singles--an art that seems to have been lost since the 60's. The subject matter may be a little narrower in scope, but damn if that cracking snare and Hag jubilantly working his way through heartache and self-loathing isn't a recipe for a good time. As bummed as I was when I got home yesterday, this album reminded me that Hag's music has always been about good times for me--after all these years, "I Can't Stand Me" and "Shade Tree (Fix-It Man)" never fail to get me moving and singing along--and there's no better music to drive to, might I add.
Lastly, I'd like to point to 1971's Someday We'll Look Back as an album that exemplifies the depth of Hag's s songwriting, his influence on country music to come, and his broad-ranging appeal. By this time, his Bakersfield approach had become steeped with even more stylistic influences than on albums like Branded Man, incorporating western swing ("The Only Trouble With Me"), straight-up blues ("Huntsville"), folk ("Tulare Dust"), and Nashville-styled pop country ("Carolyn"). The incorporation of these influences not only speaks to the man's restless growth as an artist (heralded by his outstanding tribute albums, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills) and Same Train, a Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimmie Rodgers), it prefigures the assimilation of mainstream music that, for better or worse, changed the face of country music in the 80's through to its present, abominable state (as Hag himself would and did say in so many words). Through it all, Hag pours his emotion, his sensitive worldview, and his imperfection as a human being into the songs and the performances. This album is heavy on the hardships of his upbringing and the uplifting forces of family and nostalgia, themes that are indispensably woven in the fabric of all of his greatest works. You can feel the grit of the dust and cotton fluffs on Steinbeck-ian tracks like "Tulare Dust," "California Cottonfields," and "One Row at a Time," as he sings about his family's tragic poverty, the failure of his father's attempts to migrate for economic opportunity, and, of course, the resulting troubles with the law that so often accompany such a background. The regret expressed by these song's characters is a real part of a complicated performer, but so is his enduringly optimistic outlook--as the title track refrains, "someday, we'll look back and say: 'it was fun'". Finally, this album gives us "Big Time Annie's Square," a song about what happens when a country boy tracks down his hometown sweetheart in a hippie commune. Hag's output from this period is peppered with songs that describe similar cross-cultural clashes, not least of which is "Okie From Muskogee," one of his signature and most controversial tunes. What always strikes me about these songs is that they're so much deeper, so much more empathetic they seem at first blush. He always acknowledges the seemingly insurmountable differences between conservative country folk and big city progressives and the tensions that caused (and continue to cause) so much friction, but he is always ready to see the commonalitiy we share as human beings, and that even the most serious beliefs and pride should be taken with a wink and a grain of salt--it is manifestly clear that Hag believed that love and respect can overcome cultural differences, and that a heterogeneous society is something to be celebrated in compromise, not pushed apart by division--a concept that seems woefully lost on contemporary country music's reprehensible patterns of widespread promotion of consumerism and in-song corporate product placement, shallow jingoism and nationalism, and angrily divisive, exclusionary expressions of cultural identity. It bears mentioning that these attitudes aren't limited to music, and that folks on both sides of the ever-growing cultural and political divides that dominate modern life would do well to learn from Hag's message of empathy and the pitfalls of ideological extremism. This might be pop music, but it's thinking-person's pop music, and the fact that a man like Merle Haggard had a mouthpiece to broadly express such a layered, authentic, and human outlook is a special thing indeed.
Like any great artist, Hag's challenges as a person are evident in his art--that's why it endures and has appealed to many kinds of people across the decades--even staunch advocates of the avant-garde like yours truly! I'm continually thankful to have this music--from which I've learned so much as a songwriter, performer, and human being--in my life, and I urge anybody who's scoffed at country music in its present form or written it off as shallow and not "for" people like them to give a classic Merle Haggard record a spin--you just might find out why the passing of this country singer really is a big deal to a lot of people: history marches on, a lot has changed in 50 years, and the world that shaped an artist like Hag ain't making them like it used to. Thanks for everything, Hag.
For further reading, check out past reviews of Strangers, Branded Man, Sing Me Back Home, and Someday We'll Look Back.