20 February 2015

On Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard's latest (I hesitate to say "last" because I'm at heart an optimist, no matter what you may hear otherwise) #1 radio hit was "Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star", which peaked in February, 1988. I kind of remember being aware of "Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room" from 1984, but otherwise Hag strangely managed to stay off my radar despite country being my primary genre. My mom's favorites were Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap; my dad was more into Conway Twitty and George Jones. Just like Waylon and Willie, Hag was just sort of out there in the ether, waiting for me to find on my own later.

It wasn't until I started following the threads of the genre for myself that I kept encountering Merle Haggard time and again. You couldn't read an interview with any country artist that didn't cite him as a key influence, and he was also often credited for keeping alive the music of pioneers such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Hag was the epicenter of the entire genre, really. The liner notes for George Strait's 1995 box set, Strait Out of the Box, made that case clearly enough. When I finally got to see King George perform in 1999, he covered "Mama Tried" in the middle of his set. Two years later, when I first saw Gary Allan in concert, he covered five Haggard classics - a full sixth of his entire show. Finally, I broke down and ordered from BMG Music Club the 100-song box set Down Every Road: 1962-1994.

I'm gonna be honest: I didn't "get" it.

I understood that Haggard occupied the place in the genre that he did, as torchbearer and influence and all that, and I could glean the populist nature of his lyrics that earned him the moniker "Poet of the Common Man", but I just didn't connect with that box set. In truth, I found a lot of it kind of lethargic.

I was determined to keep at it, though. I bought a 1999 2-disc set, For the Record: 43 Legendary Hits, comprised of all-new recordings of most of Haggard's most iconic tunes. I even bought a tribute album, Mama's Hungry Eyes: A Tribute to Merle Haggard featuring artists like Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson. The punchier arrangements agreed with me more than did the original versions, at least enough that I kept exploring.

Finally, in 2003, I got to see the legend himself perform at Coyote's Music and Dance Hall in Louisville. His album, Haggard Like Never Before, dropped that same day. I'd attended probably a dozen shows at that venue by then. They were mostly cacophonies of instruments and singing, which I attributed to the acoustic of the place...until Merle Haggard & The Strangers played, and for the only time out of all the shows I ever caught there, I could hear each instrument clearly throughout the night. These guys knew what they were doing. It was downright revelatory. I bought the new album, which I rather enjoyed. I reconciled myself to the idea that I was simply a "newer, not original" Haggard fan.

And then last year, for whatever reason, it finally clicked.

In the span of about one week in May, I think I played the entirety of Down Every Road something like six or seven times. I took walks around the neighborhood listening to it on my iPod. I picked right up with it at home. I used a cassette adapter to play it while driving. I was captivated. Maybe I just hadn't hurt enough before. God knows, that time period was hard for me. The stripped-down arrangements that had previously been uninteresting were now audible manifestations of aching misery. Music is made by the space between the notes, they say, and there's something almost sadistic about the space between a lot of Hag's notes.

One of the subjects that comes up a lot whenever I discuss the music I'm into is how peculiar it is for a liberal like me to be so into country music. I'll admit, a song like "The Fightin' Side of Me" is pretty far to the right of where I identify (though I'll also admit the song is catchy as could be and I sing along with it in spite of myself every time). But here's the thing: I listen to a song like "(I'm A) Lonesome Fugitive" or "Sing Me Back Home" and I understand why the world needs Merle Haggard. Johnny Cash used his voice to highlight the experiences of marginalized people, too, but there's a key difference: Haggard had actually served hard time. He wasn't empathizing with inmates; he was writing and singing as one.

As I've fallen out of love with mainstream country music over the last ten years or so, it hasn't been because it's all started to sound like watered down rock and pop music; it's because the lyrics have become so banal and the landscape has become dominated by GOP fundraiser anthems. You can't go half an hour without hearing a pale imitation of "The Fightin' Side of Me", but good luck finding an heir apparent to "Sing Me Back Home". The humility and empathy that Haggard brought to his music is too nuanced, too forgiving and accepting, for today's country radio it seems.

Oh, and aside from songs empathizing with inmates (imagine someone on country radio pulling a stunt like that at a time when one state just brought back execution by firing squad!), Down Every Road features not one, but two songs about interracial romance: "Go Home", a cut from his second album, Branded Man, penned by Tommy Collins, about a nondescript (we can assume white) American and a Mexican woman, and the single "Irma Jackson", about a white narrator and an African-American woman. In both instances, the romances are dashed by social intolerance and bigotry. Haggard had intended "Irma Jackson" to follow his signature single, "Okie from Muskogee", in 1969. Capitol Records overruled him and compelled him to instead record and release "The Fightin' Side of Me" to cement his standing with conservative listeners - many of whom had been iffy about embracing a known ex-con. Capitol wouldn't let Hag even release "Irma Jackson" for another three years, in 1972.

I remember reading in the pages of Country Weekly that Haggard opened his first post-9/11 concert with "Silver Wings", a song in which the narrator pleads with his love not to get on a plane and leave him behind. (On the aforementioned For the Record re-recordings, this song was cut as a duet with Jewel.) They made note that later in the show, he did perform "The Fightin' Side of Me", because the crowd all but demanded it, but that Hag's heart wasn't in it. Two years later, when I saw him, he opened with that tune. I wondered at the time whether he had begun to open with it just to get it out of the way.

Later during that show, he ad-libbed in "That's the Way Love Goes": "Don't worry...except when George Bush is in office." The crowd must have misheard him because they erupted with applause. I think if they'd caught what he actually said, ol' Hag might've been Dixie Chick'd. (Speaking of whom, Hag was one of the few to offer any kind of support for them at the time of that whole debacle, though his position was that they shouldn't be persecuted; he stopped short of weighing in on whether or not he shared their stance on the President.)

The closing number was the lead single from the album that dropped that same day. The song was "That's the News", a scathing indictment of how even in the fall of 2003, mainstream America had already become detached from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On his next album, Chicago Wind, came a song called "America First", in which Hag argued that instead of nation-building adventurism, our collective resources would be better put to use addressing matters at home. President Obama has pressed that same case since his initial presidential campaign seven years ago.

Then there's his 1981 hit, "Rainbow Stew", which is practically a checklist for Utopia; everything from clean air and water to cars that don't run on gasoline, and "a President [who] goes through the White House doors and does what he says he'll do". That song didn't make the set list on the night I caught him in concert. If contemporary listeners thought the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan heralded the golden age envisioned in "Rainbow Stew", they were surely disillusioned quickly.

I'm hardly the first listener to note that Merle Haggard has taken contradictory positions over the years in his music (and in some interviews). But whether because his perceptions have evolved or perhaps he's just trying to look at things from a different angle than the last time he looked at them, there's an authenticity to each song that places Haggard above accusations of "flip-flopping". You can have your "Fightin' Side of Me" and I can have my "Rainbow Stew".

And in between those two ends of the spectrum are the songs about everything else, from falling in - and out - of love, getting in - and out- of trouble, having a good time with others and being overwhelmed by lonesomeness. You don't have to have lived each situation; Hag's done that for us already. If there's a song you can relate to, it's comforting to know someone else has been there. If you haven't been there, hopefully you can come away from any given song with something new to consider.

At the 2014 Grammy Awards. Photo by Kevin Winter.
Last week, when my grandfather passed away, I was the one who told my mother, face to face. That whole day was surreal and upsetting. Eventually, I turned off my cell phone, picked up my iPod, and went for a walk. I threw Down Every Road on shuffle. I walked until my thighs chaffed. I think I'd made it about 27 or 28 songs into the box by the time I returned to the house. I didn't really process either the music or the day's events. I was just in a sort of daze of aimless hurt. Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference what I played during that walk, but the fact that out of my entire library, I instinctively went to Hag - not an artist I associate in any way, shape, or form with my grandfather - surely says something.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Haggard song I find myself playing the most is "The Bottle Let Me Down". "Sing Me Back Home" breaks my heart each time to hear it. And I would absolutely love to hear Hag himself sing "Trying Not to Love You", which was performed by Alan Jackson for the Mama's Hungry Eyes tribute album, as well as by David Ball for his Amigo album. I have both those cover versions, but I can't find any evidence that Hag himself has ever released a recording of it. That song....Good God, I suffered through a months-long crush last year where that song was the closest thing to articulating what I was feeling. I just kept playing the Jackson version over and over, sometimes alternating with "The Bottle Let Me Down".