There is one sure way to piss a fairly big percentage of the general public off. Confess your love of country music.
There is something about the Concept of country music, not necessarily the music or the songs that abhors this part of the general public. It is one of those principled stands. Like one believes God exists. Or, one doesn’t believe in climate change. Country music is dumb. All those statements are generally believed to have the same (rather obvious) veracity. No amount of argument or evidence will cause the holder to resile.
I should confess that I was once one of that sorry group of the general public. Johnny Cash was cool, but other than that, country music sucked. The big one. It was only when (don’t ask me why) I picked tonight’s album up at a Dinkytown record shop in the mid 80s, that I turned onto the Damascus road. And now, a couple decades down that particular track, I imagine that when I get to the Pearly Gates, St Peter and all the angels will be wearing cowboy hats and singing country music. And the music of Merle Haggard will be on high rotation in the Heavenly Top 40.
Quite simply, Merle Haggard is one of the finest songwriters and singers to emerge out of the United States of America in the past 50 years. Along with Hank Williams, the aforementioned Mr Cash, Willie Nelson and John Prine, Merle Haggard is a colossus of American popular music.
You can read all about his life, characterised by childhood poverty, religion, crime and jail time, in any number of places. In the early 1990s that venerable icon of East Coast intellectual elitism, The New Yorker, ran a fantastic indepth series of articles on him. I highly recommend that too.
But let me tell you the top five reasons I love Merle Haggard.
1. He was my entry into country music. Through his music I discovered George Jones, Buck Owens, Porter Wagonner, Lefty Frizell, Bob Wills and Waylon Jennings (just for starters) and learned to love Willie Nelson. And of course, Dwight Yoakam who has kept the Bakersfield sound of Haggard and Owens alive for a new generation.
2. His voice. It has such a warm tone but is so well worn. Like supple shoe leather. As flowing and strong and deep as the Kern River.
3. His independent spirit. Okie from Muskogee is one of the most in your face red neck songs ever made. And he meant every word. But when the segregationist Governor of Alabama George Wallace asked him to sing it for his campaign he refused. In recent years he’s defended President Obama on principle against the hardcore nutters who (sadly) are usually big country music fans. He speaks the truth.
4. His songs. As a friend said to me once, “Merle’s songs are like little novels.” Indeed they are. Sort of like long letters on short pieces of paper. And what other tough country man would write a song called Shopping for Dresses (and mean every word!) And then there is probably no better song of disillusionment then Footlights. And no better drinking song than Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down. (Virtually every song on this album is a brilliant piece of writing).
5. His treatment of time. One of the strongest themes in his songwriting, and indeed, I would venture THE central theme of Merle Haggard’s writing is ‘time’. Its shortness. Its passing. Memories of times past. The need to wait it out. The dread and hope of time yet to come. Not exactly your classic country music theme.
If you’ve made it this far in tonight’s post you’re probably a country music lover. If you’re not, step up quick (before someone notices!) and dip into Merle’s world!
02 Got Lonely Too Early This Morning
03 Heaven Was a Drink of Wine
05 I Can't Get Away
06 Red Bandana
07 My Own Kind of Hat
08 I Must Have Done Something Bad
09 I Didn't Mean to Love You
10 Sing a Family Song
11 Roses in the Winter