Thursday, April 7, 2016

Merle Haggard And My Crooked Path To Country Music

If "Sing Me Back Home" doesn't move you, you have a heart of stone

The passing of Merle Haggard yesterday hit me harder than I was expecting. It might be because I had just come back from visiting Nebraska and nights spent playing cards with my parents with songs like "Mama Tried" playing in the background. It also might be that the greats of country music are now almost gone. Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton are with us, but that's about it. Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner, and others have crossed over.

Unlike almost any other genre, the weight of history and tradition weighs heavy on country music. It prizes authenticity, and lament from fans that the genre has lost its way is pretty damn old itself. Heck, Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" is now over forty years old. In the midst of the "countrypolitan" movement on the sixties, with its strings and Nudie suits, Haggard brought back the old time honky tonk religion. A gut-bucket tune about trying to drink away bad memories like "The Bottle Let Me Down" is about as far from the likes of Eddy Arnold as you could get. Haggard was no rhinestone cowboy, he'd grown up in a house made out of an old box car and did time in San Quentin. Not only that, he sang about that world in songs like "Hungry Eyes."

I didn't know much about Merle Haggard, even though I came of age in a place saturated in country music. When people said "country" I thought of Garth Brooks and other generic singers with big hats and hacky songs. Country was becoming, in Tom Petty's words, "bad rock with a fiddle." It was the one genre of popular music that I had no use for.

That changed in 1994 when Johnny Cash put out his first American Recordings album. A lot of hip people were endorsing it, and it was produced by Rick Rubin, whose work I knew well. While today I consider it the weakest of his late period albums, at the time it really grabbed me. Soon I expanded beyond Johnny Cash to Uncle Tupelo, and got excited by contemporary country music made by people who sounded more like The Clash than Billy Ray Cyrus. After that I got into Hank Williams, and I was hooked for life.

Eventually I got around to listening to Hag, which I'd avoided because of his political songs, such as "Okie From Muskogee" and "Fighting Side Of Me." I learned that the former was actually meant less as an endorsement of reactionary small town politics than a tongue in cheek description of them. Now I listen to that song and get a laugh. The latter is not redeemable.  After awhile I reminded myself that while I loved old country music, my relationship with it was a bit complicated, much like my relationship with the region I come from.

I come from Nebraska and I'm proud of it, but its politics make me crazy and its parochial viewpoint tries me. But I can't deny my loyalty or my deep and sincere love for the place. At the same time, while country music has long given voice to reactionary sentiments (despite folks like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash), it's music that affects me on an elemental level that I cannot describe. It's music that is, like my home state, a part of me, whether I like it or not. I might listen to other kinds of music more, but when I throw Merle Haggard's Same Train, A Different Time on my turntable, something deep inside of me sings along. I'm sad that one of few people left on this earth who could do that kind of magic is no more, and that his like will never be seen again.

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