Thursday, January 13, 2005

Merle Haggard: Things Aren't Funny Anymore

Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor liberty to purchase power.--Poor Richard

This last month, when I wasn't obsessed with Nat King Cole or T-Bone Walker (while grading papers, naturally) I was deep into an archaeology of Merle Haggard. This involved buying his first six albums on CD in addition to the seven used LPs I already had. It was back in the mid-80s when I first developed a taste for Merle by way of his live
Rainbow Stew album (which I still rank near the top).

It had taken me a while to get into country music. I grew up in central Illinois about fifty miles south of the dialect line dividing North from South. Accent was also always a class issue as well as a regional issue around there. For a while I resisted. I think some of it has crept back in over the years. I had heard some Hank Williams in grade school that sounded cool and was a fan of the man in black (Johnny Cash) since childhood. But mid-70s country was doing almost nothing for me.

I never much cared for the syrupy pedal steel (and strings) they splashed so liberally over most country releases in the early and mid-70s. I was almost put off country permanently by Donna Fargo's The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA, closely followed by Glenn Campbell's Rhinestone Cowboy (I was astonished to later discover that the latter was originally a charming satire in the mind of its author, David Allen Coe.)

I suppose Bob Dylan and the Eagles helped break down my resistance to a degree. I also had a cousin who was deep into the Grateful Dead, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Pure Prairie League, but they didn't really take.

In college I did the requisite time with Gram Parsons and the Burrito Brothers. I had always loved The Band. I developed a soft spot for Bob Wills, Hank, Hank, Jr., Emmy Lou Harris, Joe Ely, and Carlene Carter. It was about that time that I ran across Merle Haggard again.

It was at first a little difficult to figure what to do with Merle. I was just old enough to remember Okie from Muskogee as a hard-right anthem that went along with the "Archie Bunker for President" pennants that festooned the local Penny's store in 1972. At first I just settled for the obvious fact that, regardless of his politics, Merle can sing his ass off. And his voice just kept getting better as he got older.

Recently I bought video of a sixties music show hosted by Tommy Smothers, Music Scene, because it had some footage of Sly and the Family Stone. And right there in the middle of the show was Merle Haggard singing Okie with a shit-eating grin on his face. What a jerk.

I saw a cable TV retrospective on his career last year where they asked him about that song, especially since it had become so widely known in the meantime how much he liked the cocaine and the weed. Besides, he was hanging out with a quasi-hippie rebel like Willie Nelson. They asked, "Do you still agree with the sentiments in that song? What were you thinking when you wrote that?" He said something like, "I had rocks for brains when I wrote that song. I didn't know anything yet." So I guess I don't have to hold a grudge against the present day Merle, just the 60s version.

Long before Willie and Waylon started their "outlaws" posture, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard had already covered it. Except they both really served hard time. The difference between the two was that Cash still seemed to revel in something of an outlaw image. Merle kissed the ass of authority to make up for lost time. His image was the former outlaw, not the outlaw per se. So I always identified more with Cash. But like I said, when I started listening, I realized Merle can sing his ass off.

On his early tunes, they have him singing in a key that is too high and doesn't really show off what he can do. It's only into his second or third album where they finally have him doing arrangements that show off the resonance in his voice in a lower register which also sets up the baritone yodel thing he does. That's when he starts to develop the classic Merle Haggard sound.

Merle sings a lot of working class songs: Workin' Man Blues, for example. All the prison songs have an element of poverty related to the personal self-consciousness and insecurity in them: Branded Man, Lonesome Fugitive, Mama Tried, Sing Me Back Home.

I've always been partial to the tunes with a melancholy sense of humor: It's Not Love, But It's Not Bad, Things Aren't Funny Anymore.

It's All in the Movies is a very original and hauntingly beautiful melody. Where did that come from?

In the 70s Hag produced even more unqualified classics: I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink, I'm Always On a Mountain When I Fall, Misery and Gin. This last one is probably the Haggard tune that I find most captivating, though he didn't write it. I think his voice probably peaked in the 70s and 80s.

Misery and Gin:
Here I am again mixing Misery and Gin
Sitting with all my friends and talking to myself
It might look like I'm havin' a good time
But any fool can tell
This honky tonk heaven really makes you feel like hell.

The sentiment seems to have changed by the time he records Bar Room Buddies for a Clint Eastwood movie. By that time, it's the male companionship that matters. The woman thing can work itself out.

But beyond the lyrics, the beauty of Misery and Gin is the sound of Merle Haggard's voice. The soaring baritone in the first line of the chorus, the break in the voice on "fool" and "tell", the quasi-yodel on "feel" and the break in the voice on "hell." It sounds so heartfelt, so immediate, so real, so painful.

When Cheryl Burns went to see Merle in 2002, he said, "'I think we should give John Ashcroft a big hand...(pause)...right in the mouth!' Went on to say, 'the way things are going I'll probably be thrown in jail tomorrow for saying that, so I hope ya'll will bail me out.'"

At the concert attended by Andrew Cockburn, he said,"'Friends and conservatives," and then made a joke about George Bush's colonoscopy and the search for Osama bin laden. 'He's up there somewhere.'"

I think I'll let Merle have the last word:
Alex Halberstadt in Salon.com quotes him to the following effect, "Look at the past 25 years we went downhill, and if people don't realize it, they don't have their fucking eyes on...In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there's available to an average citizen in America right now...God almighty, what have we done to each other?"

Merle Haggard links:
Alex Halberstadt, Merle Haggard
Power Line, Merle Haggard in Profile
CounterPunch, Merle Haggard and the Politics of Salmon
Jesse Walker