Here You Come Again: Pledge Allegiance to the Hag
Merle Haggard marked a birthday Sunday, his 77th. He celebrated the occasion with an appearance on CBS’s Academy of Country Music awards show, where George Strait and Miranda Lambert performed a medley of his hits and where Haggard was presented with something called the Crystal Milestone Award by Garth Brooks, one of its former honorees.
The specific milestone in question for Merle was fifty years on the job. Haggard’s first nationally charting single, a string-bejeweled version of Wynn Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song,” debuted on the Billboard charts the week of December 23, 1963. Country music typically doesn’t honor its key historical figures these days with anything like the persistence, earnestness and inventiveness it once did, so it’s been a bit heartening to see that, half a century into one of the major careers in all of American popular music, Merle Haggard is getting something approaching the victory lap he’s got coming. And keep in mind that such big-picture recognition is doubly appropriate in Merle’s case. Because his body of work deserves it, of course, but also because one thesis of that work—as evidenced by tribute albums to Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Elvis Presley, not to mention roughly a gazillion covers of Tommy Collins and Lefty Frizzell songs—has been to argue that inspiration and gratitude experienced personally should be heralded loud and long, which is to say publically and repeatedly. This process is a key to how traditions become traditions in the first place, and to how they endure. Or don’t.
So… time to get to work. Hag’s ACM honor trailed by only a couple of months Merle’s first-ever Grammy show performance. Big deals both, and good to see, as is Capitol Nashville’s new 45th anniversary reissue of 1969’s Okie from Muskogee, teamed with its 1970 sequel The Fightin’ Side of Me, two live albums from Merle’s big crossover moment. They also are, it can’t be over emphasized, two of the finest country concert albums ever released. I sure wish that these were expanded editions, in the manner of RCA Nashville’s 2003 Waylon Live reissue, and that they included deleted numbers and the Strangers’ opening sets. Still, it’s great that these shows are available again for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, these albums are critical documents of the era’s culture wars: If it sounds like the applause as Merle finishes each title track will just never stop, that’s because it hasn’t. The reissue preserves at least one now outdated country performance mode—on the latter album, Merle favors us with his Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash and Buck Owens impersonations—and it proves, too, just how tight and fierce a live band the Strangers were. The disc’s opening go at “Mama Tried” is, by itself, nearly worth the price of admission.
Reissues aside, what’s really been encouraging of late, country-tradition-wise, is all the acts who’ve been putting their music where their mouths are and singing them some Haggard. Though it hasn’t got much attention, we’ve been in the middle of a Merle Haggard revival for the last half year or so now. Randy Travis’ excellent 2013 album, Influence, Vol. 1, for instance, was comprised of three (or four, or five, depending on how you frame it) Haggard numbers as was Vince Gill’s and Paul Franklin’s recent California road trip, Bakersfield. Ronnie Dunn wrote and recorded “Hey, Haggard” last spring, Willie and Loretta duetted on Merle’s “Somewhere Between” in the fall, and Joe Nichols covered “Footlights” around the same time on his latest album, Crickets. And don’t forget Bryan & the Haggards. NYC’s best-ever Hag-centric bebop-and-acid-jazz band released Merles Just Want to Have Fun last year, their third all-Merle album and this time featuring the reedy, randy vocals of Dr. Eugene Chadbourne. Recommended download: their spazzed-out take on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
(All of that was just last year—and nearly all of it closely followed the publication of my own Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. That couldn’t possibly be a mere coincidence, right? Well, yeah, alright, it’s totally a coincidence. But a zeitgeisty one!)
The big Hag revival news this year has been Suzy Bogguss’ tribute, Lucky, which is so smart and sexy and which so perfectly updates Nashville Sound sensibilities for our own world—acoustic less-is-more-arrangements shaded by sultry organ—that it’s hard for me to imagine it won’t end up near the very top of my best country albums list come end of the year. As our own Henry Carrigan has already talked to Bogguss about the project here at length, I won’t say too much more about it than that, but I will say this. Lucky should go down as beginning the process of extending Haggard’s classic period beyond his Capitol songbook to include his also amazing post-Capitol work—and on more or less equal terms with one another. Fully half of Lucky’s dozen tracks come either from Merle’s late 1970s tenure with MCA Records (Bogguss covers “The Running Kind” and “I Think I’ll Stay Here and Drink”) or from his subsequent decade with Epic (“I Always Get Lucky with You,” “Let’s Chase Each Other around the Room,” “Going Where the Lonely Go,” and “Someday When Things Are Good,” written by the star of our last installment, Leona Williams).
What’s been conspicuously, frustratingly, missing up to now from the Haggard revival has been the participation of very many younger, or at least young enough to still be on the radio, country stars. It’s an odd absence, too, in at least one respect: Merle’s “[I’m proud to be an] Okie from Muskogee” more or less invented, after all, the attitudes of any number of hits from, say, Blake Shelton. Or from Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean, Randy Houser, and Justin Moore, et al. The many purveyors of our century’s ubiquitous I’m-proud-to-be-country anthems don’t exactly live and breathe within Haggard’s musical world, but they do eagerly embrace selected subsets of his “Working Man Blues” identity: That is, Hag’s descendants are unlikely to dream (leastways, not out loud) of throwing their bills out the window the way Merle does, and they certainly don’t let on they’re angry and depressed when dreams don’t come true, but just like the Hag, they want you to know that they work (and play) hard, are damn proud of who they are—just the way they are—and are sick to death of big city folk sneering at them as if pride in such lives is only to be pitied.
So while current stars have neither performed nor recorded much of Merle’s music, Merle himself does get deployed as a symbol now and again in the same way Jones and Cash, and Waylon and Willie, are often name dropped (not to say honored, let alone emulated). The sub-title to this column, to cite just one example, is from a 2006 Erich Church track. And just last year hick-hoppers the LACS—stands for Loud Ass Crackers—made sure to grace their country rap hangover remedy, “Tylenol,” with Merle’s iconic presence: “What did I do wrong? / I only tried to sing every Merle Haggard song.”
Twenty of those songs are now included on another new project. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard (Broken Bow Records) is due out next month and loaded high with teen-behaving-thirtysomethings like Aldean, Houser, Luke Bryan, and Jake Owen, along with a few of what can only be termed (at this point, in these times) vintage acts like Toby Keith and Garth Brooks, both now a radio-ancient 52 (like me). When Merle was 52, by the way, in 1989, he scored his final Top Five single, “A Better Love Next Time.”
I was most eager to hear the contributions of those current country stars, as their song selections, and performances, would surely say a great deal, about how Haggard will be used by the genre going forward. The album’s first track, Randy Houser doing “Misery and Gin,” sets the tone: like ten other numbers included, more than half the disc, “Misery and Gin” isn’t one of Merle’s Capitol-era hits, and like half a dozen other tracks, it’s not a song this “Working Man’s Poet” wrote himself: On this tribute, as on Bogguss’, the second half of Merle’s chart career matters at least as much as his long-since canonized early hits. Just as significant, his greatness is understood to be bound up not only in his songwriting skills but in his gifts as a song interpreter, no matter who did the writing. I think all of this is good news.
The performances on Working Man’s Poet, however, are less encouraging. Not because they’re no good, understand. Houser’s limited vocal range is no match for the steeply rising and falling melody to “Misery and Gin,” but the singer acquits himself nicely on the highway-straight “Ramblin’ Fever”—and everything else here is solid to quite strong indeed. Garth’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” which borrows Merle’s original arrangement to frame the singer’s distinctive voice, is a clear standout. Shawna Thompson’s lead on the Leona Williams-penned “You Take Me for Granted” walks a painful, perfect line between self-pity and self-assurance. Joe Nichols’ reading of “Footlights” (the same one mentioned above) is actually outshone here by his go at “My Favorite Memory.” Meanwhile, Jason Aldean’s “Going Where the Lonely Go” plumbs emotions his singing has previously tended to avoid—plus, its stretched-out concluding guitar solos are really swell.
One more thing: what a treat to hear Ben Haggard, Merle and Theresa’s boy, tackling “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried” (I’m guessing he got first pick?), showing off the guitar chops he’s honed as a late-edition member of the Strangers and singing the hell out of, but never over singing, the old man’s standards in his high, young tenor.
But… the very minor problem I have with the music here—and the somewhat bigger one I have as a fan and critic who wants Haggard’s work not only to be honored but to continue to matter—is that the arrangements throughout are so cautious and respectful and, well…so old sounding. Though the bulk of the act’s on this label showcase are right-now stars of one wattage or another, none of these tracks are going to be radio hits. And they don’t try to be: Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley’s “Pancho and Lefty,” with big its whippy guitars and thundering drums, comes closest but lacks the hip-hop influenced rhythms, just for example, that’ve helped make Bryan a star. This seems like a missed opportunity. It’s as if the acts involved were happily flipping through a treasured old photo album—from the sound of things, these shots were snapped circa 1994—instead of helping to make breaking news.
Back in the real 1994, Merle was in vogue again, too, for just a moment. Within only a few weeks, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during a CMA telecast and saw the release of two Merle tribute discs. One of those, Mama’s Hungry Eyes, featured current stars like Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson and Pam Tillis, who made sure their versions of Merle’s hits of the 1960s and ‘70s sounded the way country music sounded in 1994. Merle had regularly done something quite similar himself. On those reissued Okie and Fightin’ Side live albums, for instance, he doesn’t merely take a moment to remember Jimmie Rodgers; he makes Rodgers’ at-that-point forty-year-old songs sound fresh and of the moment, still vital, even necessary.
I’m certain that Merle Haggard’s body of work could yet be a vital and necessary part of the country story as it unfolds. For that to happen, though, someone is going to have to make Merle’s old songs sound brand new for a new generation of fans. For this little Merle Haggard revival to really make a difference, someone is going to have to honor Merle in the modernizing way Merle paid tribute to Lefty and Rodgers and so many more. That process of staying up to date while also staying connected to what’s come before is how traditions become traditions, after all, and it’s how they endure.
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