Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Merle Haggard: No Stranger To Me

I'm sure Mark Seliger won't mind me borrowing this photo.
He started all of this anyway.
I'm a country music dilettante. There, I said it. All I need is some Hank Williams, Dwight Yoakam - and Merle Haggard. Sure, Johnny Cash is a monolith and I love some of his stuff (check out his My Mother's Hymn Book to get on my wavelength), but he doesn't touch me like The Hag. Something about vulnerability wrapped up in a tough exterior, combined with jazz-inflected phrasing and great taste in songs makes me take him to heart. 

But it wasn't always that way. I used to say "I like all kinds of music, except country and opera." Eventually, opera seduced me but country was still off limits. My college roommate just reminded me that he turned me onto Hag in junior year but I think that only lasted until I graduated. It was actually photographer Mark Seliger who turned the tide, when he handed me a cassette with Big City, Merle Haggard's 1981 album, with Dwight Yoakam's 1986 classic Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. on Side B.

I fell for the title track of Big City right away, digging the witty lyrics and the tasty update on Western Swing, and soon found myself playing the album regularly. So you can thank Seliger for expanding my horizons - and you can also blame him for the fact that the 80's is my favorite period for the Hag. All Music Guide, I laugh at your 2.5 stars for Out Among The Stars! Any album with Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa on it is an instant classic, and this one also has My Life's Been Grand and Bleachers. The decade also included such gems as Back To The Barrooms, Kern River and Chill Factor, which in addition to the classic title track also contains Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star, a song I sang to my daughter for years. 

Sure some of the production gets a little glossy but that contrasts nicely with his increasingly weathered voice and he always makes sure to keep a band feel and shoehorn in a tidy solo on sax, piano or guitar. Like many cultural phenomena, Hag's 80's actually began at the end of the previous decade, on 1979's Serving 190 Proof, which opens with Footlights, surely one of the greatest "it's tough to be famous" songs ever. Check out the astonishing use of the word "nearly" in this killer verse:

I throw my old guitar across the stage and
Then my bassman takes the ball
And the crowd goes nearly wild to see
My guitar nearly fall

Sigh. Sheer brilliance. It was probably jealousy that led Bob Dylan to make those remarks last year. I love Dylan like life itself but he wishes he could nearly have written Footlights. I had the pleasure of seeing the Hag at Tramps in the mid-90's and when he opened with Footlights I knew we were in for a good night. I was there with Hag superfan Robert Marlowe* who had helped me get further into his music. 

Rob confirmed that this was a special show. Part of it was the setlist and the fact that Hag had a full band, including a guy who just played rhythm on an acoustic guitar, which matters so much for texture. Hag also took a lot of left-field guitar solos that always ended up in the just the right place. Just another unexpected thing about a guy I never expected to like.

And now he's gone, another towering musical figure swallowed up by 2016. Remember him tonight with some of my favorite songs and tell me yours.

*The world still awaits Rob's book on Bonnie Owens, who was married to both Haggard and Buck Owens. 

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