Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Singing Merle Back Home

(Having already declared that I long ago retired this blog, it occurs to me that it has become so damn easy to [re]post things here since I wrote that—from YouTube at least—that I may as well do it every now and then. But you really will find much more of my music-related writing, among other things, by following me on Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, and sometimes Twitter. Anyway, here goes nothin'.)

#AotN/Sad to see Hag go, but sadder still at the prospect that so many obits will focus on "Okie From Muskogee," encouraging rock & rolling classic-countryphobes to continue to assume that Merle was some kind of lifelong raving conservative, when the truth is much more nuanced and far more interesting.

Yoking Merle Haggard to "Okie" for eternity is like describing Bob Dylan as "that born-again Christian guy" or Neil Young as "the guy who recorded traditional country and rockabilly." Each statement IS true, but it's only a small part of a long, long story--and in all three cases, you are looking at men who spent a lot of their careers writing from the POV of fictional characters and sometimes real people, even versions of themselves, but always presented with the craft and artifice of fiction.

I thought about offering "If We Make It to December" or one of his Farm Aid-era songs or perhaps his late-career collaborations with Iris Dement as evidence of his lefty cred, but decided to go with this song, which has little if any political content, just because I love it so much. It first appeared on a concept album (almost ALL of Merle's recordings were concept albums, often paying tribute to his precursors) about what in its day was commonly called a midlife crisis. When I first heard it, after buying the album for a buck or two from a cutout bin, the part about being 41 seemed impossibly far off in the distance and so oddly specific a number as to be inadvertently funny. Now that I am a decade and a half past that age myself (and Merle a good 20 years more), it doesn't seem like a joke anymore.

This clip was too juicy to pass up, as a clearly inebriated George Jones asks his old friend to play one of his all-time favorites, and then totally screws up the name of the song. It's a wonderfully casual performance, and a reminder that the magic of their generation's era of country was that the biggest stars in the world could sit around on a couch just being themselves in all their drunken flawed humanness, and then play songs they'd written about the very same subject.

I'm gonna miss you, Mr. Haggard. The show you performed at Kleinhans in Buffalo in the late 80s or early 90s was one of the best concerts I've ever seen, and one of the most ... depressing, if you will forgive that term, which I mean as a twisted compliment. You sat through almost the entire thing, which was off-putting for a rock guy like me to witness. And an entire evening of songs about aging and mortality: No one else would attempt anything that brazen in my concertgoing experience again until Sufjan Stevens did his "Carrie and Lowell" show at UB's CFA last year. Thank you for an uncountable number of great albums and songs, including this one.