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Take his famous anti-'60s anthem, "Okie From Muskogee." I was there when the song was debuted in New Jersey, and my friends were the only people with hair both long and shaggy, and we knew it was wise to leave before we found out just how much the rest of the well-groomed audience liked that song. So I don't take it lightly. Yet I do believe its bullshit level is fairly substantial. But why has "Muskogee" outlasted other anti-'60s songs from the era, like "Green Berets" or Jan Berry's "Universal Coward"? Why was it a sing-along at Irving?
Part of it is that jaunty melody. Part of it is Haggard's singing. And part of it is the unrecognized complexity of the lyric. After a list of upheld political and cultural taboos, the chorus describes "a place where even squares can have a ball." Notice the word "even." That's a sad, somewhat frank, and rather appealing insight. Who's excluding whom? The upstanding Okies reveal the hidden snobbery and inaccessibility of the New Left hippies. The subsequent live versions reproduced on albums alter the tone from one of an embracing oasis to the sound of an advancing army: Here comes Reaganism. But the original reading on the single 45 is more plaintive, making the song a place where even hipsters can have a ball.
One other example: "Are the Good Times Really Over," where Merle wishes the country was still strong like "before Elvis and the Vietnam War came along" and "before the Beatles and yesterday." When he gets to the word "yesterday," his voice drops to an affectionate whisper as if he just can't help liking that songeven that word, or that era.
Perhaps it's this complexity that explains one final reason for my fandom: his output. I'd be hard-pressed to find an album of his (outside the Rodgers and Wills tribute albums) that I like all the way through, but I'd be equally hard-pressed to find an album that doesn't include something great. He's almost always worth followingmaking you believe that whatever lode of tradition, pride, and regret he's mining, it's an inexhaustible one. So he has an enormous repertoire available for his live shows, and a huge body of work always ready for another round of anthologizing.
In the past few years, the source of his songwriting appeared to have dried up, leaving him as a touring honky-tonker, the crustiest of the antirockers, a cultural destination for a new generation that hates baby-boomer rock. But what about the tradition? Are there real Okies, real country fans, real family farms, and real itinerant poor white people anymore? I don't know what lies beyond the interstate these days, if anything. But I do know there's a market for talented performers who came out of the real country tradition, for fans who are only country by choice. And I know there's a market for performers who are still alive who wish it was 1951. (Dean Martin with a fiddle, anyone?) I also believe there's a market for musical geniuses with a sense of history.
And guess what? Merle's just made a fine new CD, If I Could Only Fly, released it on a subsidiary of punk-rock Epitaph, and written all but one of the songs. It continues and extends his apparently endless catalog but introduces an updated persona: the happy Merle, the family-man Merle, the Merle who likes living in the present, the Merle who just wants to go home. Along with the new perspective there's an at times, dare I say it, folky sound. Acoustic guitars. Abe Manuel's Dylan-ish harmonica. Even a hint of Dylan-ish delivery from Haggard for a phrase or two, and a Dylan-ish vocal sound at moments. Why not? Who's better at sounding old than the early Bob Dylan?
Is this, then, the end of history? Not quite. Merle's still nostalgic and full of guilt. But now he's nostalgic for the good old days when he used to do drugs. And he's got a new kind of guilt, or at least he hints at it. He's replacing his guilt as a child with his guilt as a parent.
Not all of this is fully realized, but it's realized well enough that you know there's material here that will make it onto the anthologies of the future, and provide inspiration for albums to come. Will his fans buy it? The title song was a bit too introspective and quiet for the good-time fans at Irving Plaza, and I thought it went over better the next night on David Letterman. Adding any new chapter to such a long career is no easy trick. As someone once said about Buddy Guy, the main person he has to worry about competing with is himself in the past. But like Guy, Haggard continues innovating inside a traditioneven as the context around the tradition changes.