His Own Kind of Guilt

When Merle Haggard and the Strangers kicked into "Mama Tried" in the middle of their set last Sunday night at Irving Plaza, it took me back to the time and place I first heard that song so long ago. And when they followed it with "Time Changes Everything," I knew it was a time and place never to return: St. Marks Place, 1968.

I was a poor old lonesome hippie boy walking home to my four-room $60-a-month apartment on Avenue B when I went in to browse the only record store in the neighborhood. For his own pleasure the clerk was playing something like an updated version of the Everly Brothers. It sounded so good I bought it and took it home for a listen.

In fact it was the Everlys' Roots, an elaborate yet tasteful Warners production of the era. But what I still most recall was the shock of listening to two songs on that album: "Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home." They were well crafted, catchy, hard to forget, contrary to the ethos of the day, and written by some guy named Merle Haggard. Don't trust anyone over 30? These songs suggested that you shouldn't trust yourself if you were under 30. They didn't just acknowledge guilt, they embraced it, certainly not a rock and roll idea at the time. And yet somehow they rang true. Only later would I find out they were morethan true: They were autobiographical.

A shopping trip uptown revealed that Merle Haggard was not a songwriter for the Everly Brothers at all; he was a country singer in his own right. But taking his records home revealed another surprise: a songwriter who was an interesting, nuanced singer.

That commenced a lifetime of Merle Haggard fandom, and sure you might accuse a left-wing New Yorker like myself of patronizing distance. Is Merle just the transgressive Okie Anti-Woody, acting out the guilty pleasures of Reaganism for a moment's bracing cultural refreshment? To answer that with a no, let's start with the aesthetics, then work back to the politics.

First off, I must agree with Sammy Davis Jr., who called Merle the greatest country singer since Hank Williams. George and Tammy may be more astonishing, with their inexplicable intensities. Willie Nelson may have a better shtick, a shtick that works, apparently, on any song ever written. But for phrasing, timing, and use of the voice as an instrument, no one in country can touch Merle. He's better than crooners like Bing Crosby, with whom he's sometimes compared. He's the Frank Sinatra (or maybe Al Green) of his genre, who can take a so-so lyric and make it ring true just by dropping his voice to a sudden intimacy or turning a phrase for emphasis or irony. A connoisseur of traditions, he incorporates a history of male country singing in his voice and uses it as an arsenal to add complexity to the meanings of his songs.

In Merle's voice, the blue yodel that's a tag at the end of Jimmie Rodgers's flatter lyric readings becomes a note deployed in any syllable, anywhere in the line. This isn't Merle's invention; he got it from Lefty Frizzell. At times, in fact, it's impossible to tell their singing, or even voices, apart, particularly in the case of songs toward the end of Lefty's career. But whereas Lefty explores the shock of the new, incorporating a personalized intensity that prefigures Elvis, Merle deploys the same techniques with more deliberate care. He intentionally chooses to cut off the tradition before Elvis. And he's done it so successfully that his style of singing is now the trademark that Nashville's neotrad male singers use to prove they haven't gone pop. In fact, Merle's singing is so definitive I can think of only one cover that improves on his original: Iris DeMent's version of "Big City."

What Haggard then adds to Frizzell, besides perspective, is control over the instrumental sound, compliments of his third idol, Bob Wills. The Texas Playboys were a band, not a backup band, and they could swing. They didn't rock, and neither does Haggard (listen to his tribute album to Elvis). But he does swing. Perhaps it's the difference between getting real gone and controlled freedom. But within the confines of the country song, his bands have always improvised and jammed—particularly live, where it's said he performs without a playlist.

Sunday at Irving, "Time Changes Everything" kicked off a three-song Texas-swing set that then segued into "Get Along Home Cindy," an old folk song I'd never heard him perform. If you were there and saw him duet on the fiddle with his recently added all-purpose Cajun instrumentalist, Abe Manuel, or watched him lead the band, you could understand how Nat Hentoff got him on the cover of Downbeatyears ago. He uses instrumentation like a jazz musician.

In his sound, both vocal and instrumental, he contains and releases a tradition. That implied distance allows fans like me from outside the tradition a space to join in the party. And then that sound is used to elaborate his own gifts as a songwriter. Those include both a complex autobiographical mix of regret and nostalgia that spills over into his "state of the nation" songs, and a flair for melodic variety. On their own, some of the details are pretty amazing (what other famous American artist can say he was in the audience at a Johnny Cash concert at San Quentin?), even if (or because?) his songwriting subjects include a string of anti-counterculture critiques.

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 song—even 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 following—making 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 tradition—even as the context around the tradition changes.

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