Saturday, January 12, 2008

Merle Haggard: An Okie Renaissance

In my mind Merle Haggard is one of the most paradoxical Country singers in the field. Merle is forever linked to the song "The Okie From Muskogee". Released at the hight of the hippie movement, "The Okie" portrayed what was then the silent majority, patriotic God fearing men and women of the mid west who wouldn't dare burn draft cards and bras, let alone the flag of the mighty US of A. Those who were taken aback by the cultural revolution of the sixties found recognition. The success of "Okie" already betrayed that times weren't changing as fast as the hippie movement thought it would be. The song represented the part of America who didn't question Vietnam, who supported old fashioned family values and saw the merit of the Christian life. Merle attracted an audience, who as a political force, would be the ones that put Nixon and Reagan in office and would ultimately be the moving force behind the Bush dynasty.

But Merle was hardly the fine upstanding citizen that came to be so enamored by "Okie". When the single was released the Hag had by then spent more time in jail than out. Haggard had in fact grown so accustomed to jail that he had trouble feeling at ease when he was out. Ever since his father died when he was young Haggard had spend his life rebelling. At the age of 9 the Hag was sent to a correctional facility for the first time. It only seemed to strengthen his resolve or need to be at odds with society. If it wasn't for his music the Hag would be back there today. Legend has it that Merle Haggard's life turned around when he saw Johnny Cash perform in San Quentin during his incarceration in the second half of the fifties. "I certainly enjoyed your show at San Quentin" Merle would later tell Cash."Merle, I don't remember you bein' in that show" Cash responded bewildered, probably wondering if his pill addiction got the best of him, "Johnny, I wasn't in that show, I was in the audience." Cash's music must have resonated with the outlaw, the Man in Black's songs about the hard life reflected much of Merle's own. Seeing Cash was the last push Merle needed to give up his outlaw life and give himself to music. Soon after the show Merle got a chance to escape, he declined.

Though Cash tipped Merle over, the seeds were sown earlier. In the early fifties Merle got the chance to perform with Honky Tonk legend Lefty Frizzle. When later developing his own style Lefty was arguably a bigger influence on Haggard than Cash. With his recent album "The Blue Grass Sessions", though not exactly Blue Grass in the strictest way, Hag harks back to the great early Country superstars such as Lefty, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. The "Blue Grass Sessions" is a testimony that the creative renaissance of Merle's career isn't over yet. Ever since the turn of the century Merle has seemed very comfortable far away from the main stream of Country to which he once belonged. Merle has been shying away from the bright lights of the big cities like Nashville. His albums from "If Only I Could Fly " and on have had this constant feel like they were recorded on his back porch. Though not exactly rough and raggedy, Merle does seem to strip his material from excess, going straight to the core of a song. This becomes most strikingly apparent when comparing the re-recording of "Big City" with the original version. The defiant Country ballad gains a more reflective mood that seems to fit the twilight of Merle's years here on earth like a charm.

Merle is one of those artists that is like a fine wine, just getting better with age. "Sessions" once again finds Haggard on an independent label after his short stint on EMI records where he incidentally recorded the negative of "Okie", the indictment of the Bush administration and American culture "That's The News". But mostly Merle stays away from social commentary in the shadow of his life. "Sessions" once again finds him looking back on his life in full appreciation of the peace he seems to have found. Like only Country music seems to be able to do Haggard takes you through the full human experience. Haggard is feeling mischievous on the sexy "Runaway Momma," a song that seems to reflect that the years that landed him in jail weren't filled with regrets only. Even though he counts his blessings in "Pray" Merle does seem to have this melancholic streak when he looks back on his straying years. In "What Happened" it is astute social reflection again. "How did we ever go so wrong, did we get too high, did we sleep too long" Merle asks himself while reflecting on the unreliable politicians, lost American industries, looking at Americans struggle to get by, being able to pay their taxes but not their rent. But the most stand out tracks are not those who reflect on society but on the very human struggles that are so common to all of us. "Holding Things Together" is a spine tingling lament of a father needing to care for his children alone after his wife left him with the children. In three minutes Hag gets to the core of that experience in a few well chosen scenes. It is in those songs that Merle proves to be one of America's greatest song writers.

"What Happened"
"Holding Things Together"
"Big City"

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