The River's Badge

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Merle Haggard Primer


There are a couple of songwriters I always wished I could write like: Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard. And they are such different writers. Kris is, not more cerebral, per se, but more enigmatic. He doesn't just come out and say it -- he leaves you to wonder; ponder. Merle didn't write like that. Merle said exactly what he wanted to say. Philosophers didn't need to delve deeply into his songs' meanings.

Both kinds of writing are hard. I perhaps once wrote a song like Kris would write, only not even a smidgen as good. I don't think I ever wrote a song that was even in Merle's ballpark. In fact, I know I didn't.

It's funny how talent seeks out talent. Merle toured with Kris Kristofferson and he toured with Willie Nelson and he toured with Bob Dylan. Higher standards. Principles. From what I've read, these guys all respected the hell out of one another. I think they raised each other's game. It's all fun and frolic to mentor new kids -- shoot, I do that in my day job -- but sometimes one craves a peer. Someone who "thinks right". These four had that.

In the retrospectives I've read about Merle's career, the writers were all eager to latch onto songs that meant little to us fans -- Okie From Muskogee, for one. When that record hit the airwaves in 1969, true Merle aficionados kind of scratched our heads and thought, well, that's different; kind of "out there", not the greatest song in the world, but it was Merle, so...sort of like "The Fightin' Side Of Me", which came next. I didn't know (albeit I was just a teenager) what that even meant. What's a "fightin' side"? Shoot, when I listen to Merle songs today, I don't even consider playing that one. There are so many choices that are so much better! Yes, Merle garnered Entertainer Of The Year honors in 1970 based on those two singles, and we fans were ecstatic about that, but we chose to believe that the suits had finally (finally!) recognized Merle's overall greatness; not that these two songs were representative of his career. Because they weren't.

I never was an "album gal" until Merle came along. Country LP's were sad. Nobody put any thought into them. It was all singles, singles, singles. A country album was a hit single and a bunch of cover songs. It was apparently an exercise in earning some coin for the artist, while satisfying the record-buyer's conceit that, hell, I love this artist! After all, I bought their album! Loretta Lynn covered Tammy Wynette songs and Lynn Anderson covered Loretta Lynn songs and Tammy threw in some "Don't Come Home a'Drinkin'".  I pity the 1960's songwriter, unless he was Billy Sherrill, because everybody just covered the same songs, over and over.

Merle, however, did concept albums. He did "Let Me Tell You About A Song", in which he talked about each song and its meaning, by way of introduction. Heck, even Dylan didn't do that! Merle's albums were actually albums, and they made me think about music; not just feel it. I tucked that notion away subconsciously, and didn't haul it out until decades later when I began writing, and specializing in a lot of biographical shi stuff. Merle released "Hag", with its stark white cover and a pencil-likeness of him; an album that got little acclaim, but one that I listened to deeply. It remains one of my personal favorites.

One can't overlook, however, how Merle's recording career began. Some of his earliest hits weren't written by him. People, in their reverence, tend to overlook that. I don't think Merle ever did. After all, his band was named The Strangers for a reason. "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" was one of the songs that put Merle on the country music map. It was written by Liz Anderson (Lynn Anderson's mom), as was "(I'm A) Lonesome Fugitive". I love both of those songs. They melded a songwriter's sense of the man and the man himself's honest performance. Most people forget that. I don't.

Let's take a look:



Wynn Stewart wrote "Sing A Sad Song". I always loved this, and it's so typical of what Wynn Stewart would write. But Merle did it like no one could.


It was around that time that Merle found his voice. This is what we fans remember; not "Okie From Muskogee":


Liz Anderson apparently inspired Merle to write about his own life. Funny how that works:



If you've ever been to a honky tonk and you haven't heard this song, then you haven't been to a honky tonk. Everyone who's ever plunked on a guitar has played this song. Cuz, why wouldn't you?


This is Merle Part I. I've got lots of parts to go.

Miles to go.

Bear with me.

This is just getting started.












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