The River's Badge

Saturday, May 14, 2016

It's A Big Job Just Gettin' By


Every bar band in every honky tonk in every country of the world has done Workin' Man Blues. And why not? It's three chords! Even I can play it! It's strange how songs catch on...or don't. Workin' Man Blues was released in 1969, smack dab between Okie and Fightin', but those are the songs that cemented Merle's legend, whereas Workin' Man Blues is a far, far better song than either of them, and more eternal. "I've been a workin' man dang near all my life and I'll keep on workin'". Isn't that all of ours song? "And I'll go back workin'". Merle was never better than when he wrote his ballads, but this one? Well, he knew what needed to be said. The song was populist when populist wasn't yet a rich man's deceit.


It was around this time that Merle decided, hell, I think I'll blow everybody's mind (in late sixties parlance) and throw a bit of my idols' songs at 'em. Jimmie Rodgers was a depression-era artist who would be long forgotten if it wasn't for Merle. Merle understood, though, that nothing exists without what came before. Thus, California Blues (Blue Yodel #41):




Hungry Eyes is a sweet, painful song. What Merle did so well was to tell truths that we didn't necessarily want to hear, but told them in a way that made them bearable. It's one of Merle's best songs.


The late sixties/early seventies were Merle's zenith. He was in his thirties then, and life was rife with possibilities. There is also a sense, in one's thirties, that the time is now. And trust me, you've got one foot in the past and the other busy planting your own footsteps. Many of Merle's songs then were an homage to what got him to where he was, but he was his own man. He needed to document what came before, yet he wasn't the sum total of the "roots of his raisin'".

Merle's albums, "Let Me Tell You About A Song" and "Hag" were about Merle trying something new.

I can't express how much those two albums affected me. I think maybe I was growing up, like Merle was growing up. I was inured to (All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers, and here was something completely different, more introspective. I wasn't sure I "got it", but it hit my heart. I lay in bed many a night with that white album cover nestled in my lap, listening to songs like this:


 "Let Me Tell You About A Song" was unusual for a country album. Who talked about the songs before they sang them? Nobody. I was jarred the first time I played it. What is this? Eventually Merle's words seared into my brain; I played that album so many times.

This is the full album, apparently. Feel free to not listen to the sum total of it. I just wanted to demonstrate what it was like:



In 1969, Merle released "I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am". It may have been semi-autobiographical, but it is distinguished by its lack of chorus. Merle may have been going for the "Gentle On My Mind" vibe. My guess is that he was. Here it is:


Naturally around this time, Merle was in demand. Movies and TV came calling -- no, not for acting jobs but for theme songs.

I saw Bonnie & Clyde in the theater with my friend Alice. We went to a lot of movies back then. The flick was good, perhaps a little too mature for our young age, and there was some new guy named Gene Hackman in it, and another Gene had a bit part -- Gene Wilder. I'm sure the best part of the movie, though, for Alice and me, was the theme song:


NBC came up with the concept of a series about truck drivers. Honestly, I never would have watched the show, but the previews featured a familiar voice, so naturally, I became hooked. It's strange the memories one can slither out of one's mind, but I remember that one of the lead character's names was Sonny. Why would I remember that, when I can barely remember my own phone number? I wonder what else is tucked away in there. Anyway, here's "Movin' On":


When I think about "Movin' On", my mind naturally flies to "Kentucky Gambler"; I guess because both songs were on the same album. "Kentucky Gambler" was written by Dolly Parton, and it's unusual for Merle to record a song by another songwriter, but that happenstance is a whole other story. I like this "video" because it's obviously taken from an actual LP -- the way I always listened to Merle's songs:


Inevitably, the music scene marched on, but Merle was still there. In fact, some of Merle's best work was done essentially undercover, as much notice as radio took. Here's proof:


More proof:




Always, always one of my favorites:



Lots of artists have covered Merle's song -- scores of artists. I'm not inclined to feature cover songs here. This post is about Merle. But excellence is excellence. I love Radney Foster:


I'm tired now, and can't do justice, but stay tuned.

Cuz I'm tired of this dirty old city.




















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