The Last Roundup

Merle Haggard's sandblasted truthhas been eclipsed by the twinkly perfectionof today's country music.

Music --

The Last Roundup

MERLE Haggard is a commanding figure in late-twentieth-century American popular music, a country-music superstar whose career, documented in the new collection Down Every Road, has spanned more than one seismic shift in our recent cultural history.

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Long overdue, Capitol Nashville's four-disc, hundred-song compilation is one of the few indispensable items in the CD-era glut of reissues and commemorative boxed sets.

Before he stiff-armed the counterculture in 1969 with his hippie-baiting anthem "Okie From Muskogee," Haggard was on his way to an unlikely apotheosis. Rolling Stone critics lionized him as an auteur and an unlettered poet transcending the limits of a trashy genre. The genre itself fascinated hippies. The Grand Ole Opry, Goo-Goo Clusters, Tammy Wynette--wow! To the children of affluence, this was surreal kitsch, exotic yet on native ground. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda rode out to discover America in Easy Rider. Merle Haggard was the son of Dust Bowl refugees and sang about it; he was an ex-con and sang about that, too. "I turned twenty-one in prison / Doin' life without parole." So what if the fellow wasn't a murderer? He was the real thing--ten times as real as Bob Dylan, that middle-class renegade.

But the real thing got nasty and bit the counterculture's hand. Whether or not Haggard wrote "Okie" as a joke (he's never been very clear about this), it showed the hippies where his heart lay: with the hardhats. With the crackers who blew Hopper and Fonda away. With white working-class America, not romanticized à la Marcuse but in its red, white, and hippie-stomping blue. With the crowds of crew-cut flag-wavers who cheered Merle on all across America, in the autumn of 1969: "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogeeee . . . "

Recoiling, the longhairs vilified Haggard ("the Spiro Agnew of music," one critic called him) and then forgot about him. Haggard shrugged and went on his way, singing for his faithful fans and slowly building what Down Every Road confirms is country music's greatest body of work since that of Hank Williams Sr.

Not that he is at the end of the road. Leading his crack ten-piece band, The Strangers, Haggard plied America's highways to play 107 shows last year--as charismatic a performer as ever at fifty-nine. This is poignant, because his records no longer climb the country charts. They hardly even make bottom-rung appearances. Those faithful country-music fans have proved fickle--or, rather, they've been swamped by legions of new fans to whom Haggard and his still-vital contemporaries Waylon Jennings (fifty-nine), Willie Nelson (sixty-three), and George Jones and Johnny Cash (both sixty-four) mean little. The new fans go for a hygienically improved type, a cowboy-hatted hunk tricked out in the trappings of his predecessors--hat, jeans, boots, even a southern twang--but singing a very different song.

MERLE Haggard is a man of prismatic creativity, a singer, songwriter, bandleader, guitarist, and fiddler--(everything but, as a recent brush with bankruptcy attests, a good businessman). He has written or co-written 346 songs, forty-five more than the legendarily prolific Willie Nelson. As a singer he has sent thirty-eight tunes to No. 1 on Billboard's country chart--more than Nelson and Hank Williams Sr. combined. He has released sixty-eight albums, not counting the bootleg cassettes and CDs one finds on drugstore racks.

Haggard's songbook includes remarkably few throwaways. Especially from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties he churned out classic after classic. He has written working-class anthems ("Mama's Hungry Eyes," "Workin' Man Blues," "If We Make It Through December," "Big City") and prison songs ("Sing Me Back Home," "Branded Man," "Mama Tried," and the searing "Huntsville," buried until now on a 1971 album). He has written road songs ("White Line Fever," "Ramblin' Fever"), jingoistic songs ("Okie From Muskogee," "The Fightin' Side of Me"), sad love songs ("Silver Wings," "Holding Things Together"), happy love songs ("Living With the Shades Pulled Down"), sad drinking songs ("The Bottle Let Me Down"), happy drinking songs ("Honky Tonk Night Time Man"), and sad drinking songs masquerading as happy drinking songs ("Swinging Doors"). He has written ecology songs ("Winds of Change"), anti-racism songs ("Irma Jackson"), showbiz-is-hell songs ("Footlights"), and odes to his own truculent, square-peg-in-a-round-hole individualism ("My Own Kind of Hat").

When I spoke to Haggard recently, I asked him which song best expressed him. He thought for a long time. "What came to mind when you said that was the song called `Leonard.' I wrote it about a friend of mine [the songwriter Tommy Collins, born Leonard Sipes]. I sometimes marvel at that one. I don't know how I did it. `Footlights' might describe my situation, or condition, more than any other song. `White Man Singing the Blues'--lately I've been thinking about how lucky I was to have written that."

"The poet of the common man," as Haggard is sometimes called, is at bottom an autobiographer, drawing again and again on his rural blue-collar roots. He really is an Okie from the greater Muskogee area--or his parents are, anyway; Merle was born in Oildale, California, near Bakersfield, two years after the family migrated from Oklahoma. His imagination has remained working-class. Though he had long left poverty behind when he wrote "If We Make It Through December," the portrait of a laid-off factory worker rings true: "I don't mean to hate December / It's meant to be the happy time of year / And my little girl don't understand / Why Daddy can't afford no Christmas here."

The bedrock emotion in his songs is probably a deep, stoic sadness ("I grew up in an oil town / But my gusher never came in," he sings in the beautiful elegy "Kern River"); still, Haggard can also kick up his heels ("Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room"). The young ex-con's pinched, antisocial bitterness in "Branded Man" ("I paid the debt I owed them, but they're still not satisfied") faded with time. Later on there were astonishing moments of open-armed bonhomie--the sunny prophecy "Rainbow Stew," for instance, with its visions of world peace and gasless cars and its giddy refrain, "We'll all be drinkin' that free Bubble Up / And eatin' that rainbow stew!" Haggard's politics are impossible to pigeonhole. The single he wanted to release right after "Okie" was "Irma Jackson," an interracial love story. Aghast, Capitol quashed the idea. Haggard may have been received at Nixon's White House, but that didn't prevent him from unfondly remembering the man who "lied to us all on TV." In the end Haggard hews to a sort of right-wing anti-authoritarianism, more reflexive than reasoned.

IF his songwriting energy has fallen off lately, Haggard's always-superb singing has actually risen a notch in quality. He may be the most sophisticated, self-analytical vocalist country music has ever produced, schooled in the melismatic style of the fifties star Lefty Frizzell. (Anyone who considers country music unsophisticated should listen to the first seconds of Frizzell's "Always Late," in which Haggard's hero teases the title phrase into more syllables, as smooth as raw oysters, than one can count.)

Haggard's early voice was a honeyed tenor that easily melted into falsetto. In his first hit, "Sing a Sad Song" (1963), he took the opening notes at an easy, conversational pitch but abruptly floated his voice a full octave up, pulling the amazed listener with him. His voice has deepened with age. It has come to resemble his unforgettable face, by turns rounded and jagged--except that the face is a ruin and the voice a sandblasted gem. Haggard today can sound as wizened as your grandpa or as youthful as Romeo. He sometimes piles on too many effects (my least favorite is a back-of-the-throat tenor that makes him sound a little like Dudley Do-Right), but when he is relaxed, he's pure magic. The doyens who long ago pronounced Sinatra a genius may not know it, but Haggard lives in the same neighborhood.

He's also a fine instrumentalist who was bit early and hard by the guitar-picking bug. He taught himself the fiddle in the early seventies, in order to play the music of another of his idols, Bob Wills. The encounter with Wills's "western swing" was epochal for Haggard. He doubled The Strangers' number to ten, molding the band into a latter-day version of Wills's Texas Playboys. The Strangers' music grew springy and supple, and Haggard started calling it "country jazz." In 1980 he became the first country artist to be featured on the cover of the venerable jazz magazine Down Beat. He has an improviser's hatred of the rote. "I try very hard to go out there every show and do at least one thing that the band had no idea I was gonna call for," Haggard told me, "It's an adrenaline kick. It keeps me on my toes. It damn sure keeps them on theirs!" No remark could convey more tellingly the gulf between Haggard and the stars of nineties country music, whose concerts--sonically perfect and choreographed down to the hip-wiggle--mime the twinkly perfection of their videos. In a bizarre flipflop, TV has become the reality, live music the simulation.

WHEN Haggard stood in the media glare lit by "Okie," country music was still a subculture, lampooned by the mainstream when noticed at all. Today country is the mainstream. In 1970 country records grossed less than $150 million; last year they made more than $2 billion. Country is American record buyers' second-favorite genre, after rock; its market share, now 16.7 percent, has doubled since 1990. In radio, country rules. Seventy million Americans listen to 2,600 country stations--both figures far outstripping the competition. Garth Brooks is the best-selling solo recording artist in history--bigger than Elvis, bigger than Michael Jackson, and, with 60 million albums sold, closing in on the Beatles. Garth Brooks?

From its birth, in the 1920s, commercial country music was never simply a rural genre. It was the soundtrack for one of this century's great diasporas: the flow of rural white southerners into America's cities. Country softened the traumas of that move. Right through the sixties, songs like "The Streets of Baltimore" mirrored the rural southerner's feelings about his displacement, from elation ("Her heart was filled with laughter / When she saw those city lights / She said the prettiest place on earth is Baltimore at night") to defeat ("Now I'm a-goin' back on that same train / That brought me here before / While my baby walks the streets of Baltimore"). If the narrator didn't stick it out, his cousins probably did, and raised families, and left their roots behind.

What happens when a music outlives its social function? It may die, or it may live on, changed utterly. Severed from its origins, country is now a series of free-floating symbols. Cowboy hats and gingham skirts make their wearers "country"--a lifestyle as opposed to a way of life, the past as product. Nothing could be easier to market in the nineties. Gutted of its old musical content (who needed those nasty steel guitars anyway?), thematically spruced up (light on cheating and drinking songs, heavy on God, love, and the old swimming hole), country dovetails perfectly with the nostalgia for order which underlies our current rightward drift.

Nashville's country-music industry is all too eager to shift into overdrive, welcoming culturally homeless Americans. Country-music record and radio executives are no more venal now than in the past; it's just that they had less power when the music was a self-inventing, self-regenerating grassroots culture. Now they're in charge. In post-regional America power lies with the programmers of our nationwide pop culture--that big TV set on which country music is just one channel. Listen to the way Garth Brooks pronounces "standing" on his hit "Standing Outside the Fire." It's Val-speak, the inflectionless diction of twentysomethings everywhere. A fiddle tossed into a synthesizer mix is all it takes to make a record sound "country" now; lots of the stuff is otherwise indistinguishable from mainstream pop. The beat has sped up, the drums are "hotter," the lead guitars wail--it's as spontaneous as a Super Bowl half-time show.

WHERE does that leave Hag? "These songs they got on the radio now," he told me, "my wife says it sounds like they're singin' about air. What more can they do to the sonofabitch? They've got it to a science. They've got grooming classes where they can turn out Elvis Presleys--one a day, I think. They gather up at nine-thirty in the morning, they go off in little groups and come back with these prefabricated songs about things that never even happened, and it sounds that way. It's so refined, it's so perfect, it's so in tune, and there's no feel, there's no God-dang soul to it, there's no story, there's no melody, and I just wish I could say somethin' else, but that's my opinion."

"To be honest with you," Haggard told me, "I'm so disgusted with what they're playin' on country, I listen to rock-and-roll stations. Yesterday I listened to classic rock-and-roll all day long, and I enjoyed it. Or I listen to tapes. I got my own tapes. Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Bing Crosby, Milton Brown, George Benson. That's where I'm at."

To mourn the passing of Haggard's grand sound is not to eulogize the good old days for their own sake. Modernity isn't the problem--Nashville musicians like Mark O'Connor, Bela Fleck, and Jerry Douglas are coming up with dazzling blends of country and other styles, postmodern collisions that in the right hands produce art. Nor am I making a plea for a return to some sort of old-time purity. Authenticity was never a criterion in country music--not since Jimmie Rodgers, a Mississippi boy, donned cowboy gear. The only criterion that applies is creativity: Is it given room? Is it encouraged? The answer, in this case, is a resounding no.

The usual corporate heads' refrain--"We're just giving them what they want"--is disingenuous. Never mind the oatmeal the big labels do produce. By not producing--that is, by filtering out a whole rainbow of artists--country-music labels and radio stations hinder the public's ability to choose. Pat McLaughlin, Marty Brown, and Kelly Willis are a few of the talented artists you'll seldom hear on mainstream country radio. As for Haggard, his last No. 1 song, "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star," was in 1987. His last chart appearance came when "In My Next Life" crept to No. 58 in 1994 and then sank.

This past spring, just before Down Every Road came out, Haggard released 1996, his sixty-eighth album. KNIX, a country station in Phoenix, Arizona, played the first single, "Truck Driver's Blues," during a Friday-afternoon rush hour, and got a flurry of phone calls in response. The news put Haggard in a good mood through the middle of the following week. "They went bonkers!" he shouted at me over the phone. "I understand it's actin' like a complete runaway!"

It never made the charts. I wasn't holding my breath anyway. The song I kept hearing behind Haggard's jacked-up mood was not "Truck Driver's Blues" but one he wrote a few years back:

I can laugh and I can drink,
And prob'ly be alright until morning
But what am I gonna do
With the rest of my life?

Illustration by Hiro Kimura

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1996; The Last Roundup; Volume 278, No. 2; pages 79-83.