Music News


Save for Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams the Elder, there is no other individual in country music who can lay a more legitimate claim to icon status than Merle Haggard. Factoring in all reasonable elements--writing, singing, musicianship, stage work, political and social commentary--the Hag has earned his stripes as a bona fide legend.

Those purporting to be country music aficionados who disagree are probably too young and/or possibly too stupid to understand.

Okay, perhaps that's a tad too harsh. After all, it's been a spell since Haggard's come out with anything worthy enough to catch the formatted sensibilities of modern country radio. Anytime old buzzards like Haggard find a single on the airwaves nowadays it's most likely in collaboration with a younger, prettier face, or it's a silly-ass novelty record. Besides, the proliferation of Stetson hat racks like Garth Brooks and Clint Black belching out of the Nashville clone machine is using almost all 50,000 watts right now.

In the big picture, it's a doggone shame. Too many kids in crispy-clean jeans are going to think George Strait invented Western swing or that Reba McEntire has real talent.

And Haggard himself might be perpetuating these sad, sad myths. On September 27, Haggard will perform at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, following Keith Whitley's widow and opening for Clint Black. That's right--certifiable legend Merle Haggard will be setting the stage for the barely postpubescent, newest (Oops! Here comes Garth Brooks. . . . Oops! Here comes Alan Jackson. . . . ) matinee idol to be churned out of Music Row's hunk factories.

Say it ain't so, Merle.
To be fair, Clint Black deserves top billing at major venues. He's handsome as hell, sings real good, sells about a billion albums an hour. No, don't blame Clint.

But the boy flat can't change Merle Haggard's tires.
So the question is: Why would this giant of the genre play second fiddle to anyone? It's a query that may be answered someday--Haggard doesn't give interviews, except to those who slap together his press packages and are paid well to keep on his sunny side. No quarrel: As a legend, he has earned this privilege.

MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 But why, Merle, why? It is clear that Haggard and those of his ancient ilk are endangered species. They carry baggage from times so alien to today's youth that there's little hope for genuine relating. While a tough life for contemporary C&W stars might entail some minor privations or a couple or three hard knocks, Haggard's past is the stuff of Steinbeck.

He was born in a boxcar in Bakersfield, California, to parents who had survived the Dust Bowl. He bounced around hobo camps, hopped freight trains to unknown destinations, worked when he could, played guitar when he couldn't. He wrote songs about it all.

When he was barely of drinking age, Haggard found himself in San Quentin Prison for robbing a bar. When he got out, he started working taverns in Bakersfield, playing and singing.

In 1965, he began a long association with Capitol Records. Beginning with "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" (1966), the classics came hard and fast: "Mama Tried," "Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)," "Today I Started Loving You Again," "Sing Me Back Home," "Hungry Eyes."

When Vietnam and LSD-25 clashed and began to divide America, Haggard made it clear where he stood about the whole thing: "The Fightin' Side of Me" pronounced his love-it-or-leave-it patriotism, and 1969's "Okie From Muskogee" conveyed in now-classic terms his objection to trampled-upon, traditional American values.

The 1970s found Merle Haggard peaking and ever-prolific with his pen: "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," "My Favorite Memory," "Big City."

When Nashville began to move wholesale into the hopelessly mainstream, quasi-disco sounds of the '80s, the Haggards, Cashes and Lynns of the country-western world became instant dinosaurs. And by the time the so-called "New Traditionalist" movement took hold, Merle and company just couldn't recover. The young scabs who purloined their positions were playing the big houses now. It was far too late for the legends to return from whence they came.

Merle Haggard's media material states that he "begins the 1990s with a sense of rejuvenated purpose." To this end, he recorded Blue Jungle, his first album for Curb Records. It's a sad affair, this new effort. Songs about urban homelessness--"Under the Bridge" and "My Home Is the Street"--


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Larry Crowley