In Nicholas Dawidoff’s book, ‘In The Country of Country’ there’s a fascinating portrait of Merle Haggard from around twenty years ago. Dawidoff’s premise is simple; he goes to the places where the country music was made. He travels to Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee and, in the chapter on Merle Haggard, up to Northern California. There he encounters Merle figuring out how he can interpret the music of Iris Dement. The Hag had discovered Iris Dement because she covered Big City on Tulare Dust: A Song Writers Tribute to Merle Haggard. Hearing Dement’s version of ‘Big City’ on his tour bus, Merle had the coach pull in at the next town so he could get copies of Dement’s first two albums. It was then he heard her song, ‘No Time To Cry.’ So, as we catch up with them both in Dawidoff’s tale, Merle has asked Iris over to Shade Tree Manor, his Northern Californian compound, so she can teach him the song that would eventually appear on his album 1996.
By an interesting coincidence it was this album that was my first purchase of The Hag. Back then I dipped in and out of country music when something caught my ear. A couple of years before I too had been consumed by Iris Dement for an entire summer after my own father passed away. It was the album that got me through a strange, disconnected period of life. Mere tackles Iris’s song in the same key with a mature wistfulness only a country veteran could muster. When it comes to the line ‘cause I’m older now, I aint go to no time to cry,’ he phrases it so perfectly somehow, well… you just get it. Interesting too that Iris’s own choice of Merle song on Tulare Dust was ‘Big City.’ Haggard’s own decision to settle in Northern California was itself a flight from his original home in Bakersfield where it ‘didn’t rain enough.’ Big City’s famous lyric goes:
Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
And give me all I’ve got coming to me
And keep your retirement
And your so-called Social Security
Big city turn me loose and set me free
Perhaps that’s what people buy into when they relate to Merle Haggard. In a world where the epithet has been cheapened beyond recognition Merle Haggard wholly deserves the status of ‘legendary.’ A Country Great because he did what he wanted and unusually stayed far away from the big city no country blog ever fails to mention: Nashville. Merle distrusted the musicians there and knew that being separated by thousands of miles was the distance he needed to create his own special world. What a world that was. A fifty year career including a back catalogue of songs anyone (country, rock ‘n’ roll, folk or pop musician would kill for) and then……the voice.
I love the fact that Merle is a great songwriter; it’s what matters most to me, but there is also something strangely compelling about a great country voice. In Merle’s case it’s a voice you believe in. Often within a line it can bend your heart then, as quickly, fire you up as he spits out another perceived injustice. More than anything else it often seemed as if Merle Haggard understood his own audience’s fears and aspirations well enough to articulate something they might be feeling. Think Okie From Muskogee, Branded Man, Working Man’s Blues or Mama Tried. But then he sang love songs which make you want to get up and start all over again. ‘Silver Wings’ or ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’ or ‘Misery and Gin.’
This Tuesday we’ll play you these songs sung by some great artists as well as The Hag himself. We will hear from Suzy Boguss, Sturgill Simpson, Sam Outlaw, Marty Stuart, Willy Vlautin and Timothy B Schmit. Then we’ll hear the voice of the man himself from an interview he gave in 1976 with David Allan on BBC Radio 2. Finally we will conclude our year long Merle celebration by playing hits no. 37 and 38 from Merle’s catalogue of No 1 singles. We will be celebrating 80 years since Merle was born (6 April), the same date he left us one year ago.
It will be two very special and, I hope, quite sentimental hours of music and conversation. If you love Merle Haggard we will aim to celebrate what you already know. If you don’t we think you might well by the end of the show. Join me if you can this Tuesday evening on BBC Radio Scotland FM from five past nine.