Social media seems to make the deaths of ageing rock stars more visible and more personal than those events used to be. Or perhaps I too am more nostalgic with age. But one recent death did slip under my radar, and it caught me out when I learned of it: Merle Haggard died on 6 April.
When I lived in Dunedin in the 1980s I was involved in a band called The Moon. David Pine – formerly of Sneaky Feelings – sang “Dreaming of Merle Haggard / singing Wishing She’s Still There” (a song I have yet to discover). I was perplexed. Wasn’t Haggard like everything that was wrong with music?
He was the quintessential loser-narrator with a broken heart and a tear in his beer. His music’s full of sappy, syrupy chord progressions with insipid rhythms and formless solos. Even his stage shows were full of cliches: 10 gallon hats, tassel jackets and gaudy lighting.
If you don’t know what or who I’m talking about, this is the guy who wrote Oakie from Muskogee. Those chords. That hat.
Then a few years later my friend Cushla Donaldson invited me to design the lighting for a production of Sam Shepherd’s play Fool for Love. Being a fringe affair I also operated the console. Every night I’d sit there in the darkness. On the PA Haggard crooned Remember Me (I’m the one who loves you) and I’d slowly nudge up the slider to throw an amber glow on the slumped figure of actor Bruce Hopkins. Sure, it’s a guess-you-had-to-be-there moment, but it lasted forever. I liked my lights, but it was Haggard’s honey-mellow voice that really warmed the house.
Funny what goes on in a young man’s head at the back of dark little basement theatres.
I learned to love Haggard – and a bunch of other country & western artists – precisely because of their ability to do tragedy in a genuinely tragic way. His titles say it all: Things aren’t funny anymore; Someday when things are good; Going where the lonely go; The funeral …
The spotty children of punk and hip hop all have plenty to say about class failure and whatnot. But those artists tend to exempt themselves from the society they critique, adopting a safe vantage point from which to hurl sonic and cultural grenades. So Anarchy in the UK acknowledges a personal response to a pointless world: middle finger straight up. And The Message is a catalogue of the sharp end of everything that’s wrong. But the narrator in both those songs is entirely unavailable, and unimpeachable.
C&W also has plenty to say about the mean ol’ world. But Haggard and his peers are infinitely more likely to acknowledge their own part in the world’s collapse, or how the world’s collapse affects them personally. It’s not just the use of the first person. It’s what you say about the first person. For Lydon and Grandmaster, it’s defensive.
Westerners are terrible apologisers. But country and western singers are brilliant at it.
But Haggard’s not all doom and gloom. Songs like Let’s chase each other round the room and Yesterday’s wine celebrate the best of love and sex. Hungry Eyes will rip out your heartstrings, but only because it’s so darn loving, right up there with Tui Teka’s Mum. Play them both on mother’s day.
Musically, it’s more than his smooth, warm, mellow voice (although that’s a pretty big part). I love how C&W singers never sound like they’re out to prove anything musically. They sound more like musicians operating well within their abilities. Other genres like punk and hip hop have claimed to reject virtuosity. Yet this claim is usually accompanied by grande gestures of spectacle, replacing musical virtuosity with cultural derring-do.
Haggard and his peers don’t bother with any of that. They just play the tune, sing the words and get on with it.
Nice story: Haggard’s legend is that he was a small time crim doing a lag in St Quentin when Johnny Cash and his people came through, and he apparently attributed his musical turn on to this moment.
I can’t do this without acknowledging the flourishing array of new country music coming out of Aotearoa, much of which completely flies in the face of this discussion. For one thing, it’s impossible to listen to Marlon Williams without hearing a virtuoso singing like his life depends on it. But that’s another song.