Thursday, April 14, 2016

Merle Haggard

My dad and I agreed on perhaps two things: The Dallas Cowboys and Merle Haggard. We loved the Cowboys but knew they'd find a way to twist our innards into Spaghetti O's by giving up a last second touchdown to the Packers or the Colts or the Steelers. Perhaps the most profound statement my father ever made was, "The damn Cowboys cannot stand prosperity." My guess is, if my father were still alive, he'd hate them as much as I do. Thank you, Mr. Jones.

As for Merle, I grew up listening to his music (along with Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Webb Pierce, George Jones and such) because my dad played it in the house, but I was too much of a Beatles/rock fan to listen to C&W. And I took a personal dislike to the knee-jerk jingoism of "Okie from Muskogee." It was a huge Mayberry fairy tale, and you had to be an idiot not to know it or a liar not to admit it because, for one thing, Merle smoked his fair share of pot and had five wives and who knows how many one-night stands. In other words, there was more going on in that tour bus than holding hands and pitching woo.

And as for the kids who didn't burn their draft cards down on Main Street and didn't get a college deferment or didn't land a cushy post in a highly-prized National Guard unit patrolling the dangerous skies over Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, well, they ended up getting shipped to Vietnam and getting their asses shot to pieces, and it was those shaggy-hair hippies with their beads and Roman sandals and their peace demonstrations that ultimately ended the quagmire and brought what was left of their asses and sanity home. Over time, Merle's thoughts on the song and its political message evolved, and here's an interesting link:

Anyway, I was about to leave White Oak for Austin and UT in the summer of 1973 when my dad brought home the "I Love Dixie Blues" album, which was recorded live in New Orleans, and I fell in love immediately with two songs: "Carolyn" and "I Forget You Every Day," and from there, I doubled back to collect all his great '60s singles ("Mama Tried, Swinging Doors, Silver Wings, etc.) and then he came to Austin later that year and played the old Convention Center on Town Lake. Barbara Mandrell opened, and she was magnificent, and I wondered if I hadn’t just seen the best part of the concert. Then, he and the Strangers came on, and he sang ever damn song he knew except perhaps "Jingle Bells," and, of course, he finished with "Okie from Muskogee," and even us shaggy-hair hippies sang it like it was some kind of personal anthem. It remains the best concert I ever attended, and I've seen Elton John, Springsteen, McCartney, Billy Joel, Dixie Chicks, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Boz Scaggs and quite a few others I can't think of off the top of my head.

A year or so after graduating from UT and returning to East Texas, I was smitten with a girl, and she moved to Los Angeles to live with her father, with whom she'd been estranged. She was escaping an boozy mother and a brutish step-father, so I didn't blame her, but it broke my heart. I drove her to Love Field in Dallas and put her on a plane, then parked beside Bachman Lake and sat on the hood of my '73 Monte Carlo and drank a six-pack of something — probably Budweiser — and listened to "Silver Wings" over and over and over, and then drove home to sulk and mope for about a month. 

Since then, I’ve seen Merle three or four times, once at Stubbs, after which my friend, Dick Holland, immortalized me in a short review he wrote for the Texas Observer. The last time I saw Merle, he played at that church underneath the Pennybacker Bridge out on 360. It wasn't a very good show because he'd been sick and he had his kids carrying too much of the load, and also, the good Baptists (or whatever they are) didn't sell or allow beer or wine, and I didn't think to sneak in a flask of Jack Daniels.

Last November, he played the Nutty Brown CafĂ© near Dripping Springs, and I considered trying to catch the show but for some reason didn't. It probably conflicted with some dip-shit football game I wanted to watch, and I figured Merle was going to live forever anyway, so “another time.” Tickets were only forty bucks.

In the end, the thing I most appreciate and admire about Merle is that he was real. He didn’t pander. He never put on pretenses to satisfy a demographic. If he wrote and sang a song about his Mama or America or misery and gin, it was because he had something elegant and profound to say about each one of them. He wrote songs from the heart and the mind and the gut, and those songs remain as original and musical today as they were the day they were recorded, and if a couple of them are a little corny or jingoistic, well, screw it. As I've grown older, I've become a little corny and occasionally even a little jingoistic myself. That is, I like manly footwear and living right, and I am, by and large, proud they still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse.