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Country Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Why Merle Haggard can make a middling detour into bluegrass and still bounce back




Of the viable American pop genres, country music is the most con-servative. Not that it's completely static, of course--Gretchen Wilson doesn't sound much like Wanda Jackson, and Jackson sounds even less like Sara Carter. But even the most adventurous innovators (like, say, Bill Monroe) obsessively tout their connection to tradition, and as a result change tends to come slowly. Gretchen Wilson does, after all, have more than a little in common with Tanya Tucker.

Country's fixation on an authentic rural past has often provoked scorn--Richard A. Peterson's 1997 book Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity is perhaps the most effective criticism. And it has undeniably done harm. Country artists in the 30s and 40s were able to assimilate elements of jazz and blues, but as pop music has grown more and more slickly produced, it's become difficult for subsequent generations to borrow from it tastefully--a big part of the reason country radio these days is so aesthetically bankrupt. And country's humiliating paucity of black performers has everything to do with its fetishization of its roots, which reach back to an era of institutionalized segregation and racism.

Still, there's an upside to country's conservatism: the genre's stars aren't contractually obligated to engage in extended acts of self-parody as they age. Rock and pop are all about being cutting-edge, dangerous, and rebellious in varying combinations, which is fine for musicians in their 20s. Once they hit 40 or 50, though, they start to look like--well, like Elvis Presley in his jumpsuit years. Or Paul McCartney, or Michael Jackson . . . or, dare I say it, Madonna or Bob Dylan.

Those folks still make bucketloads of money, of course. But the cost, to them and to their fans, is that they end up coming off like greedy, doddering fools, the butt of jokes they might've told back when they were young and sharp and didn't suck. For country stars, getting old presents cash-flow problems--country radio won't play them--but it doesn't create an identity crisis.

Because country doesn't demand the dutiful pursuit of the next hot style or rely on an ideology of generational warfare, its heroes have a lot more options when they start to go gray. They can, for example, quit shooting for radio hits and head for bluegrass, like Ricky Skaggs and Dolly Parton. They can go for glossier production and slip into New Age pop, like Emmylou Harris, or they can hang out with the rock kids, like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash. Not all of these choices result in great music. But Willie Nelson can make a bum album or two and I'll still want to see him live. The Rolling Stones? Not so much.

Of all the country greats, Merle Haggard has probably aged the best. Now 70, he didn't have his first big single till he was 27--he spent his early 20s in San Quentin--but even then he was as fiery and stubbornly opinionated as any cantankerous septuagenarian. Artists like Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton put off the tribute records until their careers are in decline, but Hag had barely planted his feet before he started exploring his roots: he did a Jimmie Rodgers tribute in 1969, less than five years after his debut album, then followed it with one dedicated to Bob Wills in 1970 and another to little-known blackface performer Emmett Miller in '73. So when Haggard celebrated classic honky-tonkers like Lefty Frizzell with Roots: Volume One in 2001 and put out the standards collection Unforgettable in 2004, it didn't seem like he was retrenching--he was just doing what he'd always done.

You could say the same about his latest album, The Bluegrass Sessions--recorded, naturally enough, for McCoury Music, the label run by bluegrass bandleader Del McCoury. Bluegrass has never been one of Haggard's primary influences, but the styles he does prefer--urbane honky-tonk and the electric Bakersfield sound--share many forefathers with bluegrass. To make that point, Haggard cannily covers songs by two of them on his new album. On "Jimmie Rodgers Blues Medley" he interjects Bob Wills-esque vocal asides between the bluegrass solos, and it works perfectly--as well it might, given the debt both bluegrass and western swing owe to early jazz. On the Delmore Brothers' "Blues Stay Away From Me," Haggard's plaintive not-quite-yodel recalls Bill Monroe's keening, and the crack band, led by Marty Stuart, plays low-down blues like they've been doing it all their lives. Which, of course, they more or less have.

Tunes from Haggard's back catalog also hold up well in this new setting. "Big City," a 1981 track about escaping urban life, actually makes more sense with a smaller, more rustic-sounding acoustic band. Haggard's voice has aged, and he no longer has the unerring control that was once his trademark. But he's learned a trick or two from Willie Nelson, and uses the new quaver in his singing to project vulnerability and emotion. His phrasing is smart and affecting, as always, and lonesome harmony vocals by Alison Krauss (on "Mama's Hungry Eyes") and guitarist Carl Jackson (everywhere else) fit snugly over his lead.

Still, this isn't one of Haggard's best efforts. It's nice to hear him revisit one of his old gems, but he trots out four, which seems lazy. The by-the-book bluegrass instrumentation--guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, bass--also gets a bit monotonous, and by the end I was missing the horns that enliven many of Haggard's sets. And, perhaps most important, his new songs lack the bite of his best work. "Pray" and "Momma's Prayers" are, as the titles suggest, maudlin and moralistic--a strain always present in Haggard's work, but not one I like to see overplayed.

"What Happened?" though, is the low point. Haggard complains as if by rote about high taxes and high gas prices and shares with us his belief that the country is going to hell. You can't blame this on old age--he's been crotchety for 40 years now--but his classics in this vein, like 1969's "Okie From Muskogee," use humor and detail to open the song up to audiences of all philosophical persuasions. "What Happened?" lacks that depth; in its place there's an irritating querulousness that reminds me of bottom-shelf Lou Reed.

But just because this isn't Haggard's finest album doesn't mean the next one won't be. His career is full of ups and downs, and he's done some spectacular work in the past few years: If I Could Only Fly, released by Anti- in 2000, is probably one of his two or three greatest records ever. And even the lesser albums have their virtues--like the one great new song here, "Learning to Live With Myself," a weary reflection on aging and loss. "It's hard to face up to the mirror / Leave all the habits on the shelf," Haggard sings. "Till He gives me my call / The hardest of all / Will be learning to live with myself." Keeping up an identity can be a bore and a burden--especially when your identity is that of a pop singer. But whatever his worries, Haggard wears his skin more comfortably than just about anyone else in the business.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Merle Haggard photo by Pamela Springsteen.

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