One More City–with Merle Haggard

So, you probably don’t know this about me, but I’m a huge country music fan. Huge. Not the new stuff, but the classic country. From around the 30s to mid-70s (from about Jimmie Rodgers to Waylon Jennings). The modern stuff doesn’t really do it for me. BigCityMerleHaggard

As such, I was truly bummed this week to learn Merle Haggard had passed away. Many of you, especially those  of you outside the U.S., might not have heard of him. Well, let me cure you of that with a look at three songs from one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters. All written and performed by Haggard.

I’m including just the lyrics because they’re lyric-driven songs and I love the simple stories they tell.


1. Big City

Always loved this one. It’s a simple story really, about a guy who has had enough.

I’m tired of this dirty old city
And tired of too much work
And never enough play
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.

So, he takes off running way out into the middle of nothing.

Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
And give me all I’ve got coming to me.

And Merle, being Merle, couldn’t help but pack a little political edge into the song.

And keep your retirement and your
So called Social Security
Big city turn me loose and set me free.

I love that “so-called Social Security.” I always feel the guy who ran was better for it, happier and just plain freer. And for the record, I have blasted this song while driving my truck through the middle of Montana. Near a place called Grass Range. Literally.

2. Here in Frisco

Haggard famously dissed the City by the Bay in one of his most famous songs, “The Okie from Muskogee.” Fair enough. But what a lot of people don’t know is that he wrote one of the most beautiful songs ever written about the city. It’s kind of a love song for the city and whenever I’m there, I can hear wisps and catches of it playing in my mind.

It’s four a.m. in New York City three a.m. in Dallas
The night is still early here in Frisco.

One a.m. is pretty early for San Fran. I’ve seen it “swinging” at 3 a.m. and even after that (especially, on St. Patrick’s Day).

They say it’s raining in Chicago and it’s cold and clear in Denver
Been windy all night long here in Frisco
Trolley cars are clinging, the big Bay Town’s swinging
And I’m still all alone here in Frisco.

That nails it for me. I just feel myself transported back there walking through the streets, hearing the trolleys clanging, the wind blowing. It’s a great little tribute to the city.

This is a deep track on his Keep Movin’ On album, but very worth tracking down.

3. Silver Wings

Another favorite. It starts out well enough.

Silver wings,
Shining in the sunlight,
Roaring engines,
Headed somewhere in flight.

But this is a country song, so things head south fast.

They’re taking you away
Leaving me lonely
Silver wings
Slowly fading out of sight.

You can tell where this is headed: Nowhere good.

Don’t leave me I cried
Don’t take that airplane ride
But you locked me out of your mind
Left me standing here behind.

All that’s left is that sad, sad refrain.

Silver wings
Slowly fading out of sight.
Slowly fading out of sight.

This is another deep track from the A Portrait of Merle Haggard album.


So what does this all mean? First, sad to see him go. Second, I learned from him that you can tell a great story using a few, simple words. It doesn’t require complexity or big words. You can convey a whole mood and idea very, very simply. And tersely.

But perhaps the biggest thing I admire about him is how he brought country music into the modern era. All those things he sang about above are modern things: big cities, San Francisco, jet airplanes. Before him, country music singers sang about honky tonks, white lightning and trains. He wrote about those things too, but he also brought in new things, keeping the old sounds and phrasing. Every great art form contains within it tradition and innovation. If tradition become the dominating feature, that art form stagnates and dies. If only innovation dominates, the good things about that tradition can be forgotten and the whole art form can be lost. The key seems to be finding a balance between tradition and innovation to create something new within an existing tradition. That’s when really great artistic moments can happen.

And Merle Haggard will always be a fine example of that.

Rest in Peace, Merle. And Thanks,

Darius.


If you want to learn more, Wikipedia has a great article on Merle and you can pick up one of his greatest hit albums to start with and then dip into his actual albums if you’re hungry for more. I hope you will be.

See you next time,

DJ

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s