Merle Haggard, poet of the common man, dies

Merle Haggard died, aged 79, on his birthday, still touring.  With his musicianship, his melodies, his multiple styles, his utterly expressive voice, and his eloquent, authentic songwriting, Haggard–to my mind–was the greatest country music artist since Hank Williams.  (I know, Johnny Cash has to be in there somewhere.  But “the Hag” arguably surpasses him on musical points.)

You probably know him best from the corny “Okie from Muskogee,” but listen to his others.  In fact, his greatest hits are among the most listenable in country music, no matter which style of music you usually prefer.  Blues, jazz, rock, gospel, Western Swing, and more–you can hear it all in his songs, which are also characterized by strikingly beautiful melodies.  What I most appreciate about him, though, are his song lyrics, particularly those that capture perfectly what it means to live paycheck by paycheck, struggling and sometimes failing to make ends meet for your family.  He sings about poverty–reflecting his own childhood during the Okie migration to California–with plaintive dignity.

If you don’t believe me about the greatness of Merle Haggard, I’ll prove it.  After the jump, read the obituary, watch the Youtube of “If We Make It Through December,” and then click to the other songs I link to.

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A pastor, a country music artist, & Honky-Tonk Gospel

Some of you know Rev. Eric Andrae, a Lutheran pastor of note in Pittsburgh.  He sent me an e-mail saying, “I have a very good friend who’s a local country musician of some renown,” Slim Forsythe.  “we both just read your book Honky-Tonk Gospel, and we will have a radio appearance together next week [that is, THIS week, tomorrow, Wednesday].” Pastor Andrae adds, “Despite what the Dos Equis commercials claim, Slim Forsythe is actually the most interesting man in the world.”  He’s also a case-study in vocation, someone who gave up a successful law career for a life in music, fronting a Hank Williams tribute band, playing Western swing, rock-a-billy, and gospel, and fulfilling his dream of living over a bar.  Here is the announcement about their radio appearance tomorrow, which can be accessed online:

 Pastor Andrae’s monthly appearance on WORD-FM (Pittsburgh) will be a unique one. . . . Slim Forsythe – well known country/gospel musician, recent inductee to America’s Old Time Music Hall of Fame, and a good friend of First Trinity Lutheran Church – will join him live on the air at approx. 5:10-6:00pm Eastern time on “The Ride Home with John and Kathy.”  Slim will play several songs, including covers of Hank Williams (with Molly Alphabet) and Johnny Cash tunes, as well as an original, with Pastor Andrae offering theological/spiritual commentary.  At 5:10pm on Wednesday, May 7, tune in at 101.5-FM or world-wide at www.WORDFM.com.

That they are going to discuss my notorious book, written with Tom Wilmeth, Honky Tonk Gospel:  The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music, makes this interview even more frought with possibilities.   More on Slim Forsythe, including a YouTube performance, after the jump. [Read more…]

Queen Of Country Music dies

Kitty Wells, arguably the first big female star of country music (not counting the women in the Carter Family), died Monday at the age of 92.

Here is her breakthrough song, a response to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” in which the singer laments that a “honky tonk angel”–that is, a woman of ill repute–broke up his marriage.  Kitty, irked at that song, wrote a reply using the same tune, in which she makes the musical observation that the MAN is to blame for breaking up his marriage by his unfaithfulness and that MEN are the cause of good girls going wrong!

Kitty Wells, ‘Queen Of Country Music,’ Dead At 92 – Music, Celebrity, Artist News | MTV.com.

UPDATE:  I garbled the account of Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” to which Kitty Wells was responding.  The man is complaining that his wife who left him turned out to be nothing but a “honky tonk angel” and that he should have known that she would never “make a wife.”

Springsteen on Hank Williams

David Browder quotes from a keynote speech Bruce Springsteen made at the SXSW shindig in Austin in which he gives his reflections on the great Hank Williams and the music of his tradition:

I remember sitting in my little apartment, listening to Hank Williams Greatest Hits over and over. And I was trying to crack his code because at first it just didn’t sound good to me. It just sounded cranky and old-fashioned…with that hard country voice. With that austere instrumentation. But slowly, slowly my ears became accustomed to its beautiful simplicity and its darkness and depth. And Hank Williams went from archival to alive for me before my, before my very eyes. And I lived, I lived on that for awhile in the late ’70s.

One thing it rarely was…it was rarely politically angry, it was rarely politically critical. And I realized that fatalism had a toxic element. If rock ‘n roll was a seven-day weekend, country was Saturday night hell-raising, followed by heavy Sunday coming down. Guilt, guilt, guilt. I [fracked] up, oh my God. But, as the song says, would you take another chance on me? That was country. Country seemed not to question why, it seemed like it was about doing then dying, screwing then crying, boozing then trying. And as Jerry Lee Lewis, the living, breathing personification of both rock and country, said, “I’ve fallen to the bottom and I’m working my way down.”

via Who Put That Hole in My Bucket? The Difference Between Bruce Springsteen and Hank Williams | Mockingbird.

Yes!  Exactly!  Bruce didn’t quite understand it, but Browder does, going on to name what it is about Hank Williams that is so compelling:  The backdrop of Christianity and the agonizing struggle between sin and grace.

 

Adult culture

Picking up from the music posts last weekend. . . .

Country music draws from the world of adults:  marriage, family, work, church, but also alcoholism, adultery, divorce.  (Country music is not intrinsically more wholesome, though.  It is very frank about sex–premarital, extramarital, but also marital–and is full of bad examples.)

The other popular musical genres–indeed, virtually all of pop culture, including television and the movies–draws from the world of young people:  dating, singleness, play, undefined spirituality, drugs, premarital sex, romantic love, fantasy.  (Notice that on television, virtually everyone even in ostensibly realistic dramas–NCIS, Law & Order, Bones, etc.–is single.)

It was not always this way.  The blues draws on the adult world.  Folk music.  Jazz.  Standards.  The American Songbook.  Classical music back when it was contemporary was made by adults for adults.

It is surely one of the oddest of our current cultural dysfunctions that our popular art and entertainment are largely made for young people.  To be sure, adults own the studios, run the industry, and make most of the money.  But the content and the target audience are largely oriented to adolescent children and single people in their lower 20’s.

One might say that this is just economics, that the entertainment biz caters to whoever will spend money on the product.  But adults, who have far more disposable income than those just starting out, do buy music and other kinds of entertainment.  But they  buy either what the young people are listening to or watching, or the music, styles, and artists they enjoyed when they were adolescents!

Whatever happened to adult culture?

God in country music

Joe Carter conducts a fascinating comparison of how country music talks about God, marriage, children, as opposed to the absence of such topics in pop, hip-hop, R&B, and even adult contemporary.  The post defies excerpt, so read it here  Finding God in the Gaps of Country Music | First Things.

Why do you think that is?  It can’t be just the age of the listeners, since lots of young people listen to country music, and young people can be religious.  African Americans tend to be more religious, we are told, than other demographics, yet that might not be evident in their music.  Is it a class thing?  If so, why should poorer people lower on the socio-economic totem pole be more openly religious than the upper crust?


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