I’ve written some seriously unflattering reviews of modern country artists over the past decade. It is generally assumed that I “hate country music” by many area country fans.
No one ever asked me if I actually hate country music, though. And the thing is, I don’t.
With Merle Haggard performing Friday in Kleinhans Music Hall, I’ve been thinking about country a lot these recent days, spurred by the image I hold of “Hag” as a face on the Mount Rushmore of American country music. He’s right up there with a few others – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Hank Williams, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Gram Parsons, Patsy Cline.
So why do I have positive feelings for guys and gals like Haggard, when I feel pretty much exactly the opposite about artists including Toby Keith, Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift? I suppose it all comes down to questions of intention on the part of the artist. The true greats in country music history were not attempting to cross over into the realms of pop music, by any means necessary. They were purists, in a way. Like jazz artists who looked down their noses (often wrongly) at those among their peer group who accepted the influences of rock on their genre, the best country artists made sure their music was packed with reverence for its forebears. Not everyone was meant to be able to play it. You had to be good. You had to have suffered a bit.
Today’s country, however, is pop-country. It’s post-modern because it is completely self-aware and disingenuous – it apes styles, employs signifiers both musical and sartorial, and generally follows a cynically premeditated plan.
It started when Garth Brooks became more popular than any deity you might name, just as the ’80s were preparing to bow their Aqua Net-coated head for the final time. Brooks sold millions of albums with his edgeless take on classic country. He made country music massively popular with the mainstream. He was pop enough to be considered pop, and country enough to be considered country. And he wore the proper hat. He was talented, too, of course.
For many of today’s country-pop superstars, Brooks is considered to be ground zero. His is the model they are encouraged to emulate. And that’s the problem.
American country music has its origins in many places, among them Ireland and England. This is probably heresy to some, but in fact, like everything else American, it has its roots in non-American parts of the world. It is born of folk music, obviously. It comes primarily from the American South, though not always. And at the beginning, it was a music generated by the rural poor. It spoke to them in a language they understood, about their own lives.
Haggard grew from this soil. He is from California, but we’re not talking Hollywood here – he came from rural California. He was pretty much trouble from the first moment his feet hit the ground. He ran afoul of the law, and was in prison. While there, he learned that his wife was pregnant with another man’s child. When he was released, he got a job digging ditches. Literally. His abilities as a songwriter, singer and guitarist quite likely saved his life in a very real way.
That tough-as-nails existence informs all of Haggard’s work, the best of which is infused with a profound sadness that is borne with dignity by the singer. When Haggard sings, you believe him. End of story.
Like many a wayward liberal-leaning hippie, I came upon Haggard through the Grateful Dead. I doubt this would make him particularly happy, but it’s true. The Dead covered two of Haggard’s best in the form of “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home,” tunes they began playing in the late ’60s and continued to perform until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.
Country and rock music come from the same soil. So do the blues and jazz. Intermingling them can have profoundly awesome results, and this has been the case with artists as far-ranging as Ray Charles, the Byrds, Bela Fleck and Alison Krauss.
However, for the past 20 years, country music has been less adventurous, preferring to take the easy way out by marrying country tropes, clichés and attitudes to conventional, lowest-common-denominator mainstream pop music.
I’ve got a problem with that. I bet Haggard does, too.