Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Geek Obsession: The Bakersfield Sound
Why it’s Daunting: Country music conjures up an unfortunate set of imagery for many: pick-up trucks, Confederate flags, mullets, and tallboys of Bud Lite for starters. The intelligentsia has historically found the genre easy and fun to ridicule, dismissing it as the soundtrack of ignorance—hillbilly idiocy in musical form. Country can be a daunting field for neophytes to get into because it brings so much cultural baggage with it, most of it negative, and because the homogeneous pabulum you hear on contemporary country radio doesn’t provide much incentive to go beyond the stereotypes or preconceptions.
The Bakersfield Sound arose primarily as a response to the homogenization, over-production, and one-size-fits-all bigness that characterized country music throughout the ’60s, with its army of session musicians, perpetually employed string sections, and roving gangs of back-up vocal groups. Early rock ’n’ roll stole much of country’s blue-collar fan base. Nashville couldn’t compete with rock for sheer visceral kicks, so it took an antithetical approach. It got classy, dressing up its ballads with strings and orchestras and drowning out the voices of its scruffy troubadours with teams of back-up singers.
What became known as the “Nashville Sound” saved country from a business perspective and raised its public prestige, but as the songs got slicker, much was lost. Country was in danger of losing its soul, of abandoning the honky-tonks in favor of nightclubs and denim-and-cowboy-hat ensembles for proper eveningwear. That might have worked for Patsy Cline, but it felt a little fake coming from an endless string of interchangeable slicksters. It took an ex-con named Merle Haggard to help the genre win back some of its scruffy, suffering fighting spirit. But it was Haggard’s contemporary and onetime boss Buck Owens that reigned as the Baron of Bakersfield. Along with guitarist Don Rich, the musical director of his beloved backing band The Buckaroos, Owens helped define the sound and style of the Bakersfield Sound, with its emphasis on drums and the Fender Telecaster electric guitar. Owens’ oeuvre is geek-friendly, but not as accessible or as emotionally resonant as Haggard’s.
Possible Gateway: Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried
Why: The Bakersfield Sound combined the forceful simplicity of Hank Williams with the driving energy and drums of rock ’n’ roll. It was a stripped-down style of country whose no-frills directness reflected the blue-collar nature of songs about fighting, prison, heartbreak, and everything else that makes life interesting.
That made it a natural medium for Merle Haggard, an ex-con with little use for pretense. Haggard is unparalleled in his ability to articulate the hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties of hard, sad, broken men, drifters ambling around the edges of society in search of a handout, a free meal, or just a compassionate look from a stranger.
On “Mama Tried” Haggard reaches deep into his experiences as an inmate to sing from the perspective of a man looking back at how things went wrong, using a tricky combination of shame, nostalgia, and a palpable yearning for a return to the warmth and intimacy of the mother-son bond. Haggard wasn’t just unafraid of vulnerability; he embraced it. He saw no loss of dignity in a condemned man furtively crying out for a mother’s love, just the universal longing for connection and acceptance, a theme also explored in “I Could Have Gone Right.”
In his version of “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” Haggard undercuts the genre’s tendency toward nostalgia with the understanding that poverty only seems romantic in retrospect. “Green, Green Grass of Home” travels even further into the tormented psyche of a condemned man as he dreams of the idyllic pleasures of his former life as he counts down the moments until his execution.
On “Little Ol’ Wine Drinker Me,” Haggard follows the old dictate about singing sad songs in a happy voice and happy songs in a sad voice, though Haggard’s songs occupy such a vast emotional spectrum—individually and as a whole—that it’s foolhardy to even attempt to delineate them into categories as narrow as “happy” or “sad.” Haggard’s music is too complicated for that. So is life.
Mama Tried closes with the anthemic rush of “Too Many Bridges To Cross Over.” It’s the proud boast of a man who isn’t about to settle down and let the world tame him until he has spread his seed far and wide. It’s the song of a young man with an old soul eager to make his mark on the world. It now feels like a statement of intent that Haggard more than made good on, creatively and otherwise.
Next steps: 1967’s I’m A Lonesome Fugitive contains what Haggard claims is the first song he ever wrote, the tellingly named “Skid Row,” though it’s just a little too perfect that the first song a consummate blue-collar bard like Haggard would write would be called “Skid Row.” The song’s title nevertheless sets the tone for another inspired ramble through the surprisingly complicated minds of common men and women in an uncommon and ever-changing world.
Where not to start: Haggard scored a major comeback with 1981’s Big City, but too much of his output from that era is ruined by over-production and questionable song selection. The 1983 collaborative album Pancho & Lefty affords country music fans the opportunity to listen to two great artists (Haggard and Willie Nelson) at their less than best.