A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After one year of country (dated from the column’s introduction on March 3, 2009), Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
I was playing Harrah’s Club in Lake Tahoe, probably the most uptown venue a country star could play in the 1970s, with the exception of Carnegie Hall. I had played Carnegie Hall, also, when I was back east.
I was introduced, walked onstage and the audience applauded as if it were asleep. I was doing an unusual show for a group of promoters, executives and high rollers. And people like Glen Campbell, Carroll O’Connor, and Bill Cosby were in the audience, seated with these big shots that Harrah’s was trying to impress. There were many other entertainers as well. I was doing my first song when someone in the crowd stopped the show.
“Hey, what is wrong with you people?” a voice yelled. I put my hand above my eyes to shield them from the spotlight. The faceless voice continued to rant.
“This is the greatest country singer since Hank Williams. You act like he’s a goddamned local act. You need to be bawled out, and I’m a little short nigger son of a bitch willing to do it. Now try again, Haggard. Walk offstage, and come back and see if they can show a little respect.”
I did, and the place went apeshit. They had taken orders from Sammy Davis Jr., who was standing atop a round cocktail table.
With that in mind I am now going to write about two budget-priced compilations that put Haggard’s oeuvre into four neat little boxes that conform to the hoariest of country conventions. The compilations—which can be downloaded for $5.99 apiece—cover some of Haggard’s most resonant themes: Drinkin’ and Prison.
Prison is a natural subject for a Merle Haggard compilation. Jail was the defining trauma of Haggard’s young life. In one of those details that sounds too good to be true, Haggard lived in a boxcar and developed, at an early age, intertwined obsessions with rambling and trains. The lonesome whistle of a freight train was an irresistible siren song. As he sings in “Too Many Bridges To Cross Over,” he was a “prisoner of the wind,” a loner blessed and cursed with an insatiable wanderlust whether or not he happened to be behind bars at the moment.
Haggard had a genius for escape and a weakness for committing stupid, petty crimes that made all those escape attempts necessary. It’s no coincidence that Haggard’s first five number-one country hits—he’d go on to rack up an astounding 38, though the hits stopped coming in 1987 and his career petered out before a comeback this decade—are about prisoners or prisons. If Jimmie Rodgers was country’s Singing Brakeman then Haggard carved out a niche for himself as its Singing Ex-Con.
Haggard’s prison songs are largely devoid of the outlaw swagger and defiance of a “Cocaine Blues.” “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” Haggard’s first number one, is representative of his deeply empathetic take on life outside the law or within its punishment chambers. The “lonesome” half figures every bit as prominently as the “fugitive” part. The narrator longs for the security and comfort of home, for a lover, a wife, a place to lay down roots and start over again but is doomed to a life of running and solitary emptiness. There’s nothing remotely glamorous or exciting about the fugitive existence. It’s a sad, sorry lot Haggard was happy to leave behind.
Above all, “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” throbs with sincerity and emotion. His characters never lose touch with their fundamental humanity no matter how dire their circumstances. They have that in common with Haggard himself. In Memories, his stories of life in San Quentin are as heartbreaking for their unexpected moments of connection and tenderness as they are for their brutality.
Remarkably, Rabbit succeeds. Once the prisoners learn of the escape a wave of euphoria sweeps over the inmates. One of their own has finally made it! Rabbit’s victory is everyone’s victory. He’s like Will Sampson at the end of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, triumphing symbolically over corrupt, petty authority for the sake of everyone who can’t fight back.
But Haggard worries for Rabbit’s future. Sure enough, he’s arrested for killing a cop and ends up dying a horrible, state-mandated death by cyanide in a tiny wooden box in the very same prison that was the sight of his greatest triumph. Rabbit might have escaped San Quentin but he could never shake the prison mindset. He was still a prisoner inside. A prisoner outside a prison might be even less free than the suffering souls locked away.
Gut-wrenching sentimentality pervades “Sing Me Back Home,” Haggard’s third number one. It’s a song inspired by his friendships both with Rabbit and Caryl Chessman, a convicted rapist, author, and anti-capital punishment advocate Haggard bonded with while doing time. It’s the heartstring-tugging tale of a man sentenced to die whose last request is that his guitar-playing friend be allowed to sing him one last song that will transport him back to the womb-like safety and security of church and family and everything else he lost touch with ages ago.
To be honest, I find the song a little sappy, but Christ, I’m tearing up a little just writing about it. That’s the secret of Haggard’s prison songs: His characters are tough on the outside and giant fucking pussies on the inside. The scars of prison never leave his ex-cons. In “Branded Man” the shame of having done time is as indelibly stamped into the narrator’s psyche as the mark of Cain. Just as an alcoholic will remain an alcoholic no matter how long he remains sober, a prisoner’s stripes might fade, but they never disappear.
In another story that seems too good to be true—Why hasn’t a movie been made about this man’s life? What does he need to do, capture Bigfoot?—Haggard saw a wasted Johnny Cash perform in San Quentin and decided that, not unlike MIMS, music would be his savior. Haggard worried that if people knew he was an ex-con it would jeopardize his career, but when he appeared on Johnny Cash’s TV show, the Man In Black assured him he would help break the news to the American public in a way that would only make them love him more. So on The Johnny Cash Show, Haggard tells Cash that the best show he ever gave was in San Quentin. When Cash tells him that he doesn’t remember him being on the bill, Haggard retorted that he wasn’t—he was in the audience. End scene!
Haggard paid back Cash’s generosity by doing the impossible: recording a cover of “Folsom Prison Blues” that might just be better than the original. How could it not be? Haggard breathed a lot of firsthand experience and authenticity into the song, and it covered three of his favorite themes: prison, railroads, and the longing for escape. It also benefited from the masterful Telecaster picking of Haggard’s brilliant longtime guitarist, Roy Nichols.
At the risk of losing some of you with highly technical music-critic terminology, Nichols’ fretwork is fucking awesome. Seriously, it’s all, totally good and shit. During many of his guitar parts I was all, “hot diggety, that’s some fancy picking!” It’s hard to overstate his importance to Haggard’s signature sound. They had a musical alchemy that produced a historic string of hits throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
Take “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me” for example. In two-and-a-half twangy, tuneful minutes it cycles through heartbreak, homesickness, tongue-in-cheek self-pity, and the momentary escape of intoxication. It also prominently features one of the things I love most about Haggard: his incredibly infectious laugh. For a man who compares himself to a modern-day Job, Haggard laughs an awful lot. “Run ’Em Off,” a wonderful bit of comic relief off Haggard’s 1968 masterpiece Mama Tried features Haggard at his loosest and his goofiest; he’s having so much fun he can barely make it through the song.
In songs like “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me,” he attains a sort of paradoxical joy in pain.
Haggard has attained the very pinnacle of popular success. As he mentions probably 500 times in Memories, he’s performed before multiple Presidents, but he never lost touch with the denizens of skid or death row.
Tom T. Hall
The Louvin Brothers