Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Peggy Russell/Merle Haggard - Sing Me Back Home
You won't see too many classic country (or blues) record reviews on this site, not because I'm a non-fan, but due to the fact (IMAO) that it's primarily a song, not album, medium. Even the best of your classic country-western LPs (and I have heard every Hag LP he cut from his '60s/'70s prime) rolled off the Nashville/Bakersfield assembly line full of, if not quite "filler", certainly a good chunk of formulaic ready-mades. And I'm not fool enough to go down every highway exploring all 50+ of Merle's regular-issue albums that he's released in his lifetime. That all said, Haggard stands as not just a giant in the realm of country music, but one of the finest songwriters (and singers) in 20th century American music, period, with a back catalogue as rich and rewarding as Dylan or Cash or, frankly, anyone's. His persona was darker and more threatening than Cash's (Johnny only sang about life in prison; Merle lived it for several years) yet somehow more empathetic and even gentle. He's also the anti-Dylan in certain ways. I'm speaking not merely of his right-wing, anti-hippie political sentiments (which were so cartoonish at points that I'm still not sure how much of a joke "Okie From Muskogee" actually is - if at all), but the nature of his songwriting. There is nothing obscure about the messages or words of any of Haggard's lyrics, and rarely does he engage in much of the clever, punny wordplay so common in factory-line Nashville country. There is little to no doubt of the sincerity behind the sentiments of Haggard's best songs; he may wear his heart on his sleeve, but his persona is so lived-in and world-experienced that his innate tough/rough edges keep mawkish sentimentality at bay. (Well, most of the time. See my point about country LP filler.). If songs like "Hungry Eyes" or "Sing Me Back Home" or "Sidewalks of Chicago" leave you completely dry-eyed - well, one wonders how it must feel to have no functioning heart. Lastly, unlike a great many of the members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, songs about love and relationships aren't necessarily his prime forte. It's not as if he doesn't have plenty of those - "I Can't Be Myself", for instance, is the only example I I am aware of, of a song concerning religious differences causing marital friction. A bit odd if you think about it, as that does sometimes happen to be an issue between interfaith (or even shared faith) couples. Which brings me back to my main point - when I cherry-pick his most memorable songs, I think of songs about homelessness (the aforementioned "Chicago"), hobos ("I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am"), drinking (OK, this is country music), unemployment ("If We Make It Through December"), the Great Depression ("Hungry Eyes"), the Great Recession of the 1970s ("A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today"), rabid right-wing jingoism ("The Fightin' Side of Me"), jail and the tribulations of an ex-con ("Branded Man" and others far too numerous to mention).
It's that last bit of subject matter that informs a great deal of the material in this book, in which Merle (who really did turn 21 in prison, albeit certainly not doing life without parole) seems to have lived more wild hellraising by the time he reached legal drinking age than most people experience in their entire lifetimes. Hell, he committed more crimes by the age of 14 than I've committed by the age of -- well, never you mind my age. The story begins with a scene of Merle holding his aching head in solitary confinement, hungover after a foolish experiment moonshining pruno in the joint, and the ride only spins it wheels wilder from there. I'm not sure just how much of his life story he's laying out - maybe he's skipping over some of his truly nasty episodes - but what he does decide to share feels as honest and straightforward as his songs: he's just too blunt and deceptively artless to not come across as implicitly trustworthy. (Unlike his polar opposite, Zimmerman the anti-Hag.) Almost to a fault: several of the episodes in his life as a dumb, mean, angry redneck who certainly did deserve to get thrown in a cage where he belonged, if only temporarily (sorry, Merle, if you're going to tell it like it is, so will I) are downright cringe-inducing. One in particular should illustrate the point adequately: Haggard describes waylaying a retarded kid he knew from around town, viciously beating and robbing him. In Hag's defense, he claims that it was probably the worst thing he's ever done and that he still feels guilty about it after all these years, but still - yeah, maybe a couple of years in the joint weren't such a bad idea to cool off the young Merle. Recounting all the wild times that the Hag recalls from his misspent youth (misspent? He did mine a lot of writing material from it.) would take up too much space for this review, so let me just conclude that the yarns he spins are rollicking and rarely less than riveting. In fact, I might go so far as to say that this was one of the most enthralling first-person music bios I've ever read - it reads like a gripping coming-of-age novel.
For music fans, the only true disappointment may be how little Haggard actually touches upon music and music-making. This may or may not be all for the better, as his non-musical career as a petty criminal is, indeed, so much more fascinating. The book does take a noticeable drop in interest when he abandons crime to focus on his music career. And the passages where he goes into detail about his relationships with women - well, there is the trademark blunt, almost clumsy Okie honesty of Hag. He unapologetically and unsentimentally describes the scene in which, coming home to his wife after a tour that lasted a mite longer than nine months, and presented with a newborn - he turns his head, hugs his other children, but struggles for years to accept into his family a child that he knows for damn sure isn't his. He is equally - disarmingly so, especially by modern standards (this book was published in 1981) - frank about the period in the '70s when he was so enamored of Dolly Parton that he stalked her to the point of frightening her. Which does set up the backdrop for one of the funnier episodes in the autobiography, in which a stoned Haggard calls up Dolly at 2 in the morning and attempts to play a song he'd been sitting up all night writing for her, over the phone. She hangs up. (Did you expect any other response?) "A missed connection," Merle philosophically muses upon him and Parton's non-relationship. As a writer, sometimes I wish I had the courage to write as brutally honestly as Haggard about some of the relationships I've had in the past and failed at or been burned on, but - nah. Not just that spilling your heart out can be embarrassing after you've purged what you needed to say to somebody, but also that there's always more than one person in a relationship, and my perspective is - well, my perspective, only half the story (or sometimes even less), so it really wouldn't seem fair to monopolize the retelling of emotions and events. Well, Merle certainly spills it all from his perspective, and it may even reasonably approximate the truth, which is the best you can expect out of a ghost-written autobiography.