April is the cruelest month, and with it came the death of Merle Haggard, widely regarded as one of the greatest singers and songwriters in country music history.
The obits called him the “patriarch of outlaw country” and the man who “defined the outlaw aesthetic.” If any country musician could lay claim to the “outlaw” designation, it was Merle, who went to San Quentin prison at age 20 for robbery and an attempted jail escape.
Despite the “outlaw” tag, Haggard stood apart from trends and movements. He was fiercely independent and exceedingly complex as a man and artist. (“There are about 1,700 ways to take “Okie From Muskogee,” he once said.) His work drew as much from blues, jazz and Western swing as it did from the country music of the time. Along with Buck Owens, he is credited with creating the “Bakersfield Sound,” which is often seen as a reaction to the slicker sounds coming out of Nashville in the mid- to late-’50s. I think Haggard was just making the music he wanted to make at the time, and disinterested in the goings-on of Music City. The “Bakersfield Sound” was not a reactionary aesthetic, as far as I can tell.
The popular storyline concerning cover subject Sturgill Simpson, as well as other luminaries like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, is that they represent the “New Outlaws,” a group of subversives hell-bent on upending the machinery of Music Row and restoring “authentic” country music to its rightful place on the throne. It is a narrative that has been played out ad nauseam in the public prints.
From my vantage, all three of these artists are songwriters first and foremost, writing songs and recording music to the best of their ability. Their affiliation with country is largely by virtue of having been raised in the South. No artist worth his salt wants to be confined to a movement, or compared to something that came before.
So much of American journalism cribs from other journalism. The tired old storylines seem to get recycled over and over again, and this is especially true in music journalism. As listeners and fans, we are forced submit to these manufactured narratives that are promulgated by publicists and the media to sell records. “Daddy worked on a railroad.” “I got drunk and thrown in jail.” “I got kidnapped by aliens and was force-fed LSD, please listen to my record.”
It all gets a bit old. Why not just focus on the music, and maintain some air of mystery where the biographies are concerned.
In our cover story, Simpson tells writer Andrew Leahey he didn’t think he had a career when he made his last album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, believing at the time that it was the last record he would get to make. Why not go for broke? he thought. His new album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, is equally bold, drawing on a wide kaleidoscope of American musical influences. Simpson self-produced the album and recorded it in five days. He went into the studio to lay down some demos but found the groove and called it a wrap.
Writing good songs is not easy. You have to go wherever you can, using the materials at hand. Merle told American Songwriter in 2010 that he spent his professional life chasing the muse. “That’s what keeps me alive,” he said, “that hope that I’ll write the song that’ll knock me out and that will be better than ‘Working Man Blues,’ and better than ‘Mama Tried.’ That’s my reason for believing.” It seems Merle was in competition only with himself.
Another artist featured in these pages who has forged his own path is Will Oldham, a former actor turned recording artist who makes albums under the moniker of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. His latest offering features lyrics that were taken from the fortunes of fortune cookies he had collected over decades. Talk about a novel approach.
Finally, we are retiring our long-running Deathbed contest this issue, and replacing it with “The High Five” (presented by Martin Guitar), which will feature a rotating cast of topics, the first one being “The Five Songs I Wish I’d Written.” We look forward to reading your entries.