The River's Badge

Friday, May 20, 2016

Merle ~ Who Says My Best Days Have Passed Me By?

Upon Merle's passing, I read virtually every writerly tribute -- I guess to find out if anyone "got it" -- got the importance of Merle to people like me, and, frankly, to see how wrong they got it. I'm cutting these guys some slack. They're probably tasked with summarizing the careers of disparate artists, from Paul Kantner to Prince, and who could know them all? Besides, those articles are written for the casual pop culture observant; the people who've maybe "heard of this guy", but don't really know what he's all about.

The thing is, though, don't go throwing around the "ten best" recordings of somebody unless you know what you're talking about, because that's a heavy burden.

I've already nailed down most of the best of Merle in my previous posts. But I'm no ideologue. I can be wrong. I can be shortsighted. After all, I grew up on Merle -- that's a completely different mindset from the guy who writes obituaries for the New York Times. So, I'm willing to bend, and I don't have to bend very far. The songs featured here are good; damn good, but you see, Merle was all about the good. It's a matter of whittling down a fifty-plus year career, and that's nigh impossible.

So, I'll stop prattling and just get to the music.

If We Make It Through December:

Tulare Dust:

Carolyn (with Glen Campbell, like it was meant to be done):

 Everybody's Had The Blues* (live, like I remember it):

*a personal favorite

If We're Not Back In Love By Monday:

Footlights (a perennial on the "best of" lists, but probably one of, sadly, my least favorite Merle songs):

I remember saying to my mom, when this song came on the radio, how much I loved it, and she said, "Really? I don't see what's so great about it." I was right, Mom. Sorry.

Misery and Gin:

Merle and Marty Stuart ~ Farmer's Blues:

I wondered where Merle had gone, and then, suddenly, there he was, with Willie:

Honestly, I could go on for miles. There are deep album cuts, cover songs (especially those of Lefty Frizzell), Stranger jams, nuggets that've currently escaped my mind. I've tucked them all safely away inside the creases of my memory even if I haven't included them here, in these four (?) Merle Haggard posts.

I'm still mourning his loss. I guess I always will. I had the chance to see Merle in concert a few times in recent years, but I refused. I stubbornly wanted to remember him on my terms. That was probably dunder-headed. Because now it's too late.

So, I'm going to let Merle end this with a paean to the life both of us longed for. Maybe I'll reach it someday. I know Merle has.

I guess, thank you. Thank you, Merle, for my musical life. And actually for saving my life. I don't know what my young existence would have been if fate hadn't hammered me. I do know I was miserable. Until I found you. That's a heavy burden, but I think you can handle it.

And when you play Misery and Gin for my mom, she might just change her opinion.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

It's A Big Job Just Gettin' By

Every bar band in every honky tonk in every country of the world has done Workin' Man Blues. And why not? It's three chords! Even I can play it! It's strange how songs catch on...or don't. Workin' Man Blues was released in 1969, smack dab between Okie and Fightin', but those are the songs that cemented Merle's legend, whereas Workin' Man Blues is a far, far better song than either of them, and more eternal. "I've been a workin' man dang near all my life and I'll keep on workin'". Isn't that all of ours song? "And I'll go back workin'". Merle was never better than when he wrote his ballads, but this one? Well, he knew what needed to be said. The song was populist when populist wasn't yet a rich man's deceit.

It was around this time that Merle decided, hell, I think I'll blow everybody's mind (in late sixties parlance) and throw a bit of my idols' songs at 'em. Jimmie Rodgers was a depression-era artist who would be long forgotten if it wasn't for Merle. Merle understood, though, that nothing exists without what came before. Thus, California Blues (Blue Yodel #41):

Hungry Eyes is a sweet, painful song. What Merle did so well was to tell truths that we didn't necessarily want to hear, but told them in a way that made them bearable. It's one of Merle's best songs.

The late sixties/early seventies were Merle's zenith. He was in his thirties then, and life was rife with possibilities. There is also a sense, in one's thirties, that the time is now. And trust me, you've got one foot in the past and the other busy planting your own footsteps. Many of Merle's songs then were an homage to what got him to where he was, but he was his own man. He needed to document what came before, yet he wasn't the sum total of the "roots of his raisin'".

Merle's albums, "Let Me Tell You About A Song" and "Hag" were about Merle trying something new.

I can't express how much those two albums affected me. I think maybe I was growing up, like Merle was growing up. I was inured to (All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers, and here was something completely different, more introspective. I wasn't sure I "got it", but it hit my heart. I lay in bed many a night with that white album cover nestled in my lap, listening to songs like this:

 "Let Me Tell You About A Song" was unusual for a country album. Who talked about the songs before they sang them? Nobody. I was jarred the first time I played it. What is this? Eventually Merle's words seared into my brain; I played that album so many times.

This is the full album, apparently. Feel free to not listen to the sum total of it. I just wanted to demonstrate what it was like:

In 1969, Merle released "I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am". It may have been semi-autobiographical, but it is distinguished by its lack of chorus. Merle may have been going for the "Gentle On My Mind" vibe. My guess is that he was. Here it is:

Naturally around this time, Merle was in demand. Movies and TV came calling -- no, not for acting jobs but for theme songs.

I saw Bonnie & Clyde in the theater with my friend Alice. We went to a lot of movies back then. The flick was good, perhaps a little too mature for our young age, and there was some new guy named Gene Hackman in it, and another Gene had a bit part -- Gene Wilder. I'm sure the best part of the movie, though, for Alice and me, was the theme song:

NBC came up with the concept of a series about truck drivers. Honestly, I never would have watched the show, but the previews featured a familiar voice, so naturally, I became hooked. It's strange the memories one can slither out of one's mind, but I remember that one of the lead character's names was Sonny. Why would I remember that, when I can barely remember my own phone number? I wonder what else is tucked away in there. Anyway, here's "Movin' On":

When I think about "Movin' On", my mind naturally flies to "Kentucky Gambler"; I guess because both songs were on the same album. "Kentucky Gambler" was written by Dolly Parton, and it's unusual for Merle to record a song by another songwriter, but that happenstance is a whole other story. I like this "video" because it's obviously taken from an actual LP -- the way I always listened to Merle's songs:

Inevitably, the music scene marched on, but Merle was still there. In fact, some of Merle's best work was done essentially undercover, as much notice as radio took. Here's proof:

More proof:

Always, always one of my favorites:

Lots of artists have covered Merle's song -- scores of artists. I'm not inclined to feature cover songs here. This post is about Merle. But excellence is excellence. I love Radney Foster:

I'm tired now, and can't do justice, but stay tuned.

Cuz I'm tired of this dirty old city.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Ned Miller

My dad liked Ned Miller. I think Mr. Miller only had two hit songs, but my dad was on board with both of them.

I read in the New York Times this week that Mr. Miller passed away. I generally only read the New York Times for their political reporting, but one thing the paper does well is recognize those who've left us, people we forgot we even knew.

The albeit brief obituary of Ned Miller is interesting, in that it seems the man had such bad stage fright that he rarely performed in front of an audience. Still, his recordings managed to reach the top of the charts.

As testament to Mr. Miller's shyness, I can find no performance videos on YouTube. I did, however, find Ricky Van Shelton's version of From A Jack To A King, which introduced the song to a new crop of fans in the nineteen eighties. My dad still preferred the 1962 original.

I forgot how much I love that thumping bass and four-four shuffle beat. Ahh, it's a country lover's dream. No wonder Dad loved the song.

Even though there are no performance videos from Ned Miller, it's only right to include the man himself singing his own song:

It's funny how long-term memory works. I'd completely forgotten both of these songs, but I could sing along with both of them and I remembered all the words. Dad taught me well.

Nobody younger than me would recognize either of these songs unless they're big Ricky Van Shelton fans, but that's my job here:  cataloguing the past.

And I kind of owe it to my dad.

Rest in peace, Ned Miller. Thanks for making my dad happy.

Saturday, April 30, 2016


If you haven't seen this video, you really should. I've watched it a few times, and I keep wanting to play it again.

This performance is from George Harrison's 2004 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and features Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison, and a special guitar soloist at the end. Be sure to stick around 'til the end! You won't be sorry.

I wonder if that guitar ever came down.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Gut Punched

I was driving home from doing some errands last Saturday and "Delirious" came on the oldies station. I cranked it up. As the song played, I thought how happy Prince's music made me feel. "Delirious" has a lot going on in it. It's definitely rock and funk, but there's also some scatting and maybe a bit of jazz. I also get a kick out of how Prince pronounces "deliri-OHS". Then my mind clicked on Michael Jackson and how both he and Prince reached the peak of their fame around the same time. I thought it was rather unfair how Jackson was labeled a genius, yet Prince never was. I thought, well, Michael Jackson died young because his life was so messed up, so there was something to say for being "normal", because Prince was still alive and still creating.

I don't believe in prescience. I wasn't thinking about Merle Haggard right before he died. I chalk the whole episode in the car up to a weird coincidence. Yesterday I was half-listening to a news channel through my ear buds as I worked, and the host announced that there was a report of a death at Paisley Park. My stomach dropped.

I am not a Minnesotan -- I live in Minnesota, but I'm not from here, The people I work with are Minnesotans, and wow, the grief. Everyone in my office had to get up out of their chairs and go find someone, someone to help them sort out the news. My cubicle neighbor's sister went to high school with Prince. Minneapolis is a big, yet small town. Minnesotans claimed Prince, sheltered him. They were proud of the fact that the local boy who hit it big didn't take leave for LA or some other bigshot city. Prince stayed, he went to local clubs, he sometimes gave impromptu performances at those clubs and sometimes he just sat in the audience and enjoyed the show -- you know, like a real person would. Last night there was a street party in front of First Avenue, the club where Prince got his start. Thousands spilled into the street and danced and sang Prince songs. They had a good time -- just like Prince always urged people to do, through his music. He had to be a joyous man -- just listen to his songs. He wasn't filled with angst. Besides, angst is over-rated. Life should be joyous. It usually isn't, but maybe that's where Prince came in. He brought us something we were sorely missing.

This is my first post in which I can't share video of the artist. Oh, there are a few performance videos out there, those with fellow musicians, but Prince was very firm that he would control his music, and so YouTube doesn't have any of the real stuff. I think I even complained about that once in a post, that he shouldn't be so stingy -- he should share his creations with us. I'm okay with his decision now. Yes, I'd love to watch some of his work, but I can still listen.

Somebody tweeted something about how people shouldn't always try to relate an artist who's passed away with themselves. Well, why wouldn't we? Isn't that what music does? Plays the soundtrack of our lives? So, I am going to relate Prince's music to my life. I'm obviously not in the target demographic for his music. I wasn't a teenager in the eighties, but I did have teenagers, and thus MTV was a big presence in our home. You know how much I love eighties rock. Prince was a huge part of that. I bought the Purple Rain album (yes, album) and "When Doves Cry" has always touched me. I, even at my advanced age, thought Prince was cool. And who wouldn't? He was cool. He was unique. When one of his music videos came on the tube, one couldn't take their eyes off the screen. I also appreciated that he didn't seem like a jerk -- like he was condescending to perform for us little people. No, he just loved what he was doing and he wanted us all to join him.

I love the following Prince tracks:

  • When Doves Cry
  • Purple Rain
  • Raspberry Beret
  • 1999
  • Let's Go Crazy
  • Delirious
  • and others I can't think of at the moment
I also really like this particular song that he wrote:

And, of course, this video played nonstop on MTV:


So, I guess I got to include a couple of music videos after all.

My home is a scant seventeen miles from Paisley Park. Thousands of people tonight are there paying tribute. I would never go. I don't want more sadness; I'm already feeling that enough. I would have gone to the street party, though, if I wasn't embarrassingly old.

But here are a few pictures of how my new hometown paid tribute to their hometown boy:

Shoot, we're going to miss you, Prince. Too, too soon.

Too soon.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Merle - The Hits Keep Coming

In my quest to find Merle Haggard videos, the fact is, there is what there is. I've been lucky so far, but YouTube unfortunately doesn't contain every song in the word. Wouldn't that be great, though? They should work on that.

Merle had a lot of great songs that didn't find their way to video. I'm not ignoring them; I just can't find them.

But let's continue down the road, shall we?

Imagine my surprise as a kid just learning to play chords on a guitar to find that this next song only contains two chords. I'd had it drummed into me that every country song (this was the sixties, mind you) had three chords. Three. Three was the requirement. Callouses hadn't yet formed on my fingers as I played along with Merle's records, so this discovery was a revelation! I could play this song easily, and it would barely hurt!

Seriously, The Bottle Let Me Down was deceptively simple. Simplicity was Merle's magic, and no one could conjure it like he could. I like this video a lot, because it features the original Strangers. Much like the Buckaroos, the Strangers were stars in their own right. Merle never hesitated to give credit where it was due.

It was around 1968 that the country music industry finally, probably reluctantly, sat up and took notice. There was a club in country music in those days -- the "Nashville Club". They liked things the way they liked them. They liked silky strings and the Anita Kerr Singers. "Keep it soft!" they exclaimed. "What's with this Bakersfield shi stuff? Those loud guitars hurt our ears!" But the charts didn't lie. Not that Chet was about to adopt this rabble-rousing style, but people, he supposed, wanted what they wanted. And they wanted something like this:

"Mama Tried", of course, was the song with which I embarrassed myself in front of Merle. In my defense, I was a giggly (barely) teenager, and Alice and I logically assumed at the time that Merle would be impressed by us playing his record on my battery-powered turntable outside, feet away from his motel room. In hindsight, I think he just wanted to be left alone. He was right to not acknowledge us -- that would have just encouraged us.

I wonder if part of why people love Merle is that his songs are so accessible. When I stuck my guitar away in the closet, I didn't pick it up again for...hmm...twenty-five years? I had a living to make and babies to raise. When I did pick it up after all that time, I had two go-to songs. This was one of them:

If Merle had never written another song, this one would be a career. I wonder if he knew it at the time. He never released it as a single, weirdly. I didn't realize that until I read about it. It was the B side to The Legend Of Bonnie And Clyde. I also read that it failed to chart. I don't get it. If it was never released as a single (an A side), how does everyone know it? Yet everyone does. It's almost impossible for me to choose a favorite Merle Haggard song, but if I was forced to, "Today I Started Loving You Again" would be it.

I remember the 1970 CMA's. I'm sure I was bouncing in my chair watching the telecast, because Merle took home everything except female vocalist of the year. This next song probably put him over the top. I talked about it a bit in my last post, and I'm ambivalent about it. Honestly, the song was rather mundane; not, in my opinion, Merle's best effort. But it struck a chord with fans. Part of my ambivalence, too, no doubt, is that I heard it on the radio constantly. Everyone's got a song like that. They liked it the first time they heard it, and the tenth time. By the one thousandth time, they were ready to grab a claw hammer and smash their radio to smithereens. Okie From Muskogee wasn't that song for me - Rose Garden was -- but familiarity breeds...well, you know.

I was always a libertarian. I didn't care what other people smoked. I didn't know about that stuff anyway. I didn't even start smoking regular cigarettes until I was sixteen. I didn't wave Old Glory down by the courthouse, because I wasn't a freak, plus I didn't even know where the courthouse was, frankly. The song seemed jingoistic. And Merle didn't believe that stuff anyway (read his autobiography). Nevertheless, the song forced people to take notice of him. I'm sad, though, if this was someone's first exposure to Merle, because that means they missed a lot of great music.

The next year, Merle continued his roll. Now he was mad -- fightin' mad. The best part, for me, of The Fightin' Side Of Me was the live album Merle recorded in Philadelphia. I wore the grooves off that album. I could probably, even today, quote some of Merle's lines from that recording. That was the album on which Merle impersonated Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash. Oh, and Hank Snow. By then I was wondering if there was anything Merle couldn't do. Too, Bonnie Owens had a prominent role. She doesn't get any credit from anyone, but Merle would have given her credit. The harmonies on his songs from the sixties and early seventies? Thank Bonnie Owens. She was his sound and his sounding board. She co-wrote Today I Started Loving You Again. Maybe personally things didn't ultimately work out for Bonnie and Merle, but harmonically, they were perfect.

Merle was always cantankerous. That never left him, throughout the following forty years of his life. I like that. He had opinions. This song seems more honest than Okie. And from a songwriter's perspective, it's a better song.

The hour is late, and I can't do justice to many more songs. I'll save that for next time. However, I've got one more. I mentioned my two go-to songs of Merle's. This is the other. Like "Today", this song was never released as a single. This flummoxes me. Then how did I know it so well?

I am not a good singer -- not a natural singer. I love harmony singing. If I could be granted a wish, well, I guess I would wish for unlimited money, but after that, I would wish for the ability to sing harmony. This song, though, made it so easy. Any dolt (meaning me) could do it. Not just two-part, but three-part harmony. All praise to the songwriter for that. Again, listen to the simplicity. Maybe that's what makes it so good.

It's a big job just gettin' by with nine kids and a wife, but that's a song for another day....

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Merle Haggard Primer

There are a couple of songwriters I always wished I could write like: Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard. And they are such different writers. Kris is, not more cerebral, per se, but more enigmatic. He doesn't just come out and say it -- he leaves you to wonder; ponder. Merle didn't write like that. Merle said exactly what he wanted to say. Philosophers didn't need to delve deeply into his songs' meanings.

Both kinds of writing are hard. I perhaps once wrote a song like Kris would write, only not even a smidgen as good. I don't think I ever wrote a song that was even in Merle's ballpark. In fact, I know I didn't.

It's funny how talent seeks out talent. Merle toured with Kris Kristofferson and he toured with Willie Nelson and he toured with Bob Dylan. Higher standards. Principles. From what I've read, these guys all respected the hell out of one another. I think they raised each other's game. It's all fun and frolic to mentor new kids -- shoot, I do that in my day job -- but sometimes one craves a peer. Someone who "thinks right". These four had that.

In the retrospectives I've read about Merle's career, the writers were all eager to latch onto songs that meant little to us fans -- Okie From Muskogee, for one. When that record hit the airwaves in 1969, true Merle aficionados kind of scratched our heads and thought, well, that's different; kind of "out there", not the greatest song in the world, but it was Merle, so...sort of like "The Fightin' Side Of Me", which came next. I didn't know (albeit I was just a teenager) what that even meant. What's a "fightin' side"? Shoot, when I listen to Merle songs today, I don't even consider playing that one. There are so many choices that are so much better! Yes, Merle garnered Entertainer Of The Year honors in 1970 based on those two singles, and we fans were ecstatic about that, but we chose to believe that the suits had finally (finally!) recognized Merle's overall greatness; not that these two songs were representative of his career. Because they weren't.

I never was an "album gal" until Merle came along. Country LP's were sad. Nobody put any thought into them. It was all singles, singles, singles. A country album was a hit single and a bunch of cover songs. It was apparently an exercise in earning some coin for the artist, while satisfying the record-buyer's conceit that, hell, I love this artist! After all, I bought their album! Loretta Lynn covered Tammy Wynette songs and Lynn Anderson covered Loretta Lynn songs and Tammy threw in some "Don't Come Home a'Drinkin'".  I pity the 1960's songwriter, unless he was Billy Sherrill, because everybody just covered the same songs, over and over.

Merle, however, did concept albums. He did "Let Me Tell You About A Song", in which he talked about each song and its meaning, by way of introduction. Heck, even Dylan didn't do that! Merle's albums were actually albums, and they made me think about music; not just feel it. I tucked that notion away subconsciously, and didn't haul it out until decades later when I began writing, and specializing in a lot of biographical shi stuff. Merle released "Hag", with its stark white cover and a pencil-likeness of him; an album that got little acclaim, but one that I listened to deeply. It remains one of my personal favorites.

One can't overlook, however, how Merle's recording career began. Some of his earliest hits weren't written by him. People, in their reverence, tend to overlook that. I don't think Merle ever did. After all, his band was named The Strangers for a reason. "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" was one of the songs that put Merle on the country music map. It was written by Liz Anderson (Lynn Anderson's mom), as was "(I'm A) Lonesome Fugitive". I love both of those songs. They melded a songwriter's sense of the man and the man himself's honest performance. Most people forget that. I don't.

Let's take a look:

Wynn Stewart wrote "Sing A Sad Song". I always loved this, and it's so typical of what Wynn Stewart would write. But Merle did it like no one could.

It was around that time that Merle found his voice. This is what we fans remember; not "Okie From Muskogee":

Liz Anderson apparently inspired Merle to write about his own life. Funny how that works:

If you've ever been to a honky tonk and you haven't heard this song, then you haven't been to a honky tonk. Everyone who's ever plunked on a guitar has played this song. Cuz, why wouldn't you?

This is Merle Part I. I've got lots of parts to go.

Miles to go.

Bear with me.

This is just getting started.