Merle Haggard passed away on April 6th, and it has taken just about 20 days for people to try to politicize his death.
… And, boy howdy, are they bad at it.
Whatever your political leanings, we have an infuriating, poorly-researched, and terribly-written essay about Haggard’s death to make your blood boil this week. It speaks to the complexity that made Haggard’s body of work such a vital force in contemporary popular culture that writers approaching his work from a reactive and ideologically slanted POV would struggle to get a grasp on his legacy. And it speaks to the quality of modern political discourse that there’s a whole lot of smug name-calling and values-policing in these attempts to use Haggard’s death as some kind of political capital.
And if that isn’t enough to send your blood pressure through the roof, there are some interviews with country radio insiders that should do the trick. Some journalists claimed this week that the state of radio has improved since #SaladGate last year, but we remain skeptical of a format that encourages artists to do exactly one thing then bitches-and-moans that they have too many sound-alike ballads in their playlists, and whose programming directors can’t be bothered to name a single woman when thinking about current music.
Fortunately, there are some fantastic videos to make up for all of the nonsense. Vince Gill and Paul Franklin pay tribute to Haggard, Maren Morris and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats gave great performances on the talk-show circuit, while Jamie Lin Wilson and the Dixie Chicks unveiled some killer covers.
New Releases & Reissues, 4/29/2016
The Bo-Keys, Heartaches By The Number. (Omnivore Recordings)
Glen Campbell, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour Country Special (DVD). (Shout! Factory)
John Doe, The Westerner. (Cool Rock / Thirty Tigers)
Buddy Guy & Otis Clay, Live in Chicago 88. (Klondike)
The Jayhawks, Paging Mr. Proust. (Sham / Thirty Tigers)
George Jones, When My Heart Hurts No More. (Southern Routes)
Lonestar, Never Enders. (Shanachie)
Martina McBride, Reckless. (Nash ICON)
Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (DVD). (Warner Home Video)
Linda Ronstadt, Canciones de mi Padre (1987), Mas Canciones (1991), Frenesi (1992). (Elektra)
Leon Russell, Leon Russell (1970). (Audio Fidelity)
Boz Scaggs, Other Roads: The Deluxe Edition (1988). (Friday Music)
Shenandoah, Good News Travels Fast. (New Day / Daywind Records)
News & Notes
“No tears from me over Merle Haggard, the legendary country singer who died today of pneumonia at age 79. Haggard was a punkass criminal (literally) who spent his life in anti-war attacks on America and then rushed to the defense of Barack Obama… It’s a commonly believed myth in America that country music artists–particularly the older ones–are conservative patriots. In fact, in many cases, they are not. See Willie Nelson. And see the late Mr. Haggard (friend of Willie). The “Okie From Muskogee” was one of the most successful country music artists of all time and one of the most well known “pioneers” of the depressing genre of music and song, with at least three dozen #1 country music chart hits in almost six decades. He was a White House guest of both Presidents Nixon and Reagan, so it’s easy to assume he leaned right. Not so.”
— Debbie Schlussel, a political commentator whose “online fanclub is the internet’s second-largest for a political personality– behind only Ann Coulter,” posted an invective-filled screed in which she celebrated Haggard’s death and insulted country music and its fans. (JK)
“Throughout his career, Haggard was disdainful of the wealthy while showing fierce loyalty to the poor. But this led him toward bigotry, territorialism, and nostalgia. In the vain hope of reviving an imaginary epoch of hard work and big rewards, he defended the very forces that produce the poverty he lamented… We can defend the millions of Americans — many of them poor, rural, and neglected — who find comfort and companionship in Merle Haggard’s music without defending Haggard himself, because we understand what Haggard didn’t: together we can build a just, prosperous world for the future, rather than simply imagining one in the past.”
— Jonah Walters, a researcher at Jacobin, proved no less condescending and insufferable than Schlussel in “Merle’s America: Merle Haggard provided the soundtrack of American reaction for five decades,” a maddening essay that illustrates how both conservative and liberal ideologues have utterly and comprehensively failed to grapple with the complexity of Haggard’s public persona and body of work. (JK)
“‘We understand what Haggard didn’t’ is perhaps the most condescending phrase of all time. It screams of, ‘let me tell you, poor whites, what the real and correct politics are.’ It says that Haggard’s songs, or at least the few cherry-picked songs to support this essay and not the actual catalog of Merle Haggard, are actually wrong and we now know better.”
— Eric Loomis, in part of his well-researched, logical, and unapologetic dismantling of Walters’ article, points out the shallowness of the Jacobin hit-piece and how it fails to account for the entirety of Merle Haggard’s legacy. Loomis’ response is a true mic-drop that defends Haggard by accounting for his songwriting, live performances, and interviews and how they interact to create a persona that cannot be dismissed with reactionary contemporary political discourse. (JK)
Vince Gill & Paul Franklin performed a new song, “A World Without Haggard” at this year’s All For The Hall concert. (JK)
“… A lot of Merle’s songs were really about a way to escape that life, from working that hard and not having a lot to show for it. He wasn’t giving you a way out in the sense of ‘you should make your life better,’ he was giving you a way of imagining that you’re somewhere different, that you have a life out fishing and hunting in the woods, or roaming free somewhere in the West, rather than having to get up and go to work. Merle was always able to live inside his songs, whether it was his own story or somebody else’s.”
— Jason Isbell, proving that not everyone who has spoken about Haggard in the past two weeks has been more interested in politicizing his work than in recognizing the greatness of Haggard’s persona. As ever, Isbell gets it. (JK)
Last week, we posted a few videos of country artists paying tribute to the late Prince. This week, we have Chris Stapleton singing the fire out of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” (JK)
“Hey Ashley. It’s Neil. Let’s write together someday. Just meet me towards sunset.”
— Neil Young, in a message he left on Ashley Monroe’s voicemail. Monroe used the phrase, “meet me towards sunset,” as the jumping-off point for a songwriting session with 2014 lyric contest winner Blair Bodine. (JK)
“I’ve been doing it for years with Sugarland: understanding that communicating with the most amount of people starts at the songwriting stage and because I wrote all of our songs that are mine it’s a very quick feedback process – you know when you’re failing. You walk up and you’re like, that’s not working, and you immediately go back and write the songs that seems to work. It’s great feedback.”
— Kristian Bush, in an interview with Aimee Dunn of The Shotgun Seat, talks about how the immediacy of the feedback he gets as a performer during music festivals impacts his songwriting process. (JK)
Maren Morris gave a spirited performance of “My Church” on Good Morning America. The performance vaulted the single back to the top of iTunes’ country charts, though Morris continues to tread water just outside the top 10 at country radio. (JK)
“In the Billboard top 30, I’ve got 10 coded as ‘ballad’ or ‘can’t play next to ballad.’ If you look at the top 30 as the snapshot of the format, a third of it is too low-energy for late spring. Then you look at what’s waiting in the wings, [and] I’m getting sent more ballads … in April!”
— Bob Walker, PD at WCTK in Providence, Rhode Island, spoke with Billboard‘s Phyllis Stark about the fact that radio is currently over-run with ballads… Meanwhile, Chris Stapleton’s “Nobody to Blame” barely scraped the top 10, Morris’ “My Church” is still struggling to gain traction, and Maddie & Tae’s uptempo “Shut Up & Fish” peaked outside the top 20. Moreover, Walker gives a long list of current songs that he describes as “really good” despite their lack of tempo and a bunch of songs slated for release later this spring– and literally every song he mentions is by a man or a male-led band. Mark McKay, PD for WGH-FM in Virginia Beach, provides a list of current songs that offset the number of ballads on playlists– and, again, every song that he mentions is by a man or a male-led band. Country radio is pretty much beyond repair. (JK)
“Hey – if we can give Lee Brice 40-plus weeks to hit top 10, we can certainly show the same patience and commitment to Stapleton. As I have said before: this is low hanging fruit. Pick it, take credit for planting and growing it, then sell it – and keep on stocking it.”
Or is it? Current VP of CRS, R.J. Curtis, wrote a must-read editorial about some of the current trends at country radio, and he goes in hard for Stapleton and Jon Pardi. (JK)
“If it makes any statement, I think it’s just a reminder that we have some strong female artists in this format and even more than that, we have strong and passionate female fans that definitely relate to our music. The fact that ‘This One’s for the Girls’ is still relevant 13 years after its release, and that the fans in the audience will be singing every word, proves that songs by female artists can stand the test of time and resonate with both male and female fans alike.”
— Martina McBride, in an interview with Beverly Keel for The Tennessean, talked about the lasting impact of one of her biggest hits, while Keel also spoke to some radio insiders who argued that the state of country radio has improved significantly for women in the year since Salad Gate. Emily Yahr of The Washington Post made a similar argument based upon the successes of Kelsea Ballerini, Cam, and Morris. (JK)
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats performed their latest single, “I Need Never Get Old” on The Late Late Show With James Corden. (JK)
“I didn’t think music meant I’d live my dreams, because all my friends were musicians and they were all poor, screwed and depressed. But I thought maybe I could move in a general direction of what my dreams could be. I know that’s not something catchy you put on a poster, but that’s what I’ve been doing since.”
— Sam Outlaw reflected on his aspirations for success in an (infuriatingly titled) interview with L.A. Weekly. The profile suggests that Outlaw could develop into L.A.’s biggest country export since Dwight Yoakam. (JK)
This week’s highest-profile new release is Beyonce’s incendiary, politically-charged Lemonade, and there has been considerable discussion about whether or not the track “Daddy Lessons” is a country song. Genre purists have, predictably, bristled at that notion, with some going so far as to suggest that Beyonce is guilty of appropriating country music. Victoria M. Massie of Vox provides a thoughtful counterpoint, outlining country music’s important roots in black and West African music. (JK)
The Dixie Chicks covered “Daddy’s Lessons” in concert this week. Already a killer country song in its own right, the Chicks kicked it up with an even more country arrangement. (LMW)
And, because we have missed hearing the Dixie Chicks cover Patty Griffin something fierce, this performance of Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” makes for a most welcome return. (JK)
“… At the time I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. It’s the end of the world. I’m never gonna live past this… And that’s why we wrote that song, because I personally had to heal from it. I had to know that it’s gonna be okay. Like, someone does not define your self-worth.”
— Maddie Marlow of the aforementioned Maddie & Tae, recalled the origins of the duo’s new (uptempo…) single, “Sierra,” in an interview with Rolling Stone Country. (JK)
The legendary Dolly Parton announced dates for the first portion of her “Pure And Simple” tour, which will kick off in Greensboro, North Carolina, on June 3rd. (JK)
Friend of the blog Vickye Fisher recommended that we check out “Hurtin’ Songs” by Shotgun Wedding this week, and we can’t not pass along a recommendation for this killer track. (JK)
“There was no scene that we felt like we were part of. If anything, there was Uncle Tupelo, but I think we were a little bit ahead of some of the other bands. There weren’t a lot of people doing what we doing at the time, and that was part of the thrill of it. It didn’t fit in Minnesota and didn’t fit anywhere else. There was never any kind of country-rock summit meeting. Even to this day, we’re still outsiders. We never get acknowledged by any kind of Americana music festival. It’s almost like we don’t exist in some way, and that’s ok. Part of it is probably a result of being isolated up here in Minneapolis.”
— Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, in an interview with Rolling Stone, considered his band’s under-the-radar status throughout the entirety of their career, and how, despite being grouped with acts like Wilco, Whiskeytown, and The Bottle Rockets, they are still outsiders within even the alt-country and Americana scenes. (JK)
“Next time I write a record and pour my heart out, I gotta remember that I gotta go out and sing that shit.”
— Sturgill Simpson had an epiphany about the difficulties inherent in writing a deeply personal album that he then has to go out and perform on stage night after night. The quip came as part of an in-depth profile for Esquire magazine. Simpson will have to get used to that difficulty, since A Sailor’s Guide to Earth debuted at #1 on Billboard‘s country, folk, and rock albums charts and finished the week at #3 on the Billboard 200, following a late-week surge for two Prince albums. Josh Hurst wrote an absolutely essential review of A Sailor’s Guide this week, giving the dense album the kind of thoughtful analysis it both merits and rewards. (JK)
And finally, the just-awesome Jamie Lin Wilson posted a series of performances from her front porch this week. Her cover of Lyle Lovett’s “South Texas Girl” is everything, and her covers of George Jones and Jessi Colter songs are also spectacular. (JK)
As ever, let us know in the comments if we missed anything!
First of all I should really give these Sunday Selections more time as a lot of it is very intriguing.
Let’s see Maren Morris performance of “My Church” is simply incredible. She has superstar written all over her and her singing voice is impeccable as well. Shame to see the song while not struggling not exactly blazing a trail.
I do prefer ballads over uptempo songs. But I don’t know why in the article if they were going to say there is a lack of uptempo songs. They are a decent amount of uptempo songs in the lower part of the chart like songs from Brooke Eden, Drake White, Brandy Clark and LoCash. I hope radio realizes that artist now are actually starting to release quality music like the latest from Hillary Scott, Craig Campbell, Easton Corbin, because I think with the sudden rise of Chris Stapleton artist are trying to now get country music back to quality, which was definitely missing in mainstream country music in 2015 as a whole.
Maddie & Tae releasing “Sierra” brings a smile on my face as I just have loved their debut album so much.
Really pitiful that anyone can “politicize” Merle’s untimely passing, but rather predictable, especially by Debbie Schulssel, who codifies the man because of just two songs from 1969-1970. Merle was a fiercely independent and oft-times thoughtful man by most unbiased accounts, something I dare say that neither Ms. Schlussel nor, on the left, Jonah Walters seem to get.
As for there supposedly being “too many ballads” on the radio–well, this is kind of duplicitous of the bellyaching radio station program directors out there who are likely to flood the airwaves all upcoming summer long with the same Bro-Country subject matter that they’ve been doing for the last four summers. I mean “PLEASE!”, put a cork in it!
Good to see Martina back on the beam, and I want to give my thanks to her performance of “Blue Bayou” here in Los Angeles in honor of Linda Ronstadt at the Grammy Salute To Legends. This, and the re-mastering of Linda’s three Spanish-language albums.
I read the Loomis article about a week ago on LGM, a site I check almost every day. He wrote “The point of course is not that Merle Haggard is a progressive hero. He’s not. Merle Haggard’s core belief was that he liked money. He acted accordingly. He wrote a wide variety of songs, some of which expressed conservative fantasies, others that expressed quite progressive and nuanced politics.” I’m not all that familiar with Haggard or his music other than from the Suzy Bogguss album “Lucky”. The Loomis “core belief” comment may turn off some but hey, you gotta pay the rent.
Ugh! How maddening!
I’d probably agree with Debbie Schlussel’s politics more than Haggard’s, but that piece absolutely sickened me. And that’s really all I can say. Is it really so wrong to disagree with the politics and still love the artist for what he created? I guess for some people it isn’t. I’d feel sad for them, but if Debbie Schlussel is indicative of their mentality, they are more deserving of scorn and contempt than they are of pity.
Thank you kindly for the mention here, Jonathan– very much appreciated. Nice work with this entire round-up, I hasten to add.
I can’t tell where you stand because the “It isn’t” is confusing to me
Yeah, bad wording on my part, sorry. Sometimes it’s tougher than others. I think a lot of times it’s easy to separate the person from the art, and I absolutely don’t think it’s wrong to disagree with the politics and still love the artist for what he created. I am pretty much the opposite of Steve Earle politically, but I still enjoy a lot of his music.
Point well taken on the woman-beating assholes though. There’s a big, big difference between something like that and something so comparatively petty as differing political beliefs, though.
There can be a big difference, but at the same time someone’s politics can be sexist/racist/etc so in that sense maybe not?
Oh, of course. It’s just something you gotta take on a case-by-case basis.
I try to appreciate music on its own merits. While there are artists whose music can only be assessed in a political context (Billy Bragg comes to mind), mostly music is just music, and the enduring music can be appreciated by all , whether it be that of Barbra Streisand, Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard or countless others whose political opinions I share or don’t share.
Music is music, but if you support it through money, listening on radio, etc you are indirectly supporting the actions/beliefs of that person.
Take Chris Brown for example. Someone can say his music is separate from his acts, but how do you think it comes across to young females that someone who beats a woman and exhibits other violence is a successful act? How does it come across to the underage women R Kelly was with that not only is he still successful, but that his music is about his lewd conduct?
Music is music, but if you support it through money, listening on radio, etc you are indirectly supporting the actions/beliefs of that person.
Well then, I guess that’s just gonna have to be my cross to bear as a conservative/libertarian, because if I only listened to people whose political beliefs I agreed with I’d have all of Ted Nugent’s catalog in my collection and Darryl Worley’s too, and probably Lee Greenwood, and I’d have totally deprived myself of the greatness of Jason Boland and the Stragglers, so suffice to say, my musical life would be a lot darker for something like that.
And I don’t know why you keep coming back to Chris Brown as if his violence toward women and others is equivalent to Merle Haggard’s liberal politics. The first is morally wrong and arguably inherently evil, especially since the person in question is thoroughly unrepentant about it. The other can be argued as being just something that reasonable people can agree (or agree to disagree) on.