There’s no end to the stories. The memory is flush. As far as you can see back over your metaphorical shoulder, Merle Haggard yarns dot the landscape. Spreading out over a San Joaquin Valley’s worth of consciousness like so many John Steinbeck "Okie" novels or Woody Guthrie dust bowl ballads, the tales encompass a panorama of common man poetry put to music and sung by an ex-con.
It’s about tradition and keeping a bygone circle unbroken while creating new art from whole cloth. Hag had always known what went down before he took a seat at the table and it’s only out of pure respect that he went about refashioning the genre.
And one must always keep in mind that Hag is not just the musical embodiment of Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. To the sensitive ear, it becomes immediately apparent that Louis Armstrong, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti and Emmett Miller were also major influences.
And then, there’s his ever-so-righteous connection to Django Reinhardt, his "biggest love" among historic jazz players. Hag got a big kick out of Django — the way the Belgian guitarist only showed up for gigs when he felt like it and the fact that he wasn’t much into wearing shoes. Django, you see, was a gypsy by both birth and inclination.
During a highly creative spell back in the day, Hag traveled with what had to be the best country swing band then on the road. Both guitarist Eldon Shamblin and five-string mandolin and fiddle player Tiny Moore had spent time with "Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys" and it was from that association that they became an integral part of Merle’s musical entourage.
Wills never really hired "country pickers," as it were. "Western swing" music of that day involved much more of a jazz and blues sensibility and that’s the approach the Haggard band has always taken in their tributes to that most clever and danceable of the sub-species. Not that Hag’s honky-tonk-tone poems haven’t also served to raise the bar.
But back to gypsy Django and his lasting effect on Haggard. Eldon and Tiny, the "senior citizens" of the group, always bunked together on the road and a pre-sound check interview had been set up at their hotel digs the afternoon of the show. The thought of shootin’ the bull with not only two of the finest instrumentalists of the day but also two of the greatest characters currently plying their trade was a chance of a lifetime.
These guys had been there when classics, such as "San Antonio Rose," "Maiden’s Prayer," Take Me Back To Tulsa" and "Across the Alley from the Alamo," were being nudged into shape. The thought of tales being told out of school on both Wills and Haggard created a drool-rich environment.
Asking ever-so-politely if they could wait until the televised fisticuffs were resolved before beginning the interview, they ushered the wide-eyed interloper to an adjacent chair and, with subtle hooks and jabs, interacted with the pugilists in the ring. Once the on-screen decision came down, Tiny turned his head and asked a favor.
Prior to the Q & A, there was a bit of important news that needed to be imparted but, Tiny emphasized, not repeated. It seemed old gypsy Hag and his personal bus driver had disappeared with their trusty steed from their hotel in Denver the previous night and had yet to be located geographically.
Hag’s band "The Strangers," one of the tightest and most dynamic touring groups in the business, had gone ahead and played the gig without their leader, but, as one might expect, not all the fans immediately caught on to the fact of how totally cool it was that Hag had pulled such an outlandish stunt.
The following day on the "CBS Evening News," Dan Rather reported that Merle had checked in with the band via telephone, was doin’ alright, but just needed a bit more "road therapy" before rejoining the tour. That old gypsy ramblin’ fever had got hold of him one more time.
Back during the late great ’60s, two of Hag’s monster hits, "Okie from Muscogee" and "Fighting Side of Me," put some distance between his perceived mindset and those of the burgeoning counterculture of the time. Not enough, however, as it turned out.
Hag’s collective spiel was just too damn hip to be ignored by those wordsmiths in the movement who were paying the least bit of attention. The fact that he could write with anybody and had a voice for the ages didn’t hurt all that much either. The verdict was in. Merle Haggard had become our generation’s Hank Williams and an ethnomusicologist to boot.
Dylan cast an immense shadow, of course, and Willie was comin’ along, but Haggard was splicing genres effortlessly. And so, when he first came to town in the ’70s, it didn’t prove very difficult to round up a busload of local, long-haired cowpokes and jam down the canyon to the Salt Palace for an evening of that-thing-Hag-does
And when they later hit the old Terrace Ballroom or Billy’s up in Evanston, the respective hardwood floors got a good goin’ over from two-steppin’ boot heels and, once slow blues were brought to bear, steam began to rise. As much as anything, Hag’s music is a gumbo of swingin’ blues from the roadhouse and the juke joint.
And now that word has come down that Hag and his current bunch are booked for a couple of gigs in Wendover this coming weekend, a few of the local faithful decided a pilgrimage of sorts might well be in order. There’s been bit of training underway on local hardwood and, as long as you dance like no one’s watching, all seems to be in order.
Not knowing when such an opportunity might once again present itself, passing on this one didn’t appear to be an option. Not that Merle might go gypsy again and give us the slip, but, as he’s said before, "his hat don’t hang on the same nail too long." It’s about keepin’ the faith and honoring the living past. It’s about American music. It’s about Hag.
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