Meehan: Park City and the Hag
"My hat don’t hang on the same nail too long,"
~ Ramblin’ Fever Merle Haggard
Early on, our ever-expanding tribe of Main Street watering-hole habitués fell madly in love with Merle Haggard. A quantum leap genre-wise for many of us recent expatriates from the counterculture ’60s and without even being aware of the ongoing transformation, Hag’s authentic and natural poetic sensibility grabbed us by the lapels and shook us awake.
We were easy pickings, actually. By the mid-’70s our tastes had become eclectic enough to include most all the building blocks of Country from "old-timey" and bluegrass to Hag, western-swing and honky-tonk. Many of us already spoke fluent Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, not to mention Bob Wills, Willie and Waylon, and George Jones.
Through Hag we were able to digest his lineage, which, for the most part, began with Jimmie Rodgers and proceeded through Hank Williams and, more importantly, Lefty Frizzell. His band, "The Strangers," also had its own grip on us. We could talk Roy Nichols, Norman Hamlet, and Biff Adams ’til the cows came home. (More on the bovine reference later.)
There’s this classic photo from the ’70s out there taken just moments after our quorum of 40-some Hag-heads had spilled off the bus we’d chartered to haul us down to the Salt Palace for a dose of Merle. From the looks of things, it was quite evident that although they may not have smoked marijuana in Muskogee that Park City had few such issues — not that whiskey wasn’t along for the ride.
The sheer amount of passion radiating from the Pat McDowell photograph demonstrates rather succinctly the level of esteem in which our band of renegade hipster rednecks held the Hag. It’s a wild bunch if ever there were one but also one with reverence aplenty for those deemed worthy. And, at that time, Hag had become a deity unto himself.
After that, whenever he popped up in our sphere of influence, we were there — a fact attested to by the slowly-yellowing stack of clippings containing my "Music Notes" column from "The Newspaper," a then competitor that would later merge with The Park Record.
Although upon re-reading my insights appear somewhat shallow, they do serve adequately as play-by-play. Like the time at the Terrace Ballroom when Hag was joined by Gordon Terry and Paul Anastasio for some classic roots Western-swing in a triple-fiddle rendition of "Cindy."
Or during Hag’s big-band days when I was able to spend time with Bob Wills alumni Eldon Shamblin and Tiny Moore in their room at the Holiday Inn. In an interview that appeared over two issues and following a dozen hilarious anecdotes about their days as members of the "Texas Playboys," they gave me the scoop that Hag and his bus driver had disappeared.
Merle hadn’t shown-up the night before in Denver and they still hadn’t a clue as to his whereabouts. Although he would turn up within the week — he "just needed some time away" — the story was splashed all over the evening news when I returned home that night.
Then there was the time Hag played "Billy’s," that gaudy shrine to "overthrust belt" opulence across the stateline up in Evanston. We’d never seen him looking younger or healthier or more fluent on the guitar. We even got to shoot the breeze with Roy Nichols in a warm drizzle next to their bus.
Now that we lost Hag on his birthday last week, shows at Thanksgiving Point and Wendover and with Kris Kristofferon at Kingsbury Hall also find themselves playing upon the memory — as does his ongoing shift to the political left on such issues as legalized marijuana and grazing cattle on public lands.
As he put it to Rolling Stone back in 2009, "Them (expletives) piss me off. If you gotta mess up the ecology of the world in order to raise a bunch of cows, well eat something else. I’m not a fan of the cowboys."
We’re going to miss you, Merle! It’s never mattered whether you agreed with us politically or not. You were Merle Haggard for God’s sake, the "poet of the common man!"
You were Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers performed in swing tempo. Both your gifts and humanity were extraordinary!
Hope the nails up yonder suit your hats, Hag! As Duke Ellington was wont to say, "We love you madly!"
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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