Country music is currently enjoying its greatest boom since Ray Charles broke every cultural barrier with his Modern Sounds in Country Music album six years ago, injecting new life into what then appeared to be a dying form. That the present boom is largely the result of a series of coincidences (Shelby Singleton’s triumphant return to Nashville. the emergence of Glen Campbell as a ratings-puller on national television, the dramatic come-back of Johnny Cash, etc.) is beyond argument, but there is undoubtedly a rapidly growing interest in and respect for C&W from erstwhile rock fans and performers.
It is therefore ironic that recent converts would appear to be attracted to the form for the very reason that it previously received so little national exposure. The apple-pie stigma it suffered so long is now interpreted (with much patronizing) as simplicity and honesty by an increasingly large percentage of the hip mass.
It would seem that those who cannot stand the competition in what Billboard blandly refers to as “progressive rock” are turning on to C&W primarily for therapeutical reasons.
Stetsons and cowboy boots are fun to wear if you’re not herding cattle in a thunderstorm and, of course, if you want to get your head in shape, where better to go than the country where the good folks are not only quaint, but call a spade a spade? What better cure for an addled brain?
The trend is not unhealthy (it produced a masterful album from the Byrds), but if country music is to reassume an influential role in the shaping of contemporary pop it is essential that its true progenitors be heard. For as in any other form of commercial art, the Sargasso Sea is thick and slushy, the pearl rare.
Though his records have never leaked over into pop radio. Merle Haggard has emerged as one of the most interesting voices in modern country music and in his three-year association with Capitol he has established an identity for himself with a lengthy chain of hit country singles and consequent LPs. Mama Tried is his eighth and newest album for the label.
Perhaps the reason he has enjoyed so little pop success is that he has seldom — of ever — been exposed to a culturally integrated audience (though he has been invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival this year).
More likely is the fact that Merle Haggard is pure country — a small, tough, jowly man from Bakersfield who is married to his sometime singing partner. Bonnie Owens, who performs in a spangled suit in the country skull-orchards, whose sound, bearing traces of his famous brother-in-law, falls somewhere between Lefty Frizell and early Johnny Cash and who has addressed himself exclusively to Nixon’s “silent majority,” the suburban working class.
His songs romanticize the hardships and tragedies of America’s transient proletarian and his success is resultant of his inherent ability to relate to his audience a commonplace experience with precisely the right emotional pitch. The son of Dust Bowl refugees who migrated to the San Joaquin Valley to pick fruit in the desperate Thirties, Haggard sings of bars and brothels, missions and prisons and the loneliness of the open road. His songs are tough, maudlin soliloquies, invariably employing an underlying theme of pride and/or self-pity.
Thus his biggest hits have borne titles like “The Bottle Let Me Down.” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” “Drink Up and Be Somebody” and “Sing Me Back Home,” the last-named of these dealing with a condemned prisoner ‘whose final request is that his buddy serenade him to the gas chamber with a good old country song.
He is best when he is singing his own material — he has written most of his single hits himself, probably from his own experiences — and he is a gifted writer, apolitical yet aesthetically close to Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie. He is evidently not prolific in this area, however, for his albums rely heavily on outside material and this one contains only three originals.
He sings in a hard, virile baritone and his powerful combo (acoustic lead, rhythm, bass, drums and steel) complements to perfection the mood he is conveying in its stark simplicity.
Best among the selections on this particular album is his version of Dolly Parton’s recent hit. “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” a wistful reflection on pre-migrant days when the crops were failing but the spirit was strong — a familiar theme among rural country songs, yet rendered here with tremendous personal feeling. Included also are three country standards tailored to his aesthetic — “The Green Green Grass of Home” (originally and beautifully recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis). “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me” (originally and beautifully recorded by Robert Mitchum), and “Folsom Prison Blues” (forever the property of Johnny Cash). If you are not, therefore, familiar with his work, the best album to start with would be The Best of Merle Haggard (SKAO 2951) which consists primarily of his own originals (“Branded Man,” “Swinging Doors,” “Sing Me Back Home,” etc.) and is consequently void of “fillers.”
Mama Tried is certainly not the best of Merle Haggard but sufficient justification for buying the record anyway is the title song and the cover concept it inspired.
One of his previous albums (Sing Me Back Home ST2848), which also contains his original and definitive version of “Hickory Holler’s Tramp” (sung, one suspects, the way Dallas Frazier intended it), shows him leaning on a freeway sign. Another (I’m a Lonesome Fugltive ST2707) has him riding a box-car.
On this one he looks jowlier than ever, bleak-eyed, tight-lipped and clad in prison denims against the shadows of three bars on a background of melancholy blue. Next to the title at the top is a three-by-two inset photograph of a grey-haired matron in an old arm chair, one hand on the knitting in her lap, the other shielding her downcast eyes. The opening verse of the title song reads:
The first thing I remember knowing was a lonesome whistle blowing
And a young one’s dream of growing up to ride
On a freight-train leaving town, not knowing where I’m bound
And no one could change my mind but mama tried…
Get it? Merle Haggard looks the part and sounds the part because he is the part. He’s great.