Thoughts on Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard has died. In a year already rife with notable deaths in the music industry, I felt this one deeply, for reasons both objective and subjective. Objectively, Haggard was a colossal figure in country music, as a singer, songwriter, hitmaker and soundmaker (by which I mean there is particular country sound that is distinctive to him and those who’ve been influenced by him). Subjectively, I’ve been a fan of Haggard’s music for around two and a half decades, with a steady rise in my appreciation of his work during that time. But adding to these reasons, and perhaps combining them, Haggard has played an important role in my work as an academic and writer, even if I’ve not yet managed to repay the debt I owe him by writing about him properly.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write about Haggard. I have extensive notes filed in various places about him and his music that remain undeveloped, waiting for their ideal opportunity. When embarking on my book The Late Voice, I thought I’d finally get around to writing about him, for if anyone fitted the bill of a late voice singer-songwriter, it was Haggard. And indeed, the original book proposal contained a chapter on country music that aimed to discuss Haggard, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. It was always going to be a crowded, and hence potentially lengthy, chapter and perhaps that’s why I felt I had to abandon it as the book took shape and I started to worry about cohesion and word count.

But perhaps there were other reasons. Perhaps, even though I continue to deny, against the claims by those who place anti-intellectualism amongst the primary responses to artistic creation, that studying the things you love somehow spoils them, even though I have never believed this, I still have found it difficult to turn that study into writing that communicates what I have heard, learned and felt when listening across the years to particular artists. It wasn’t until The Late Voice that I attempted to write about Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, two artists who have provided my life’s soundtrack since I first started to comprehend, in my late teens, what I later came to refer to as ‘anticipated experience’. What I ended up writing about them barely scratches the surface of what I want to say, but it’s a start at least. The same goes for Van Morrison, whose work I started to explore in writing only very recently. I still long for, but simultaneously dread, the time I finally try to get down in writing what Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt have meant to me over the years, what they continue to mean to me.

With Merle, though, it should have been a bit easier. I had the notes and I had written a little bit about him before. When I decided to write my Masters thesis on country music and hip hop (having discovered via the Open University that it was possible to study what I’d previously considered a hobby), I focussed my account on place, race, experience and authenticity; Haggard was one of my main country examples and a major influence on the work as a whole. I’d recently bought the Legacy CD reissue of his 1981 album Big City and was also engrossed in his then-recent album for the Anti label, If I Could Only Fly. Songs from these albums became my main examples, songs such as ‘My Favorite Memory’, ‘Big City’, ‘Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)’, ‘Wishing All These Old Things Were New’, ‘If I Could Only Fly’, ‘Bareback’, ‘Leavin’s Getting Harder’ and ‘Thanks To Uncle John’. Some of the songs were Haggard originals and some, such as his version of Blaze Foley’s ‘If I Could Only Fly’, were brilliant takes on the work of other fascinating singer-songwriters.

As news of Haggard’s passing was spreading around the internet, Noah Berlatsky wrote an excellent assessment of If I Could Only Fly, focussing in particular on the album’s title track and how this late, sparse version of Foley’s song eclipsed earlier versions (Haggard had been performing it since at least the mid-80s). Where earlier renditions, proved that Haggard was more than capable of mastering the song, the 2000 version, for Berlatsky, ‘feels as though the grief is clotting around him, and he’s trying to dig out’.

I agree with Berlatsky’s assessment of an album that was so central to my early attempts to write about popular music as an academic. But, for me, the album was also an invitation, at the height of the critical obsession with ‘alt. country’, to take a retrospective look at Haggard’s career and venture into areas of country music that I, along with other fans of alternative or progressive country, had been avoiding for various reasons. The most obvious of these was a lingering sense of unease about some of Haggard’s more notorious material, such as ‘Okie from Muskogee‘ and ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me‘. I already knew there was more to Haggard than this and had done since at least the purchase of my first Haggard album, Serving 190 Proof. As has often happened in my record -buying career, I hadn’t started with the definitive work but with what was available one day when, intrigued at a market stall or car boot sale, I’d taken a plunge on an artist I’d heard of but whose work I didn’t know well. As it goes, Serving 190 Proof wasn’t a bad place to start at all, especially as an introduction to Haggard’s late voice. The opening trio of ‘Footlights’, ‘Got Lonely Too Early (This Morning)’ and ‘Heaven Was a Drink of Wine’ are fine examples of Haggard’s more melancholy, even self-pitying, side; all contain great lines and vocal performances.

So I’d had a generally overlooked but fascinating album as my introduction to Haggard, back around the time I was first getting into Willie Nelson and the 1970s progressive country artists. Later, as I wanted to delve deeper, there was still my resistance to ‘Okie’ and ‘Fightin’ Side’ to get over. I’m not sure I ever did get over that – and I still tend to avoid playing those songs – but I came to realise that there was so much more to Haggard’s story and to his songwriting. I also realised that those songs, regardless of what I might personally think of them, had to be part of that story and could, as in David Cantwell’s masterful account of Haggard’s work, be convincingly placed into historical, cultural and personal contexts.

But by then those songs had started to stop mattering to me as I discovered the gems to be found across Haggard’s massive back catalogue. At some point during the research for The Late Voice, Haggard overtook Neil Young to become the most represented artist in my record collection. I have a silly amount of Haggard albums, yet they all seem essential, with each album containing at least a few stone cold brilliant examples of songwriting or incredible versions of other people’s songs. I’ve never made a Top 10 or Top 20, though I might at some point, especially now I’m seeing such things appear online (this one in the Guardian isn’t bad). When I needed to hear something after reading the news yesterday, I instinctively went for ‘If I Could Only Fly’, then the track I’d played for my students just the day before Haggard’s death, ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive‘, then ‘Silver Wings‘.

Pretty high on the list for me would be one of the many duets Haggard recorded with his running mate Willie Nelson, a leisurely, beautifully paced version of David Lynn Jones’s ‘When Times Were Good’ which the pair included on their 1987 album Seashores of Old Mexico (an album that also includes their duet of ‘If I could Only Fly’). It’s a critically unloved album, but I’ve long had a soft spot for it, and ‘When Times Were Good’ is one of the main reasons. Nelson starts the song wonderfully, with a stark vocal accompanied by minimal guitar. He sets the pace and manages the dramatic development as the band instrumentation gradually builds the song towards a chorus which Nelson attacks in his highest, lonesomest register. For me, though, the standout has always been the moment more than three and a half minutes into the song when, following a relaxed instrumental break, Haggard’s voice takes up the narrative. In the two drawn out lines ‘There’s a Golden Eagle rollin’ out of Memphis / And a country singer still lost between the lines’, we get to ride the rolling slopes of Haggard’s voice, its breaking highs and creaking lows, the moments where the voice dips or drops out momentarily, just enough of a catch in the throat for us to get the sense of weariness the singer is carrying, his almost paralysing burden of memory, loss and nostalgia.

I included a paragraph about this recording in my PhD thesis, another time I tried to write about Haggard but didn’t end up saying much (looking back now, I see I emphasised Nelson’s contribution slightly more, even though it’s always been Haggard’s entry halfway through this long country song that has captured me). And I tried once more when giving a presentation on country music called ‘The House of Memory’, its title taken from a Merle Haggard song.

Since then, I’ve tried and failed to write about Haggard. I can’t say for certain that I’ll get around to it now that he’s gone, but I just might. As for these ‘thoughts about Merle Haggard’, I realise they’re really thoughts about me, and about my various attempts to write about music over the last fifteen years, rambling in no clear order through the corridors of memory. But perhaps that’s what our connection with our favourite musicians always brings, an opportunity to learn about ourselves through what we feel they’ve taught us.

New article on Patti Smith published

Patti.Smith.Outside.CoverMy essay ‘Words from the New World: Adventure and Memory in Patti Smith’s Late Voice’ has been published in the book Patti Smith: Outside, edited by Claude Chastagner (Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2015).

ABSTRACT: Patti Smith’s late work is invariably connected by critics and fans to the work of her ‘classic’ era (the 1970s punk scene) and the extent to which recent work lives up to, develops or exceeds that on which the artist’s reputation was based. Smith herself has been no stranger to such memory work, via her involvement in biographical projects such as her book Just Kids and the film Dream of Life. Her musical output since the 1990s has been characterized by memory work, not least in a number of pieces written in response to the passing of friends and family. Yet this work is complemented by an embrace of new beginnings and adventure, often achieved by returning to places, themes and styles Smith has explored before but looking for fresh angles and new perspectives. This essay explores the dynamic of adventure and memory via analysis of Smith’s 2012 album Banga, in which this dynamic is played out in informative ways. I focus on the music of Banga too, and on the different voices utilised by Smith. In the second part of the essay, I consider the canonisation of Smith and her work in light of what I term ‘late chronicles’, a series of documents and events over the past fifteen years that have seen Smith’s work fixed into the rock canon and have provided further context to situate her work and her many cultural reference points. I finish with some further observations on Banga, filtered through the knowledge we have of Smith from the late chronicles that preceded it.

The book is part of the series ‘Profils américains’ – more information available at the PULM website.

Patti Smith: Outside contents

Upcoming presentation: ‘Excavating “Coimbra”: Genealogy, Nostalgia, and the Material Life of a Portuguese popular song’

I will be presenting a paper at the 18th biennial IASPM conference in Campinas, Brazil, on 30 June. My paper is entitled ‘Excavating “Coimbra”: Genealogy, Nostalgia, and the Material Life of a Portuguese popular song’ and the abstract is below.

This paper uses the story of a particular song, the Portuguese fado ‘Coimbra’, as a way of exploring the relationship between representational distance, ‘prescribed’ or ‘instant’ nostalgia and history. ‘Coimbra’ began its life as a musical representation of a city but later became, as ‘April in Portugal’, an international representation of a country and of a more general sense of nostalgic longing. Telling this story chronologically will encourage a focus on the twists, turns and mutations that occur during the life of a much-performed song, tracing in particular the way in which this song’s inherent representational distance grows into ever more distanced , displaced and distorted configurations. This journey will travel from Portugal to Brazil, from France to the USA, as well as many points in between. The second part of the paper reverses this historical chronology by focusing on the chronology of the research process, on the unearthing, excavation and genealogic processes involved in historical song studies. What can be understood from having all of these ‘Coimbras’ available to us, not least on digital platforms such as Spotify, YouTube and iTunes? Here, notions of the archive, of media archaeology and of the material life of music become paramount and impact on the questions of nostalgia and temporal displacement with which this panel is engaged.

New publication: “Time and Distance Are No Object”: Holiday Records, Representation and the Nostalgia Gap

My article ‘Time and Distance Are No Object: Holiday Records, Representation and the Nostalgia Gap’ has been published in the French popular music journal Volume! in an issue devoted to popular music and nostalgia.

volume-seteun-11_FABSTRACT: Whether temporally or spatially focussed, nostalgia results from a division between what is longed for and the moment of longing. This article examines this ‘nostalgia gap’ alongside the analogous gap found in representation. The relationship is highlighted via an analysis of ‘holiday records’, a genre of recordings that became prevalent in the 1960s. The genre intersects with the more familiar genres of exotica, mood music, easy listening and ambient, but is distinguished by its emphasis on a particular form of spatial reminiscence and imagination. Using the example of ‘April in Portugal’, a song that started life as a Portuguese fado and subsequently became an international hit and mood music staple, I address a set of questions that illustrate the nostalgia gap. What is being remembered or imagined in the song? Can we distinguish between described and prescribed nostalgia? How is saudade, the specifically Portuguese ‘grammar of nostalgia’, related to nostalgic languages found on other holiday records?

More information here and here.

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