A version of this review of Merle Haggard’s The Bluegrass Sessions ran in the Chicago Reader earlier this year.
Of the extant viable American pop genres, country music is the most obsessively conservative. Not that it’s completely static, of course — Gretchen Wilson doesn’t sound much like classic Wanda Jackson, who sounded even less like Sara Carter. But country’s innovations always have to be justified or explained by pointing backwards, and, as such, the turnover in sound, and, especially, in marketing tends to be a lot slower than on other parts of the radio dial. Gretchen Wilson does, after all, sound a fair bit like Tanya Tucker.
Country’s obsession with an authentic rural past has often been the occasion for scorn — perhaps most effectively in Richard A. Peterson’s acid 1997 tome, “Creating Country Music.” And the mythologizing has undeniably had numerous bad effects. For one, though ‘30s and ‘40s country artists were able to assimilate jazz and blues, swallowing later musics has been increasingly difficult, which is part of the reason that country radio these days is so aesthetically bankrupt. Similarly, country’s humiliating paucity of black performers has everything to do with its fetishization of its own roots in an era of virulent segregation and racism.
Still, there’s an up side as well: namely, aging country stars aren’t contractually obligated to engage in extended acts of self-parody. Rock, pop, and rap stars are all about being cutting edge, dangerous, and rebellious in various combinations. That looks great when you’re in your twenties. Once you hit forty, or fifty, or seventy, though, you start to look like — well, like late Elvis Presley. Or Paul McCartney. Or Sting, or Michael Jackson…or, day I say, Madonna or Bob Dylan. All of these folks still make bucket-loads of money, of course,. But the cost, to them and their fans, is that they end up looking like greedy, tottering fools, the butt of the very jokes they would have told back when they were young and smart and talented and didn’t suck.
For country stars, getting old certainly presents cash flow problems. But it doesn’t create an identity quandary. Country doesn’t have an ideology of generational warfare, so its heroes have a lot more options when they start to go grey. They can, for example, dump the radio hits and head for bluegrass, as Ricky Skaggs or (somewhat later in her career) Dolly Parton did. Or they can go for higher gloss production and slip into New Age, like Emmylou Harris. Or they can hang out with the rock kids, like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash. Not all of these choices result in great music. But neither are they embarrassing repudiations of the artists’ entire raison d’etre. Willie Nelson can make a bum album or two, but I’d still love to see him live. The Rolling Stones, not so much.
Of all the country greats, Merle Haggard is probably the one whose persona has aged most seamlessly. Haggard didn’t even release his first single until he was 27, but even then he had the attitude and fire of an especially cantankerous septuagenarian. Artists like Rod Stewart or Eric Clapton may put off the homages until their careers are in decline, but Hag had barely planted his feet before he started in with the roots explorations : a Jimmie Rodgers tribute in 1969, a Bob Wills one in 1970, even a tribute to little-known blackface performer Emmet Miller in 1973. So when in 2001 Haggard released *Roots*, celebrating classic honky-tonkers like Lefty Frizzell, or when he put out a standards collection (*Unforgettable*) in 2004, it didn’t seem like he was retrenching — just doing what he’d always done.
The same could be said of his latest album, “The Bluegrass Sessions,” which was recorded, naturally enough, on Del McCoury’s label. Admittedly, bluegrass has never been one of Haggard’s primary influences — he’s always worked in the more urbane styles of honky-tonk, and the California Bakersfield sound. Still, as this album demonstrates, those traditions have many of the same forefathers, from the famous Jimmie Rodgers to the less well known Delmore Brothers. As it happens, Haggard cannily includes covers of both of these performers. On “Jimmie Rodgers Blues,” he interjects Bob Willsesque asides between the bluegrass solos, and it works perfectly — as well it might, given the debt that both bluegrass and western swing owe to early jazz. Similarly, on the Delmore Brothers’“Blues Stay Away From Me,” Haggard’s plaintive, almost-yodel points towards the keening of Bill Monroe, while the crack band (led by Marty Stuart), plays low-down blues as if they’ve been doing it all their lives. Which, of course, they more or less have.
Neither do tunes from Haggard’s back catalogue suffer in their new setting.
“Big City,” a 1981 track about escaping urban life, actually makes more sense with a smaller, more rustic-sounding acoustic band. Haggard’s voice has aged, and he no longer has the unerring control that was once his trademark. But he’s learned a trick or two from Willie Nelson, and uses the new waver in his singing to project vulnerability and emotion. His phrasing is smart and affecting, as always, and lonesome harmony vocals by Alison Krauss (on “Mama’s Hungry Eyes”) and guitarist Carl Jackson (everywhere else) fit snugly over his lead.
Still, this can’t be said to be one of Haggard’s best albums. Revisiting one of his old gems would have been nice; four, though, starts to seem lazy. The limited instrumentation also becomes a bit monotonous — by the end I was missing the occasional horns which enliven many of his sets. And, perhaps most importantly, his new songs here generally lack the bite of his best work. “Pray,” and “Momma’s Prayers” are, as the titles suggest, maudlin and moralistic — a strain always present in Haggard’s work, but not one I like to see overplayed.
“What Happened?” though, is the low point, with Haggard rotely complaining about high taxes, high gas prices, and the country generally going to hell. Again, one can’t blame this on Haggard’s getting crotchety in his old age— he’s been bitching about those darn kids for forty years now. But his classic songs in this vein, like 1969’s famous “Okie From Muskogee,” use humor and specific details to open the song up to audiences of all philosophical persuasions. “What Happened?” lacks that depth, substituting an irritating querelousness that reminds me of Lou Reed’s lesser work.
But just because this isn’t Haggard’s high point doesn’t mean the next one won’t be. His albums have always varied in quality, and he’s done some spectacular work in the oughts: *If I Could Only Fly,* from 2000, is probably one of his two or three greatest ever. And even his lesser efforts have their virtues. Like, for example, the one great new song here, “Learning to Live With Myself,” a weary reflection on aging and loss. “It’s hard to face up to the mirror/Leave all the habits on the shelf/Till he gives me my call/The hardest of all/Will be learning to live with myself.” Keeping up an identity can be a bore and a burden–especially when your identity is that of a pop singer. But, whatever his worries, Haggard wears his skin more comfortably than just about anyone else in the business.