Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Merle Haggard, 1988, from SPIN

     Is Merle Haggard what country music is about in 1988?   Maybe not.  Randy Travis is having more hits, Dwight Yoakam is more visible, Hank Williams, Jr., Is louder — much louder — while k.d. lang is odder.
     But Randy Travis' third record wasn't nearly as strong as his first two, and while his singing style becomes more his own all the time, it still belongs to Merle.  And after suiting himself inside the Buck Owens sound, Dwight Yoakam did the honorable thing and dragged Buck out of retirement, introducing him to a younger audience that knew him only as that grinning specimen who used to host "Hee Haw," not as the creator of the hottest string of hit singles in country music of the '60s.  Hank Williams, Jr., is the most popular performer in country today, and in '88 he retired the trophy for Dumb.  If the South woulda only won the war — which war?  The war! — the lower half of the U.S. would be free to be as racist and jingoistic and dopey as Junior himself.  In one of the few moments of modesty in all of Junior's career, he declared himself president of his Arkansas of the minds rather than Most Confederate Emperor or Supreme Exhausted Ayatollah.  It was a hit.
     At least it wasn't bland.  Blandness, the common denominator of country musc for years, seems to have slipped off the charts and into history. (Sappiness and corniness, thank God, will be with us always.)  The newer the stars are, the more traditional they seem, leaving those who'd been trying to cross over by staying in the middle of the road looking ludicrous.
     And as Ricky Van Shelton and k.d. lang and the Judds and K.T. Oslin redefine country by renewing its long-hidden strengths, Merle Haggard goes, as ever, his own way.  His music has always been based on tradition, on all the jazz, blues and Western swing roots buried beneath country's surfaces, and he's only changed it to suit his own whims, not those of the marketplace.  Chill Factor, his current record, is a melancholy, craggy thing, a rare tone to hear in any kind of popular music, and it crackles like campfire embrers alongside an icy mountain.  Merle Haggard is country music in 1988, as tradition is rekindled in 100 fresh ways, and in the end, Merle Haggard is nothing but himself.

(This was one of those year-end wrap-up packages, with the staff of SPIN gathering their wits to declare what had defined 1988 — even though it was probably only mid-September.  I wrote one of the other prominent essays, on the sky-rocketing Guns 'N' Roses.  Later, standing around the Park Plaza Hotel at MacArthur Park, Axl told me "That was the craziest thing I ever read about us — I could never have written that."  Which I took as a compliment, I guess.)

Monday, July 1, 2019

Aphorism No. 82: One of a Series; Collect the Whole Set!

The default of reporting is doubt.
Its corollary is wonder.