The Hodgepodge: Remembering Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016

In an old boxcar converted into a house, Merle Haggard was born in Oildale, California on April 6, 1937. Growing up, Haggard developed a rebellious attitude after losing his father, Jim, to a stroke while Merle was only nine years old. Criminal activity became a normal way of life for Haggard who would be put into juvenile detention centers only to try to escape. Music became a positive outlet for Merle Haggard. He taught himself to play guitar at the age of 12, playing along to old records of Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills.

It wasn’t until a short stint locked up in San Quentin that completely shook Merle of his criminal ways. In need of money, Haggard was charged with robbery in Bakersfield, California. After attempting to escape from Bakersfield Jail, Haggard was transferred to San Quentin in 1957. A short time later in 1958, he attended a Johnny Cash concert. It was this concert that inspired Haggard to join the prison band and put focus into his music. “Rabbit”, a fellow inmate at San Quentin, recognized Haggard’s musical prowess and potential, and encouraged him to continue focusing on that career. And in 1960, Merle Haggard was released from San Quentin, right into the blossoming Bakersfield music scene.

Merle Haggard wound up playing bass for Wynn Stewart’s band in 1962. This opportunity led him to record his first songs, with “Sing a Sad Song” being released in 1964, reaching the top 20 on the charts. When his recording of “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” hit the top 10, Merle caught the attention of Capitol Records, who help Merle become the defining country singer we all know him to be. It was the Liz and Casey Anderson penned “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” that gave him his first number one single in 1967.

As Merle Haggard grew more comfortable in the spotlight, he opened up about his past life as a law-breaker and spending time in prison. He was no longer afraid that such details would result in negative reactions and drive fans away from his music. “Branded Man”, “Sing Me Back Home”, and “Mama Tried” were songs Merle wrote based on his past, and all three reached number one in the late 1960s.

In the midst of the Vietnam War and the protests in America, Merle Haggard became a political icon for the conservative right, for the people who hated the war protestors. What started off as a joke, “Okie from Muskogee” became an anthem for the way things used to be. Quickly followed by the rambunctious “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Merle Haggard epitomized the American pride in country music, which is an attitude that hasn’t subsided to this day.

But it’s not just the political attitude that made Merle Haggard a country music icon. Merle Haggard wrote and recorded songs true to himself. Along with Buck Owens and others, Merle Haggard helped lead the Bakersfield Sound of country music into popularity; a sound developed in retaliation to the Nashville Sound. It was a music scene and style for those wanting freedom from the control of the establishment. From the late 60s through most of the 80s, Merle Haggard recorded 38 songs that made it to number one on the country charts, but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what made Merle Haggard great.

Haggard persevered through hard times and made a name for himself without compromise. His music has influenced countless singers and songwriters to this day. And Merle Haggard never wavered or stopped recording until the very end. Just last year, Haggard, along with his long time friend Willie Nelson, recorded an album 14 new recordings, Django and Jimmie. It wasn’t until late last year that Merle had to start canceling concert dates due to coming down with pneumonia. It was that sickness that ultimately caused his death yesterday, April 6, 2016.

Merle Haggard was a man whose life was saved by his love for music. A man forgiven for his sins and praised for his accomplishments thereafter. An iconic singer and songwriter who valued sincerity in his music. Country music’s notoriety would not be the same if it weren’t for Merle Haggard. May he rest in peace, and may his music live forever.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Hayes Carll‘s Lovers and Leavers will be released tomorrow.
  • Next week on April 15, Sturgill Simpson‘s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth will be released.
  • Del McCoury‘s Del and Woody will also be released on the 15th.
  • Michael Ray announced his new single will be “Think A Little Less.”
  • Jason Aldean‘s new single is called “Lights Come On.” Josh has a review on this coming soon.

Throwback Thursday Song

Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” I’ll let the lyrics speak for themselves.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Gareth Emery’s 100 Reasons to Live English EDM DJ Gareth Emery released a new album at the beginning of the month. I’m not a big fan of EDM music, but while exploring new releases, I checked out this album and found myself enjoying the production of the dance tunes. If you don’t listen to EDM, then my suggestion is to go listen to Merle Haggard.

Tweet of the Week

iTunes Review of the WeekScreen Shot 2016-04-06 at 7.18.33 PM

A review calling out Jason Aldean for his terrible music. I like this one!

Album Review – Speedbuggy USA’s ‘South of Bakersfield’

“We’re on a mission to put the ‘western’ back in country & western music.” That’s how lead singer Timbo describes his band Speedbuggy USA. The five piece band calls Los Angeles home, and draw inspiration from the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, deeply rooting their music into the Bakersfield sound of country music. Speedbuggy USA is as authentic as you can get as a honky tonk band with twangy vocals and ringing steel guitars while keeping the guitars loud and audience on their feet. Joining Timbo is Seth Von Paulus (lead guitar), Brady Sloan (bass), Greg McMullen (pedal steel), and Christos Hansen (drums). South of Bakersfield is the band’s 8th studio record, and acts as a firm commitment to Speedbuggy USA’s Bakersfield sound.

Using the image of western horse buggies, I imagine the “speed buggy” as a synonym for a car. Combined with the album cover on South of Bakersfield, this album almost acts like a journey. A journey to temporarily leave Bakersfield to escape pain and return home. Or maybe the journey of band leaving home for a tour leg. The opening number, “Still Movin’ On,” sets the pulse pounding mood right away with the southern rock musical introduction. Timbo sings of jumping in his car and driving south of Bakersfield to move on from pain and escape sorrow. The driving song never lets off the pedal with the guitar notes rising through the solo until the final vocal note. The next song could work as a follow-up to the album opener. “1,000 Miles From Nowhere” finds the driver falling back into the habitual negative thinking. Tears are starting to come back, and the urge to drown sorrows at a bar returns. He tries not to lose his ground as he continues aimlessly driving. This song is more of a natural country song with the noticeable pedal steel making its way into the production.

Speedbuggy USA slow it down with “Wrong Side.” Joined by singer Bunny West, the song is a duet detailing the troubled relationship between the two. Continuing along the theme of a man on a journey, “Wrong Side” finds him struggling to maintain his relationship while spending time on the road and at the bars. The band slows it down for quiet, reflective verses and pick it up for the choruses where Timbo and Bunny West harmonize nicely. The band jumps into full-fledged country honky tonk with “Set ‘Em Up.” The steel guitar is ever-present and the production is undoubtedly Bakersfield. Timbo sings of spending too much time at the bar and drinking too much. As upbeat as the production is, a lyric like “happy hour ain’t happy no more” says it all.

The band’s re-recording of “Rusted Cars” comes next. The song was originally featured on their album Valle De La Muerte, a tribute album to the state of Louisiana (Timbo’s home state) and the victims of Hurricane Katrina. This re-recording has a more upbeat production with a fitting cajun influence. The song details a man who looks around at the flooding in the streets with water rising, cars rusting, and things floating in the street. The band slows it down again for “Liars, Thieves N’ Ramblers.” This country ballad deals with man who’s down on his luck. He compares himself to a train carrying hobos, wanting to know if the woman he loves is willing to get on board with him or walk out the door.

“Git Yer Wagon Rollin'” is a quick, exciting instrumental featuring electric guitars and banjos. It does a good job showcasing the skillful instrumentation of the band, but ends just a bit too soon at the one minute mark. The journey of South of Bakersfield comes to an end with the appropriately titled “Bakersfield.” While trying to return home after the last honky tonk, the truck breaks down much to the singer’s lament. The song balances between quieter verses and more upbeat, country two-stepping choruses. “Bakersfield” ends the album on a more solemn note, but keeps the beat and feel of the album going until the final note.

South of Bakersfield is a quick album with only 7 songs and 1 instrumental track, but it’s an effective album. Speedbuggy USA is committed to the honky tonk sounds of county and western music, and South of Bakersfield illustrates that commitment perfectly. The album flows nicely between the upbeat songs and more solemn ballads. The band grasps your attention and holds it from start to finish, but leave you wanting a song or two more. Speedbuggy USA’s instrumentation is spot on and the production of the songs are well-balanced. The melodies are present but not overbearing, and lead singer Timbo’s voice fits perfectly with the musical styles. Any fan of honky tonk country music and the Bakersfield sound will enjoy South of Bakerfield.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Dale Watson’s ‘Call Me Insane’

Dale Watson has been an independent country staple since his 1995 debut album Cheatin’ Heart Attack. Watson hit his musical stride in Austin, Texas, and for twenty years now, Watson has been releasing album after album of honky-tonk country music. While Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and George Strait are country music pioneers reigning from Texas (and rightfully so), Dale Watson shouldn’t be ignored. His style of honky-tonk country and the Bakersfield sound is consistently excellent, and that is ever-present on his new album Call Me Insane.

The album kicks off with toe tapping “A Day at a Time.” This tune touches on the philosophy of tomorrow will be tomorrow so don’t worry about it, and do what you can to make it through today. This is a nice first song for the album, with instrumental breaks of the keyboard and guitars. “Bug Ya for Love” is a more mid-tempo country song about Watson pining for the affections of a woman. The determination to bug her for her love until she’s reached the final straw is a little off-putting to me. He isn’t tasteless in his attempts, by any means, but it just sort of comes off as a little much. Though with only one verse and a chorus repeated once more, the song leaves plenty of room for steel guitars and pianos to take the front seat in an extended solo.

“Burden of the Cross” is a heavy, heartbreaking ballad of a roadside memorial being removed to make room for a highway expansion. In 2000, Watson’s fiancée lost her life in a car accident, and I have to imagine that memory was a key influence for this song. Watson’s deep, heavy drawl along with the dark country production work well with the heartbreaking content of the song. “Everybody’s Somebody in Luchenbach, Texas” is a song dedicated to the Texas small town. Much like Waylon Jennings memorialized the town, Watson praises the town for it’s simplistic beauty and enjoys the company of a good loving woman. The Bakersfield sound is strong on this track.

Watson brings forth some excellent country heartbreak with “Crocodile Tears.” Their love has died and Watson is heartbroken, trying to convince himself that she feels the same way. However, he knows her tears and sorrow were simply just for show. Dale Watson then pays tribute to the late George Jones with “Jonesin’ For Jones.” This upbeat, honky-tonking song wishes to hear the Possum play, and while Jones can’t play the songs anymore (may he rest in peace), his music will never die. With the way the song is produced, it wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a George Jones album. It’s a fitting, excellent tribute to the country music legend.

“I’m Through Hurtin’” finds Watson gearing up for a night on the town. He’s tired of sulking after a breakup and wants to have some fun. There’s an excellent steel guitar ring on this song. The title track explores the heart of a man who holds out thinking relationships may end differently. If it’s crazy for him to have hope in his heart for a better outcome, than call him insane. This is a slow-moving song, but Watson’s vocals are great, and the inclusion of the horns in the production are wonderful.

“Heaven’s Gonna Have a Honky Tonk” is rocking, honky-tonk two stepper about what Dale Watson thinks heaven will be like. He sings in the first verse, “I read in the good book heaven is a place where the only thing we’ll have is all we’ll want. If he said it, then it’s true. Well I got news for you, heaven’s gonna have a honky-tonk.” The mix of religious references with the atmosphere of a honky-tonk bar makes for some great imagery. Watson brings forth some Spanish inspired country music with “Tienes Cabeza de Palo.” For all you who don’t speak Spanish, that roughly translates to “you’re hard headed” or “you’re stubborn.” His woman calls him that, and her accent of the romance language makes this insult sound sweet. More horns make their way into this production of the song, and they are quite welcome in this light-hearted, fun song.

Dale Watson explore love and relationships over the next couple songs. “I Owe It All to You” is a country ballad where Watson thanks his woman’s ex for basically being bad enough to end the relationship. Watson is thankful for the woman in his life, and is aware of why she’s his now. “Forever Valentine” is a ballad where Watson declares his love for her forever. It’s a heartfelt love song honoring a deep, committed love. “Hot Dang” compares falling in love with a sunny day. In this quick, 2 minute country jam, Watson is no longer walking around with a rain cloud over head and feels the joy that comes from the love of his woman.

The album ends with “Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies.” The title, reworked from the country classic, calls for raising boys in a country cowboy way: letting them drink, eat chicken fried steak and gravy, and love wild women. This is the only song on the album Dale Watson did not write; it was written by Tony Joe White. However, this cover sounds right at home on Watson’s album, and is a fitting song to close Call Me Insane.

Overall, Call Me Insane, is another great offering from Dale Watson. While he may not get the same recognition as some of his outlaw and Bakersfield country peers, Watson continues to build on the foundation that Waylon, Willie, and Merle laid. At 14 songs, Call Me Insane gets a little lengthy, and there may be a song or two that could have been left of the cutting room floor. However, the length does not diminish the quality of country music here. Call Me Insane is an album true country fans will enjoy.

Grade: 8.5/10

Album Review – Jon Pardi’s ‘The B-Sides, 2011-2014’ EP

Jon Pardi The B Sides

Start paying attention to Jon Pardi. I feel like I need to get on a rooftop and shout this out through a megaphone. Last year Pardi introduced himself to the country music world with his debut album Write You A Song, a solid country album that I rightly praised. It was quietly one of the best albums released in mainstream country last year. I say quietly because it felt like nobody took notice of this album when they should have taken notice. My fellow critics seemed to be pretty quiet about it (they shouldn’t have). This is probably because Pardi hasn’t had a lot of success at radio because his singles, besides one bro-country like song, have been great. Pardi is making the right music at the wrong time. If it was released in the late 90s or early to mid-2000s, Pardi would have blown up and became a star. But alas he’s now going head-to-head with disco country and EDM pop music. Despite the current environment, Pardi has now followed up his debut album with a new EP titled The B-Sides, 2011-2014. And it’s even better than Write You A Song.

The EP begins with “Fightin’ The Fool,” where Pardi croons about having to always fight the fool within himself. It always seems to rear its ugly head at the worst time, causing heartache and pain for not just the people around, but for himself too. It’s a great story about a person fighting their inner demons and just always falling short of controlling them. The fiddle and steel guitar are prominent throughout the song, just like much of his debut album Write You A Song. See why country radio doesn’t play him? Because it’s country music and it has meaning. On “Over My Head” Pardi sings of a woman who’s really over his head, but continues to fall under her spell over and over again. Every time he wants to get away from her, she pulls him back in. It paints the picture of a seductive woman who may be a little too wild for the man who can’t handle her, but still gets pulled by the allure. Again the instrumentation has a very Bakersfield-like sound and it’s quite pleasant.

“Drinkin’ With Me” is a rollicking, hell-raising drinking song. Don’t worry it isn’t a drinking just to drink song, like many mainstream country songs. As the man in the song says, he’s been working his ass all week and his woman is gone, so he needs to blow off some steam. Also I would like to point out there’s a subtle line about how he isn’t going to drive his truck, since drunk driving isn’t responsible. You hear that Tyler Farr? The piano, pedal steel guitar and violins drive this upbeat track. This is the kind of song that makes you want to get up and move your feet. It sounds exactly like something Dwight Yoakam would record, who I think Pardi has some similarities with. This is one of my favorite tracks on the EP.

The next song is “Back on the Backroads,” which might make some listeners cringe when reading the title. But despite the bro-country themes present in the song, I don’t hate it. Remember what I said about Pardi being in the wrong time? Well this is definitely the case here, as I think this song would be viewed much more favorably before the bro-country era. I think what makes me not dislike this song is Pardi’s charismatic and great vocals along with once again great instrumentation, especially the fiddle play. I think Pardi is planning on releasing this as his next single and if it can get him on radio, then this song is palatable. Zac Brown Band used “Toes” to get airplay, so this could be Pardi’s “Toes” song. It’s the weakest track on the EP easily, but I find it to be decent and listenable.

“Rainy Night Song” is the first love ballad on the EP and Pardi does an excellent job with it. The premise of the song is the man is sitting at his house while it’s pouring rain outside and it makes him wish his former love was there with him, as he sits there alone. He acknowledges they broke up for the best, but he still can’t shake her off his mind no matter what he does. The fiddles weep and the mandolin is present throughout, giving the song the perfect tone of soberness, yet hope. I definitely want to hear more love ballads from Pardi in the future, as he knocks this one out of the park. The last song on the EP is “Borrowed Time,” a song that explores how short life is and how we only have so much time before it’s all over. This might be Pardi’s best song yet, as everything in this song perfectly works together. The lyrics are honest, heartfelt and to the point. It has a very similar vibe to Dierks Bentley’s “Here on Earth.” This is a song I recommend you hear for yourself, as words don’t properly describe it. It’s the kind of song that will make people respect and appreciate Pardi’s talent.

While everyone is rightly paying attention to two stellar releases this month, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller and Whitey Morgan’s Sonic Ranch, do not forget about this EP either. It deserves your attention as well, as it is my favorite release from a mainstream country artist in 2015. It’s that damn good. To think these were the songs that didn’t make Pardi’s debut album Write You A Song and they’re this great. It really makes me excited to hear his sophomore album, which will hopefully garner more attention and acclaim if Pardi continues to make country music like this. I highly recommend you check this out, as it’s worthy of much praise. Jon Pardi is the country artist we need in the mainstream right now and good on Alan Jackson for choosing him for his tour, as I’m sure Pardi will pick up a lot of new fans. Hell Jackson might be the only one for the rest of the year in mainstream country who can top The B-Sides, 2011-2014 EP. Seriously go buy this and start paying attention to Jon Pardi.

Grade: 9/10

Review – Dwight Yoakam’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain”

Dwight Yoakam returned to making music in 2012 when he released his album 3 Pears. He had taken time off to focus on his acting career. His return to music was certainly a good one, as the album received plenty of critical acclaim and reached #1 on the Americana Radio chart. Yoakam also recently announced he has resigned with Warner Brothers Nashville. To top it off he’s now released his first single from his new upcoming album (no name or date announced), “Who’ll Stop The Rain.” It’s a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1970 hit song.

It’s a great choice of song to cover because both Yoakam and CCR are known for having the “Bakersfield sound.” For those who aren’t familiar with the Bakersfield sound, it’s a roots rock country sound that was first popularized in California. Many also call it California country. Yoakam himself offered the best explanation of what this sound is in an interview:

‘Bakersfield’ really is not exclusively limited to the town itself but encompasses the larger California country sound of the Forties, Fifties and on into the Sixties, and even the Seventies, with the music of Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, the Burrito Brothers and the Eagles — they are all an extension of the ‘Bakersfield Sound’ and a byproduct of it. I’ve got a poster of Buck Owens performing at the Fillmore West in 1968 in Haight Asbury! What went on there led to there being a musical incarnation called country rock. I don’t know if there would have been a John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival had there not been the California country music that’s come to be known as the ‘Bakersfield Sound’.

So it’s clear he’s paying homage to the sub-genre of Bakersfield country and one of his favorite bands with his cover of “Who’ll Stop The Rain.” You will inevitably compare both versions of the song. But Yoakam gives the song a different feel, as he slows the tempo down compared to the original version. This gives the song a more country feel compared to the original, which was more of a folk rock song. Instrumentation wise, Yoakam uses a steel guitar rather than an acoustic guitar like the original. The drums are also not as present in Yoakam’s version, giving the song a more mellow vibe. CCR’s version was a little over two and a half minutes long, while Yoakam adds a few more lyrics and more chorus lines in his version bringing it to four minutes and forty-one seconds in length. Yoakam really gives it a distinction compared to the original version, making it almost a completely different song.

The original intentions behind the lyrics in this song were about government, big business and Woodstock, as the song was written after John Fogerty attended the famous concert in August 1969. Baby boomers listening to this song will still connect with these themes, while younger listeners who have never heard the song will interpret it entirely different. Some will probably interpret it as a heartbreak song, while others may consider it a commentary on the current economy. Regardless, I think listeners will appreciate Yoakam’s modern interpretation of the classic song. Yoakam’s 3 Pears album was met with great reception. If this song is an indication of the direction of his next album, I think this album will be even bigger. Most artists do a solid job with their covers of classic hits (or butcher them entirely), but Yoakam’s cover of “Who’ll Stop The Rain” is an example of the way you should cover classic songs. Making it your own and modernizing it, while also respecting the original sound.

Grade: 8.5/10