“It’s Merle Haggard and George Jones, together again for the first time …”
Sorry, couldn’t resist. But one half of that old parody of bad TV commercials is true: Jones and Haggard are, in fact, hooking up this summer to record a duet album. But it won’t be the first time. These two country-music poobahs first pooled their talents almost 25 years ago, for a duet disc titled A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine.
The new disc, Kickin’ Out the Footlights … Again, slated for October release on Bandit Records, will feature Hag and the Possum paying homage to one another by rendering the other’s songs. Haggard will lay five of his favorite Jones tracks to wax, while Jones will do the same with his five fave Hag cuts.
On some tracks, one will chime in on harmonies while the other takes the lead vocal, but they’ll also do some good-old-fashioned duets, the kind that were tailor-made for commercial-country music.
And in a bit of cosmic-country kismet for local classic-country fans, Hag and the Possum are both coming to regional venues over the next eight days: Haggard performs at Harrah’s Cherokee Pavilion on Friday, while Jones plays the Asheville Civic Center on Aug. 12. So, for those trad-country fans who’ve had it up to their Pisgah Porter longnecks with the antiseptic, focus-group-anointed crap that passes for “country music” on commercial-country radio stations these days, this week will truly be hog heaven. (Or is that Hag-Possum Heaven?)
It’s safe to say that, after Hank Williams, Haggard and Jones (along with Johnny Cash) are the most important figures in the history of post-war country music. But for all of his pioneering, keep in mind that Williams’ flame tragically burned out hard and fast — his recording career lasted only five years, from 1947-’52 — while Haggard and Jones have been touring and recording for an astonishing 90 years between them. So their reach is much longer.
And each of these two giants has carved out his own claim to gianthood. Jones gets the nod from many country-music critics as the greatest singer in the history of the country idiom. And Haggard is hailed as the genre’s most probing and relevant songwriter.
One wag once quipped that “Frank Sinatra wishes he was as good a singer as George Jones,” while Haggard’s groundbreaking songs about the darker side of the human condition — informed partly by his own checkered youth and prison stint — added new depth to the country canon. Haggard was also a trailblazer of the Bakersfield (California) sound — a harder brand of honky-tonk that, in the late 1960s, reclaimed country music’s thorny individualism and rural grit during an era when Nashville was going all countrypolitan with smoother, more uptown sounds.
“There’s no question that Merle Haggard is one of the top three greats of country music, especially with the Bakersfield sound that fused country and rock,” says Martin Anderson, music director and program host at WNCW-FM 88.7. Anderson’s eclectic format includes plenty of trad-country, alt-country and country-folk: “I like that [Haggard has] always blended various roots-music styles together, and that he’s always been drawn to writing topical and working-class-oriented songs.”
Indeed, Haggard’s rough-and-tumble early years provided him with a scrappy worldview he would draw on for years in his forlorn, cathartic songs about life losses, bad luck and hard times. Haggard’s father, a honky-tonk fiddler, died of a brain tumor when Haggard was just 9 — the kind of childhood loss one never really recovers from. He rebelled, ran away from home as a teen, was sent to a few juvenile detention centers, and then in 1957 landed in prison for robbery. In between incarcerations, he had his seminal music experience when he caught a Lefty Frizzell show in Bakersfield.
Upon release from prison, Haggard completely gave himself over to country music for his redemption. After paying his dues in juke joints, he notched several country hits between ’63 and ’65, like “Sing a Sad Song,” “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” and “Swinging Doors.”
But it wasn’t until ’67-’68 that Haggard delivered his first true signature songs — tunes that bore the imprint of his troubled past — “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried.” Not only were they big hits, but these tunes touched a raw nerve with the working class and underclass, and inspired Haggard to dig deeper — to keep mining the rich veins of human frailty and hard living for his material.
For rock fans of a certain age, or bias — the ones who never really “got” country music — Haggard is still branded with right-wing-redneck status for his 1969 recording of “Okie From Muskogee,” which skewered hippies / pot smokers / war protesters / liberals / longhairs. But the truth is, Haggard didn’t write the song. And before he recorded it, he’d already won props from folk-music and liberal audiences with a handful of songs about poverty in America, including the wrenching “Hungry Eyes.” And 34 years later, in 2003, with his song “Rebuild America First,” he spanked the press and Congress for buying into the Bush administration’s wrongheaded, tragic rationale for invading Iraq.
And this was before everyone knew Iraq didn’t have any WMDs. So Hag’s politics have never been easily sussed.
After that, if there were any rock-snob holdouts left, Haggard — now 69 — won them over in the last two years by hitting the road as one half of a double bill with Bob Dylan — magnanimously agreeing to go on first, saying Dylan was probably the only artist in the world he would “open” for.
Haggard fans have not suffered from a dearth of product in recent years. He released a strong disc of new songs, Chicago Wind, in ’04, and this year, Capitol ambitiously re-issued remastered versions of his most seminal ’60s- and ’70s-era discs, including Mama Tried, Hag, Branded Man, Strangers, Sing Me Back Home, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive and Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down. For completists and Hagheads, all include either alternate takes or previously unreleased songs.
He still cares
If Haggard was the working-class conscience of country music, Jones was its most yearning balladeer. Haggard was a prolific songwriter during his peak years in the ’60s and ’70s, but Jones was more of an interpreter, and probably the greatest song stylist in the history of country music. A brief scan of his most comprehensive anthologies, like The Essential George Jones (1994) or 50 Years, 50 Hits (’04), shows that most of his biggest hits were songs written by other writers. It was up to Jones to put his singular vocal stamp on them.
He didn’t start out as a heart-tugging country crooner, however. In his early years — he got about a 10-year head start on Haggard, launching his recording career in 1954 — he showed a real hankerin’ for gutbucket honky-tonk (“Why Baby Why,” ’55) and jumpy rockabilly (recorded under the nom de plume “Thumper Jones”). In 1959, his rangy take on “White Lightning” (written by J.R. “The Big Bopper” Richardson) spent five weeks at No. 1 on the country charts.
A few years later, however, came the swooning “Tender Years,” which carved out Jones’ niche as the king of the country weepers. And in the early ’70s, he hooked up with producer Billy Sherrill, who cemented Jones’ rep as a singer of teary-beery laments with his string-laden countrypolitan arrangements. “Tammy Wynette was known as the lady with the teardrop in her voice, and when he sings ballads, George Jones is the man with heartache in his voice,” says Kim Clark, weekday-morning host at WNCW.
Ah, Tammy. No re-counting of the George Jones saga is complete without the Tammy chapter: Jones and Wynette hitched their wagons to one another, maritally and professionally, in the late ’60s, and became country music’s royal couple, even though their romance was always settin’ the woods on fire. Many of their goo-goo-eyed duets functioned as honky-tonk reportage, offering tentative updates of their barn-burner of a marriage — as Jones by then had become a hard-drinking hell-raiser. Some of the tales of his boozy, wild-hair exploits included gunplay: Jones was evidently fond of popping off a few rounds with his shotgun after knocking back a quart or two.
His alcoholism and drug habit finally started to tarnish his rep as a live performer. He would often disappear for days at a time, vanish from recording sessions, and, most frustratingly for his fans, not bother to turn up for his shows — or, even worse, cut them short after three or four songs. (Comic Norm McDonald tells a hilarious story about one such incident from his childhood.) In fact, in 1979 Jones was reportedly AWOL from 54 of his own concerts, earning him the knee-slapping nickname “No-Show Jones.”
In the early ’80s, he got sober and launched a comeback, partly on the strength of crossover/country-rock duets — like covers of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” with Johnny Paycheck and “Bartender’s Blues” with James Taylor.
In the last decade or so, as Jones has settled into elder-statesman status — he’s now 75 — he’s been doing more duets with the young’uns, like “A Few Old Country Boys” with Randy Travis and “Beer Run” with Garth Brooks. (Check out Todd Snider’s scruffier and more relaxed version of the latter.) In older age, Jones has become amusingly defiant and ornery in some of his song selections and vocal performances, like the hooky but gnarly “Don’t Need No Rocking Chair,” in which he comically growls: “I don’t need your rocking chair / Your Geritol or your Medicare … I do my rocking on the stage / You can’t put this Possum in a cage.” And don’t get me started on the gleeful guilty pleasure of “High Tech Redneck” (in which “Mayberry meets Star Trek“).
Also in recent years, Jones has launched his own label, Bandit Records; last year he released the slightly tongue-in-cheek Hits I Missed (And One I Didn’t) — a collection of songs offered to him over the years, which he passed on, only to see other artists notch hits with them, like “Detroit City,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “He Started Loving Her Again Today.”
As for this summer’s duet record with Haggard, WNCW’s Clark speculates that that “there is definitely potential for something really special there — but there’s potential for a colossal disappointment, as well. A lot of it rests on the instrumentation, and production choices. Will it be the rootsy triumph it could be? Or will it be a couple of country veterans straining to be heard over the Nashville color-by-numbers cheese machine?
“There were points in Jones’ career, like in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when he made country music that pandered to the lowest common denominator,” she continues. “So it’ll be really interesting to see what the artistic strategy is on this one.”
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at email@example.com.]
Merle Haggard plays Harrah’s Cherokee Pavilion at 6 and 9 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 4. Tickets run $30-$60; call (800) HARRAHS. George Jones (with Jason Aldean) plays the Asheville Civic Center at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12. Tickets are $37 and $40. 259-5544.