It’s anyone’s guess what Merle Haggard could play this Friday. The man who brought the electric guitar to country music, with over 50 records to his name, is set to release his first bluegrass album, The Bluegrass Sessions, in October. Featuring Marty Stuart on mandolin, and Alison Krauss singing backup on the track “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” the album reworks old songs, presents new ones, and touches on the traditional. Merle says he hopes it’s volume one of many to come, and the flowing ease and effortlessness of the studio sessions show in the crisp solos and rolling slide guitar.
At his recent live shows, Haggard’s been playing more Bob Wills-style Texas swing than anything else, but he recently released an old-time country album with fellow legends Ray Price and Willie Nelson. His spring tour brought the introduction of the song, “Hillary,” a song supporting Sen. Clinton’s run for the presidency, with lyrics like “This country needs to be honest/Changes need to be large/Something like a big switch of gender/Let’s put a woman in charge.”
Coming from the man who became a conservative hero after “Okie from Muskogee,” receiving a full pardon for his past crimes from then-California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972, that sort of support for a liberal is likely surprising to his older fans.
The track “What Happened?” on the upcoming release is perhaps the most telling of his disenchantment with our country’s “progress” — “I remember the morning the towers fell/I fell back asleep and dreamed of hell/Truth that stood for years is down the drain/What happened? Does anybody know?/What happened? Where did America go?”
From a man who decried the loss of patriotism in the ’60s, shunning Vietnam war protesters and dissenters, the words are troubling. The 2005 song “America First” blatantly calls for “getting out of Iraq.” Haggard is a true American. He’s seen it all, from prison and from the spotlight on stage. His commentary should be taken to heart.
If anything hasn’t changed, it’s Haggard’s work ethic. At 70 years old, his summer tour schedule is consistent, normally comprised of ten consecutive nights on, a few off, and another ten night run. Whatever he treats the crowd to in Charleston, the lyrics and the sound come with a stamp of authenticity, honest and true.