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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Merle Haggard vs. San Francisco: Five Songs in Which Country's Best Works Through His Issues with the Bay

Posted By on Thu, Aug 11, 2011 at 7:30 AM

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3. "I've Done It All" (1971, from Hag)

By '71, Haggard seemed in a conciliatory mood. His song "Big Time Annie's Square," from Some Day We'll Look Back, told the first-person story of a Tulsa straight following his girl out to L.A. after she's turned hippie. There, the Okie finds that he and Big Time Annie still "make a pair," despite agreeing "on nothing" (and his qualms about those "sugar cubes" she enjoys!) He even finds her friends accept him. There's good will, there, but also enough ambivalence that it's little surprise that Hag took another swipe at San Francisco's counterculture on "I've Done It All" the very same year.

A (mostly) good-humored itinerary of a life fully lived, "I've Done It All" echoes Hank Snow's "I've Been Everywhere," the exemplar of jaunty country-music CVs. Over a dusty Strangers bounce, Haggard shows off his belt notches and battle scars: "Did you ever spend a winter in a city jail? " he asks, and he promises "I've been everywhere I've talked about, and I could tell you what it's like."

Then, on the chorus, he brags: "I've even been to 'Frisco wearing regular clothes/With them modern hippie folks staring down their nose." Rather than a cheap shot, that line evinces sharp self doubt in an all-brag song. Like much of middle America, he flinches at the judgment of the counterculture he has himself already judged.

4. "Here in Frisco" (1975, from Keep Movin' On)

It might be four a.m. back east, but "Market Street's still going," Hag's lonesome protag observes on this understated portrait of a man adrift in a city not his own. He vows he "won't be staying long," but here it's time zones and loneliness that have soured him, rather than footwear of insufficient manliness.

In fact, he doesn't carp once about the city's counterculture rep. Instead, he bitches about the wind, tips his hat to Tony Bennett, and rhymes "trolley cars are clingin'" with "big Bay city is swingin'," leaving for the subtext any sense that it's S.F.'s culture that makes him feel left out.

5. "Return to San Francisco" (2003, from Chicago Wind)

Even though he signed to the punk label Anti, Haggard's late-career back-to-basics renaissance hasn't brought him the huge rock audience Johnny Cash enjoyed. Haggard's country is lighter than Cash's, touched with Western swing, Tin Pan Alley, and the crooner ballads of the great Ray Price, and it's hard to imagine that even Rick Rubin himself could sell the kids on it. Still, most of Haggard's 2000s releases are a pleasure, especially Last of the Breed, Chicago Wind, and If I Could Only Fly.

Haggard Like Never Before doesn't quite measure up to those peaks, but it concludes with the easy, lilting "Return to San Francisco," an entirely pro-SF beauty. Breezy fiddle and languorous mariachi horns summon up a Bay sunset, and Hag -- his voice rich and rumpled -- sings some Chamber of Commerce-style nothings about riding trolley cars and counting seagulls. The lyric beseeches some person he once felt close to to seek him out here in the city, where they will "make one more memory."

Whether he'd be comfortable making that memory in the Haight is irrelevant in the face of this cardinal truth: No matter who you are, or what you believe, there ain't nothing like watching the sea and sky turn pink at day's end -- or like hearing ol' Merle make one more Bob Wills "Aaah!" like he does at 1:37 above. This song isn't just a peace offering -- it's a balm for whatever hurts he and the hippies might have inflicted on each other.

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Follow Alan Scherstuhl on Twitter at @studiesincrap, SF Weekly's All Shook Down blog at @SFAllShookDown, and like us at Facebook.com/SFAllShookDown.

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Alan Scherstuhl

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