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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

click to enlarge The Hag will make you eat that gee-tar, hippies
  • The Hag will make you eat that gee-tar, hippies

Merle Haggard may contain multitudes, but he tends to feel just one of those multitudinous things at a time -- and to feel it so hard and pure that he seems to have forgotten all the previous things he's felt that might not square with it.

Perhaps that explains his hot-and-cold relationship with San Francisco, a city that over the range of his catalog sometimes stands out as the place he wants to escape to, sometimes stands out as the place he wants to escape, period, and sometimes exemplifies all that's gone wrong with America. Perhaps he'll make his feelings clear when he shows up at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass next month.

To prep, here's a guide through Haggard's history with our fair city. Note that he wrote all of these songs. As if being country music's finest male singer wasn't enough, he's also one of the 20th century's finest songwriters.

Oh, a couple of these aren't available on the open Internet, but you absolutely should track them down through whatever avenue you've settled upon for music consumption.

1. "Okie from Muskogee" (1969, from every Merle Haggard compilation ever)

Depending on the day, his mood, and his audience, Haggard's most famous song is either a countercountercultural anthem composed out of pique, a character study composed to honor the traditionalist perspective of millions of Americans, or a straight-up satire of small-town values penned over a joint by a smartass. At a casino concert I caught a couple years back, Haggard introduced the song by announcing a) he doesn't like to do it much these days, and b) some Marines had requested it, and their side of things still needs to be told.

Today, "Okie" feels like sincere kitsch. The narrator -- a hivemind "we" rather than Hag's usual first-person -- stands for flag and country and not burning draft cards, which seems to square with Haggard's personal opinions. But the song also champions "pitching woo" and denounces drugs just before praising "white lightning" -- and, wait, how are moonshine lovers the paragons of American law and order?

Anyway, the narrator carps at the long hair worn by "the hippies out in San Francisco" and comes out against beads and "Roman sandals," insisting that, in Muskogee, "leather boots are still in style for manly footwear" -- a line so strained and florid that it has to be a joke. Maybe.

2. "California on My Mind" (1969, from Pride in What I Am)

The same year he unleashed "Okie," and a year before its even more bellicose follow-up, "The Fighting Side of Me," Haggard and his Strangers knocked out this easygoing shuffle for the Pride in What I Am LP. (That record also features "I Think We're Livin' in the Good Old Days," a cheery sentiment that entirely belies the nation-in-peril tone of the hits that were making him famous.)

"California on My Mind" is an electric string-band lark that at times sounds like a rough draft of his 1981 masterpiece "Big City." His narrator, sick of the grimy life in some unnamed metropolis, dreams of lighting out for the West, in this case for Redwood City, where "the sun is shining," there's "a gal waiting," and he's sure to find work because he's "a prune picker."

California (and, uncharacteristically, the Bay Area) is here equated with all that's good about home. Haggard hails from Bakersfield, of course. He has long lived near Lake Shasta, and many of his best songs ("Kern River," "Tulare Dust," "California Cottonfields") honor the Central Valley with proper-noun specifics. But his most notable Bay stay is likely not one that endeared the region to him: three years in San Quentin in the late 1950s.

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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