Country

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Merle Haggard has given us country music’s finest oeuvre after Hank Williams; in his best tunes Haggard is truly, as he’s sometimes called, “the poet of the common man.”

Atkins—a superb guitarist who, ironically, grew up steeped in Appalachian tradition—probably did more than anyone else to dilute country music. Succeeding Steve Sholes in 1957 as RCA’s Nashville boss, he produced hundreds of inoffensive easy-listening albums for singers like Jim Reeves and Don Gibson. Like Bradley, Atkins developed regrets, going so far as to apologize publicly. “We’re about to lose our identity,” he told People in 1974, “and get all mixed up with other music. . . . Of course I had a lot to do with changing country, and I apologize.” “We were just trying to sell records,” he said in Rolling Stone in 1976.

Sell records they did. In 1964 the country-music industry (records, radio, and concerts) earned a hundred million dollars, according to Time . But the music was often wan and saccharine. A reaction set in: neo-honky-tonk, or “hard country,” a return to honky-tonk’s gritty verities. The East Texan George Jones, whose heart-stopping glissandi and melismata make his, to many minds, the most expressive voice ever to sing country, started in the ear- Iy fifties as a Hank Williams imitator, passed through a mid-fifties rockabilly phase (as “Thumper” Jones), and rose, with songs like “She Thinks I Still Care,” “My Favorite Lies,” and “The Grand Tour,” to apotheosis as the beloved “Ol’ Possum.”

 

But hard country’s richest vein lay in Southern California, home to thousands of uprooted Midwesterners. Born in Texas, Buck Owens moved to Bakersfield, California, as a young man. Merle Haggard, the son of migrant Oklahomans, was born outside Bakersfield in 1937. Both became famous in the mid-sixties. Owens retired after a decade of hits, but Merle Haggard and his band the Strangers still roam the country in a pair of buses. As a songwriter Haggard has given us country music’s finest oeuvre after Hank Williams’s. As a musician he has forged a supple style he calls country jazz; it is Haggard, not today’s dozens of by-the-letter Bob Wills revivalists, who is keeping alive Wills’s sophisticated swing. The tune that won Haggard fame, or notoriety, “Okie From Muskogee,” represents just one facet of his complicated soul (politically he hews to a sort of right-wing anarchism). In his best tunes, sung in a lived-in, cracked baritone, Merle Haggard is truly, as he’s sometimes called, “the poet of the common man”:

I’m tired of this dirty old city Tired of too much work And never enough play And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks Think I’ll walk off my steady job today. Turn me loose, set me free Somewhere in the middle of Montana. . . . —“Big City”

There was a second backlash against the “Nashville sound.” Although acoustic string bands had ceased to figure commercially after the early forties, acoustic country music survived as a subculture, its leader mandolinist-singer Bill Monroe. Monroe is usually given credit for developing the genre we call bluegrass; in fact, the style didn’t coalesce until Earl Scruggs brought a spectacular, three-fingered banjo technique—the “Scruggs roll” into Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in December 1945. Scruggs’s sound gave bluegrass its surging, headlong thrust—”folk-music in overdrive,” the musicologist Alan Lomax called it in a 1959 Esquire piece. In the sixties, thousands of country fans, turned off by Nashville’s blandness, defected to bluegrass, by then in its second generation: the Osborne Brothers, the Country Gentlemen, Jim and Jesse. Today’s bluegrass fans and performers are mostly college-educated professionals, not the music’s original working-class constituents. Despite its followers’ passion, bluegrass remains commercially marginal; Robert Cantwell’s over-imaginative remark that it has “swept into the social and psychic space occupied a century ago by religion and by religious revivals and camp meetings” is silly. From time to time a bluegrass musician arrives (today the fiddler-vocalist Alison Krauss) who breaks through to a wider audience.