(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
How fascinating to watch Merle Haggard in live performance deliver what is in essence an anti-war song to a staunch country music crowd. He’s very matter of fact, direct and sincere, delivering what sounds like common sense and the plain truth. And this staunch country music audience accepts it, because they seem to recognize it as the plain truth. No preaching, no posturing, no grandstanding. He’s just selling who he is.
This is a man who has delivered the complex — and equally powerful — messages of “Okie From Muskogee,” “Fightin’ Side of Me” and now “That’s the News.” And it works because of who he is and what he stands for and what he says. It comes from his heart and the audience knows it. Just as Johnny Cash opposed the Vietnam War — and suffered for it when his network TV show was dropped because of his stance. Much as Cash was able to perform for U.S. troops during the Vietnam War — even as he actively opposed the war — Haggard is able to pretty much do what he wants artistically because of his honesty and musical integrity.
Unlike some other alleged country singers who have repeatedly thrust themselves into the news with what they perceive as political stands, Haggard hews to the country music verity of storytelling, not hectoring.
His song “That’s the News” gently chides America, its media establishment and all of us for accepting the force-fed government line that the war is over. He sings, “Suddenly it’s over/The war is finally done/Soldiers in the desert sands/Still clinging to a gun/No one is the winner and everyone must lose/Suddenly the war is over and that’s the news.” He adds, “Suddenly the cost of war is something out of sight/Lost a lot of heroes in the fight/Politicians do all the talkin’/Soldiers pay the dues/Suddenly the war is over/That’s the news.”
Two other songs on his new album Haggard Like Never Before contain sly, understated social observations. “Lonesome Day” muses about the day when “The men in black come kicking in your door” and civil liberties will be taken away and wonders, “Who’s gonna sing the song of freedom/When freedom goes away/It’s gonna be a lonesome day.” And “Yellow Ribbons” says, “Tie a yellow ribbon in your hair/So folks around the world will know you really care/Pray God will bless America for doing what we dare/Then go tie a yellow ribbon in your hair.” Not many country singers would try that. The ones who can’t should study the lives and works of people like Cash and Haggard.
Just last night I was speaking with a BBC producer in London who was puzzled about why American country radio long ago turned its back on artists such as Cash, Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Emmylou Harris, Don Williams, Steve Earle and the like, and why it rejects new artists who deviate too far from the commercially approved norm.
“They’re still all heroes in England,” he said. He didn’t like my answer that they no longer can draw a desired 25-49-year-old female demographic so radio can sell commercials for shampoo, new cars and all kinds of other shiny new products to that target — which is what mainstream country radio is all about.
Music, however, continues to exist and flourish outside the world of demographics and focus groups and shampoo pushers. It’s no surprise that Cash, Haggard and Willie Nelson — artists who took stands — continue to draw new audiences and listeners.
Artists like Cash and Haggard and Nelson also confounded the pigeonholers who couldn’t understand why they couldn’t neatly define and label these guys as liberal or conservative or whatever. Even now, I’m reading conservative commentators who find themselves rattled and confused by Haggard’s latest commentary. Some literally write that they “don’t know what to think of Haggard. It’s plain he’s no longer the voice of patriotism he was during the Vietnam conflict.” I think they would have to ask Haggard how he defines “voice of patriotism.” Like Cash, I think, Haggard calls ’em as he sees ’em. There are still a few true mavericks around.