(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
You know, there are not many things that Merle Haggard has not done. Or at least tried to do. He’s recorded, besides many great country albums, Western swing, inspirational songs, train songs, topical songs, blues songs and more. But recording a bluegrass album was one of those things he had not tried. Not until now. His new The Bluegrass Sessions, to be released Tuesday (Oct. 2), is an impressive venture into the world of bluegrass, where authenticity is the first rule of the game.
Interestingly, the album is on Del McCoury’s new label, McCoury Music. Haggard has said the idea for a bluegrass album first came as a sort of “why don’t I try that?” He called Ronnie Reno, the son of Don Reno of Reno & Smiley and a bluegrass luminary in his own right, and asked him to produce. They met for a day of talking and planning in Renfro Valley in Kentucky. In Haggard’s bus, they headed for Hendersonville, Tenn., outside Nashville, to cut in Ricky Skaggs’ studio there.
The pickers are all first-rate. Marty Stuart on mandolin and guitar, Rob Ickes on Dobro and slide guitar, Charlie Cushman on banjo and guitar, Ben Isaacs on upright bass, Carl Jackson on guitar, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle and J.D. Wilkes on harmonica. And Haggard on guitar. Fiddler Scott Joss played on two cuts, and Alison Krauss came to add high baritone singing to “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.”
Stuart’s liner notes tell the story. Haggard and the pickers gathered in the middle of the studio in a circle, and the first song they run through was Johnny Bond’s “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.” Stuart writes, “The stories, the songs, the combination of musical gifts, love, admiration, tradition, fire, passion and the circle of hearts that had formed around Merle in the room fast became a powerful place to be. As the old song says, ‘Heaven’s Light Was Shining.’ When we adjourned from the circle to go into our respective booths at separate corners of the studio, the magic vanished. … We played through the motions.” After the take, Stuart decided it was time for drastic action.
“As soon as the take was finished,” he writes, “I went into Merle’s vocal booth, and my exact words to him were, ‘Hag, in general, bluegrass suffers from the same thing country music suffers from these days. It ain’t got the blues no more. Bluegrass music needs your soul and your songs.” So they cut the album living-room style and the warm air of an informal and spirited gathering persists in the music. The magic came back.
The songs are all Haggard originals (with a couple of co-writes) except for material from two of his longtime favorites, Jimmie Rodgers and the Delmore Brothers. A couple of Haggard’s new songs are especially poignant and showcase the bittersweet nature of this album. “Pray” is a heartfelt plea for all mankind to obey the song title. “What Happened” is a heartsick lament for the America that Haggard used to know. Such Haggard chestnuts as “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Big City” lend themselves perfectly to a bluegrass treatment. As do Rodgers’ blues medley and the Delmores’ stately “Blues Stay Away From Me.”
I’ve always admired bluegrass musicians for their usually incredible musicianship, their absolute love of the music and their willingness to practice their art knowing that a huge financial reward will never await them. Retail sales of bluegrass CDs are not huge.
The No. 1 album on the current Billboard Top Current Bluegrass Albums chart, Old Crow’s Medicine Show’s Big Iron World, sold 460 copies in the week ending Sept. 23, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It’s sold nearly 67,000 copies in its lifetime thus far of 56 weeks. The best-selling bluegrass album of the year remains Nickel Creek’s Reasons Why — Very Best Of at just over 67, 000 copies. Most bluegrass groups don’t reach that number. (Of course, Alison Krauss & Union Station do not appear on the bluegrass chart. Billboard instead charts them in country.)
But retail sales are not the whole story in bluegrass. Touring remains the main source of income. The groups play festivals and clubs almost year-round and sell their wares at those shows. I’m glad they persevere in what they do, and do so well.
Good for the Hag to pay some tribute to a wonderful genre of music.