One of the things that I've never liked about country music is its predilection for sentimentality and cheap emotional appeals. There can't be anything more annoying then listening to someone wearing six thousand dollars worth of clothing and jewelery singing about their poor but happy childhood. Or, how the person they admire the most was their dear old Ma because she was a God fearing Christian who could feed six kids, the cow, and her no good drunkard of a husband, when there wasn't any food in the cupboard or money in her purse.
Not only do those types of songs make me want to gag, but they also romanticize the reality of poverty and living with an abuser, which is a disservice to anyone who actually has had to live through those experiences. Thankfully there are some country music performers who have lived through these types of experiences and would never trivialize them. That doesn't meant they always escape falling into the trap of resorting to appeals to cheap sentiment or manipulating simplistic emotional responses from their listeners, but at least they can be counted on to deliver the occasional nugget of reality unlike the majority of their contemporaries.
I don't think this dichotomy is more obvious in anyone than it is in Merle Haggard. One minute he can be signing a song that genuinely talks about the difficulties faced by a person released from prison, and the next he'll be singing some sentimental slop about a family of musicians led by a blind guitar playing father and their deaf mother. This was really brought home to me watching a new DVD just released by Shout Factory and the Country Music Hall Of Fame, Legendary Performances: Merle Haggard.
Culled from television appearances that Merle made between 1968 and 1983 the fifteen tracks on this DVD do a nice job of showing how his music evolved during the fifteen years he was at the top of his game and providing an overview of the type of material he does best. For those of you who're only familiar with songs like "Okie From Muskogee" that managed to get some cross over play, this disc will give you a much better understanding of the type of music Merle first became famous for in country music circles.
"Branded Man", which is taken from a 1968 appearance that he made on Country Music Holiday hosted by Wally Fowler, was his second number one hit record and also one of his most directly autobiographical. Haggard had spent ten years in and out of jail and detention centers up until 1957 when he was arrested for a robbery attempt that went bad. It was three years after he was paroled in 1960 that he recorded his first album. When you listen to "Branded Man", you can hear Merle talking about those years after he was released from prison, and the mark that everybody who has ever done time carries with them for the rest of their lives.
Songs like "Mama Tried" and "The Bottle Let Me Down" from the same time period are based enough in reality that they ring with authentic emotion especially with Merle's unaffected delivery. At that stage of his career he voice was smooth and rich, almost a baritone, and unlike others of the time he didn't have a noticeable accent or attempt to make his voice sound more country. Perhaps because he was from California he didn't feel the need to make himself sound like a hillbilly, but whatever the reason, his delivery is part of what makes these first songs as effective as they are.
Some of the other songs like "Daddy Frank (Guitar Man)" (the one about the blind guitar player) and "I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am" show that Haggard was as susceptible as anyone to writing songs that sentimentalize people instead of telling a true story like he had with other material. Listening to them, and songs from later in the disc like "The Roots Of My Raising" from a 1977 Porter Wagoner Show gives you a different view of Haggard. With these songs it feels like he's pandering to the Nashville establishment and giving them what they want to hear. The last song especially as it extols the virtues of family and the simple life which is the bread and butter of country music.
The same could be said of one of Merle's biggest hits, "Okie From Muskogee", and the less widely known "The Fightin' Side Of Me" as they are in step with another of Nashvilles' favorite themes, my country right or wrong. While "Okie" extols the virtues of being a Redneck -"We still fly "Old Glory" down at the court house" and "We don't wear our hair long and shaggy", "Fightin' Side" contains such admirable sentiments like "Love it or leave it" when referring to America. For someone who was supposedly an "outlaw" as far as Nashville was concerned, these two songs are amazingly conservative, especially as they were written in 1970 in the midst of the Vietnam war.
The picture quality of this DVD is dependent on the quality of the original television show, so at times it's not going to be as good as you're used to. The sound quality is very good throughout. While there are no specifications listed for the disc, the picture is full screen and I can only assume the sound is regular stereo. There's no mention of whether or not any of the sound was re-mastered, so I assume you're getting everything exactly as it was on the original television shows. As far as special features go, they've included an interview with Merle and his second wife while on board their tour bus that was done in 1981 and footage from his induction into The Country Music Hall of Fame. The best part of that was his thank you list, which looked like it was written on toilet paper, and the fact that he made sure to thank his plumber and his pest control person.
If you are a Merle Haggard fan Merle Haggard: Legendary Performances will be a treat for you. Merle's music may have at times veered over too far into the sentimental mush and jingoism that is the bane of modern country music, but he also wrote some genuinely compelling songs that talked about realities few others had the nerve to write about at the time. You'll see both sides of him on this DVD, and it says a lot about him that the latter is strong enough to outweigh the former.