[Ed. note: I should have had this one up last Friday, for reasons that ought to be obvious, but it was one of those days — all of my Fridays have been those days recently, which really bums me out. Because Friday is a day to think about music videos, not 25-page white papers that leave you too mentally drained to bang out even a brief blog entry. Anyhow… ]
We’re mostly into rock music around this place — you may have noticed — but I confess to having a soft spot for a certain flavor of country music, too, primarily the stuff that was popular when I was a kid in the 1970s and early ’80s. That’s not as incongruous as it might sound, though. There was a lot of cross-pollination between the genres back then, and the line between country, pop, and rock was often pretty blurry, especially to an unsophisticated child who grew up listening to whatever Mom was playing in her pickup while she drove me around town as she ran her errands.
You’ve no doubt heard that one of the giants of that era, Merle Haggard, died a week ago Wednesday, on his 79th birthday. Haggard was practically the Aristotelian ideal of what we think a country musician is supposed to be: a populist poet who drew on his own difficult history — child of Dust Bowl refugees, incarcerated in San Quentin, married five times, the obligatory struggles with substance abuse — to evoke the lives and losses of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types. In a career that spanned half a century, he scored a mind-boggling 38 number-one hits and continued to record and tour up until mere weeks before his death. (He played one of the Nevada/Utah border casinos only a couple months ago; I wish now I’d made the drive out there to see him.)
His signature hit “Okie from Muskogee,” from 1969, is either an ode to or a spoof of a particular set of redneck attitudes, and I frankly despise that one no matter which he intended it to be. More often, though, I found relatable authenticity in his lyrics and his natural vocal stylings, which were so different from the phony twang that nearly everybody in the genre uses these days. Unlike all the modern-day Garth Brooks wanna-bes, Haggard didn’t need to demonstrate his country bona fides with any affectations; he just told stories of quietly brave people who’ve drawn bad hands but keep on striving. Case in point, this week’s video selection and my favorite Merle Haggard song, “If We Make It Through December.”
Initially released in October 1973, the song is frequently classified as a Christmas tune because of its references to the holiday season, and the fact that it came from a Christmas album. But in fact, it’s more a song about economic hardship and loneliness, and also about resilience and hope for a better future, as expressed in the lines about summertime and California. The song spent four weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, from December ’73 through January 1974, and it also crossed over to reach number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. Whenever I hear it, I think of the farm town I knew as a boy, and the blue-collar men and women I saw every day, the ones who raised alfalfa and worked at the nearby Bingham Canyon copper mine, and who lingered over coffee and cigarettes at Orton’s Cafe and went boating or horseback-riding on the weekends. This song sounds like home to me, a form of home I haven’t known in decades.
The video clip I found is a 1976 performance on The Donny & Marie Show, which is a whole other gift basket of nostalgia: