Brilliant Corners #11: Willie and Merle Page 2

The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories (1991)
In 1990, while Nelson was golfing in Hawaii, IRS agents seized most of his assets, including several homes and a farm, and presented him with a $16.7 million bill for years of unpaid taxes. During the ordeal, Nelson's daughter and his lawyer took turns hiding his guitar, Trigger, from the eagle-eyed feds. "We try to work with taxpayers," an IRS spokeswoman told The New York Times the following year, "and if we have to come up with some creative payment plan, that's what we're going to do." The creative payment plan included this double album. Presumably to cut costs, it features just Nelson and his guitar and was sold through television ads before being shipped to stores. The set list includes many of Nelson's choicest originals, and the titles alone—"Opportunity to Cry," "Pretend I Never Happened," "Wake Me When It's Over"—speak to the mood. And if at times Nelson sounds like someone who's been crying, it only adds to the rawness of the performances. The IRS Tapes wasn't pop music's first court-mandated masterpiece—Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear comes to mind—but if anything it sounds even fresher today.

Teatro (1998)
Pairing Nelson with U2 producer Daniel Lanois may have seemed like an odd decision, but the album they made together turned out to be both strange and sublime. The third collaborator is Emmylou Harris, the greatest harmony singer known to humankind, and the interplay of the two voices is spellbinding. Lanois surrounds the singers with low-key Latin percussion and drenches them in reverb. Nelson and Harris sound like they're singing in the black coldness of space.

Yet like the surprising pairing of blue cheese and sweet wine, it somehow works. The songs are mostly originals from the early 1960s, and the production brings out their cosmic, gothic inflections, reminding us that for all his mainstream appeal, Nelson writes some pretty weird material. Teatro was recorded in an old movie palace in Oxnard, California. If you do a little digging on YouTube, you can find a sweet little film of the session by director Wim Wenders that's well deserving of your time.

Merle Haggard
Unlike Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard never recorded a hit duet with Julio Iglesias or appeared on Miami Vice. His appeal remained more squarely ensconced within the formal language and fandom of country. Yet Haggard is the finer and more versatile songwriter; on that front, his only real competition is Hank Williams. Part of the reason may have been Haggard's lifelong obsession with music history. When I interviewed him in 2000, ostensibly about a new record he'd recorded for a punk label, he mostly wanted to talk about Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Dolly Parton, and his favorite lineup of Bob Wills's Texas Playboys.

Haggard's early life gave him plenty to write about. As the chorus of "Mama Tried" reminds us, he really did turn 21 in prison. While incarcerated in San Quentin, he learned that his first wife, Leona Hobbs, was expecting another man's child. Seven or eight years later, he wrote about the experience in a song titled "My Ramona."

Everybody's talking bad about Ramona
They say she's changed a lot since I've been gone
They say she may not be too glad to see me
Because Ramona doesn't know I'm coming home
But everybody's wrong about Ramona
They're just going by the way she's acting now
I just can't believe the things they say about her
Because Ramona knows the things I won't allow

Of course, we know that the narrator is deceiving himself; he has lost Ramona. That's the perfect thing about the song: We know something about him that he doesn't yet know about himself. "Ramona is really Leona," Haggard told me in 2000. "A lot of it is made to fit the song, but it was about real things."

Take a listen to "My Ramona," because it has nearly everything that made Haggard so brilliant. There's the singing: surprisingly supple and high, without a drop of the machismo and bluster that sometimes pass for conviction in country music. And there's no sentimentality: only a half-sob when he sings Ramona's name during the second chorus, and a bit of melody he hums at the end, which somehow make it understood that we're listening to a man speaking to himself in his mind.

The child of Okies, Haggard evaded Nashville's pull by largely staying away, remaining close to his birthplace near Bakersfield, California, the town that also produced Buck Owens. The Bakersfield sound was heavily amplified and fast, but what set Haggard apart was a melancholy disposition and a novelist's empathy for his subjects. And though he lofted an astonishing 38 singles to the top of the country charts, many of his finest songs are the quieter album tracks that reward close, repeated listening.

The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde (1968)
Though it's difficult to choose one from among Haggard's superb early LPs, this one is particularly sticky, featuring "My Ramona," the driving title track, and the timeless "Today I Started Loving You Again," which Haggard reportedly wrote while his wife Bonnie Owens stepped out to buy him a hamburger. When she returned, she wrote down the words he dictated to her on the brown paper bag. Listen to the lyrics; I dare you to find a superfluous word. Haggard had excellent taste in musicians, and here the playing of his lead guitarist Roy Nichols is a master class in creativity and economy. On CD and streaming services, this album is often paired with the same year's Sing Me Back Home, a lovely choice.

Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimmie Rodgers (1969)
In the midst of a steady stream of #1 singles, Haggard released a double-album tribute to country's first superstar, Jimmie Rodgers, who was famous for his yodeling and died in 1934. The care and imagination Haggard infused into this commercially bizarre gesture brought the material to scintillating life. Rodgers's songs—"Waiting for a Train," "Peach Picking Time in Georgia," "Hobo's Meditation"—sound liberated from the murk of the Depression-era shellac and offer more than a glimpse into how audaciously modern they must have sounded to listeners of the era. The album, and Haggard's spoken-word introductions, reveal him to be an intellectual as interested in the history of American music as in songwriting and the business of stardom. Bonus tip: Listen for Telecaster master James Burton positively setting fire to the dobro.

A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) (1970)
After the outsized Rodgers tribute, Haggard's project of reanimating the past took an even more surprising turn. His plan to record with the great Western Swing bandleader Bob Wills was derailed when Wills suffered a stroke after the session's first day. Regrouping, in a few months Haggard taught himself the fiddle, assembled six surviving members of the Texas Playboys, and took over as both bandleader and lead vocalist. Western Swing is played in dance halls, and the sheer joy and kick that Haggard's band and the Playboys elicit from World War II–era standards like "Roly Poly," "Time Changes Everything," and "Old-Fashioned Love" is delightful to behold, and the opposite of a reverential exercise in nostalgia. Jerry Wexler once told me that seeing Haggard and the Playboys with Willie Nelson in San Francisco was the greatest night of music in his life.

Down Every Road (1996)
Most box sets tend to be paperweights for the compulsive and should be avoided like needless dental work. But this four-CD release, capturing more than 30 years of Haggard's music, doesn't have a single dull moment. Especially revelatory is the stylistic freedom and wintry sentiment of the later songs, from the second half of the 1970s and the 1980s. Has anyone written better than Haggard does on "Kern River," "Big City," and "Here in Frisco"? The twin guitar intro to "Ramblin' Fever" may be my favorite 30 seconds on record. Then there's Haggard and Willie Nelson's inspired duet on Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," which suddenly made every other version unnecessary. Besides a couple of duet albums, the two singers shared a penchant for marrying often, poker, the buds of the cannabis plant, and pitch-black jokes. Haggard once told an interviewer, "Willie Nelson's the one who told me the reason it costs so much to get divorced is because it's worth it."


Anton's picture

I will join in loving Willie, Merle, and more. (But stop shit talking Lyle, he's fine, too.)

If vinyl lovers are interested, VMP made a great set, and included a fantastic Nelson gem album "Across the Borderline," a sublime Willie covers album that is demo quality Hi Fi, as well.

I certainly concur with you about their greatness, and about their relative lack of being better appreciated.

Wynton Marsalis made a great quip once: As jazz and country music became established, the main difference was that jazz leaned toward brass instruments and country more toward stringed. (There are bountiful exceptions, of course, but I appreciated his take.)


Many audiophiles in America came of age during the time of that abominable "countrypolitan" music, which was the rhinestone leisure suit, syrupy orchestra, and forced duet era; so, you have to cut us some slack!