Brilliant Corners #11: Willie and Merle

I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the tower of song

          —Leonard Cohen, "Tower of Song"

When I was a child growing up in Moscow in the 1970s, our pop-musical landscape was dominated by the so-called bards. They were Soviet counterparts to singer-songwriters from the West, and they sang literate, knowing lyrics while accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars. Even the word used to describe them—bard'i—was adapted from English. And because they sometimes sang about aspects of day-to-day life that were off limits in public, their music rarely appeared on records and was circulated mostly on fuzzy-sounding homemade tapes.

The best known among the bards were a Georgian-Armenian poet named Bulat Okudjava—who sang sentimental ballads about (chaste) romantic love, childhood friends, and The Great Patriotic War—and an altogether more daring performer named Vladimir Vysotsky.

A keen social observer and a once-in-a-generation songwriter, Vysotsky (above) came closer to speaking truthfully about life in the Soviet Union than anyone else of his stature. He repeatedly ran afoul of government censors—one newspaper excoriated him for spreading "criminality, alcoholism, and vice"—but he soon become too popular to silence. By the time the sole Soviet record company, Melodiya, finally released a handful of his songs in 1974, he was already the country's most famous singer. Millions knew his music from the unofficial tapes and from his films: Vysotsky was also a popular stage and screen actor. To get a sense of his place in Soviet culture, imagine some unlikely mix of John Lennon, Lenny Bruce, and Marlon Brando. Or better yet, play one of his songs for someone who grew up in that country and watch the inevitable tears.

After my family emigrated to New York, in 1980, I was on the lookout for a replacement for the bards. Still getting a grasp on English, I couldn't find enough storytelling in Dylan's obscure surrealism, and the singer-songwriters I'd encountered on the radio seemed cheesy and slight. (I hadn't yet discovered Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen was hardly FM material.) Then one day a man who happened to look a lot like Peter Falk on Columbo showed up at our apartment. He was taking my mother on a date. I'll call him Howard. He wore a belted tan trench coat and said he owned a record-and-cassette warehouse. "What kind of music do you like?" Howard asked me. I was 11 or 12 and didn't know what to say. But I'd watched a few episodes of Dukes of Hazzard on our new preowned Toshiba TV and was riveted by the show's theme song, and to my surprise I blurted out "country!" When Howard came over again a few weeks later to take my mother on another date, he dug two handfuls of cassettes out of his coat pockets and put them on the table. The names on the plastic spines—Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Loretta Lynn—meant nothing to me.

I spent the following weeks listening to the tapes on my boombox. What I enjoyed most about them were the stories, the accessible but never simplistic language, the broad humor, and the high-sentiment singing. That lyrics were country music's crucial component reminded me of the bards, as did the songs' interest in the underdog. (I hadn't yet discovered that lots of other Soviet immigrants had made this connection and become country music fans.) And so, in the brown-brick wastes of public housing in Queens, New York, I fell in love with the music of Appalachia and the American South, most of which had been recorded before I was born some 5500 miles away.

Of course, it's no simple thing to pry apart music and its social context, and I suppose my pure love for country depended on being able to hear it with fresh ears, unencumbered by notions about its fans and their politics. I'm not sure it would have mattered. In country, I found the most sophisticated storytelling in popular music, as well as the keenest psychological insights and some of the most heartfelt playing. As a listener and fan, I formed the deepest relationships with its performers. And, to a large extent, after years of delving into (and writing about) other genres of music, I continue to hear it the same way.

What continues to surprise me is how unfamiliar this music remains to many otherwise curious listeners, both in the US and abroad. Too often, when I've referred to Merle Haggard as one of the finest American songwriters or suggested that George Jones is a singer on par with Sinatra, I've encountered a smirk or an eyebrow arched in disbelief. (To see what I mean, try to find a mention of a country artist in this magazine—and no, I'm not talking about Lyle Lovett, who has the same relationship to country that frozen burritos have to serious cooking.) It goes without saying that this reflects not on the music's virtues but on these listeners' provincialism. Ignoring a musical treasure lying on one's geographical doorstep begs the question of why it is being ignored.

But that's a question for another time. Here, I'd like to talk about some favorite records by a pair of country singer-songwriters of the LP era. (This is a distinction worth making. The Carter Family, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams, three of country's pioneering figures, made their most important work before the extended-play, high-fidelity goodies of the 12" disk were widely available.)

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard became famous not only for their music but for the ways in which they rebelled against the Nashville record industry and won. Their rebellion changed the business, and the music itself, for good. In this they were not unique—this column could easily have been about Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings, or Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. More importantly, these records, which are full of stories about people born in circumstances as unremarkable as my own, number among the most compelling ever pressed (or etched) onto plastic—as affecting, delightful, and funny today as the day they were released.

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson has collaborated with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Kid Rock to Kermit the Frog, but the heart of his recorded output is a series of tightly conceived concept albums that have little precedent in pop music. It took him a while to get there. Despite being the writer of hits like "Crazy" for Patsy Cline and "Hello Walls" for Faron Young, Nelson couldn't break through as a singer in an industry that swaddled his songs in maudlin arrangements and corny productions. While living in a Nashville trailer park above a cemetery and drinking heavily, he became so despondent that one night he got up from his barstool at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and lay down in the middle of Broadway so that a car would run him over. It was a slow night and there was hardly any traffic, so eventually he went back to Tootsie's for another drink.

He didn't find his way until the early 1970s, when he moved to Austin, Texas, and connected with a more eclectic, hippie audience. Nelson turned what had been obstacles to mainstream success—a nasal, reedy voice, jazz-inflected phrasing, and a tendency to sing behind the beat—into the trademarks of his inimitable sound. And then there's his elegant and vastly underrated guitar playing, which layers the sounds of Django Reinhardt, Lightnin' Hopkins, and even flamenco onto what had once been called hillbilly music.

Phases and Stages (1974)
Having left Nashville, Nelson signed with Atlantic Records after meeting producer Jerry Wexler at a party. Their second collaboration, after the wonderful Shotgun Willie failed to do much business, was a story of a divorce. The woman tells her side on the record's first side, the man on the second. In songs like "Bloody Mary Morning" and "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone," Nelson writes about heartbreak, guilt, and desperation with a subtlety and insight uncommon in any genre; it's as though Raymond Carver decided to pick up a guitar and set his stories to music. And that music: Playing with the crew from Alabama's Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Nelson mothballed Nashville's countrypolitan strings in favor of a spare, hard-edged sound rooted in 1940s honkytonk and the blues, reflecting the eclecticism of his newfound audience.

Red Headed Stranger (1975)
Another concept album, about a fugitive who's on the run after shooting his wife and her lover, Red Headed Stranger was Nelson's commercial breakthrough. He and his longtime band—featuring his sister Bobbie on piano, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and Paul English on drums—put down a performance so spare that Columbia executives initially thought the final tape was a demo. A mix of originals and covers, it yielded a massive hit in Nelson's sublime reading of Fred Rose's 1946 chestnut "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and transformed Jeannie Seely's minor 1973 hit "Can I Sleep in Your Arms" into a chilling nighttime confession. For the first time on a Nelson album, the music feels entirely his own, unfolding and breathing freely. Anyone doubting Nelson's musicianship should listen to the 2000 reissue, which contains his rendition of Christian Petzold's "Minuet in G" (mistakenly attributed on the back cover to Bach). And the title track may contain the best legal analysis on a country record: "You can't hang a man for shooting a woman who's trying to steal his horse."


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!