Kris Kristofferson is angry. One of the men who changed the language of country music won’t take any shots at today’s country.
It’s just not his country. Nor is it the country music of the late Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash nor is it that of Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare, two icons who basically shrug at the style of the new country with an “It’s their era, we had our time” attitude. Heck, it’s not even the country music of Mr. Grand Ole Opry, the rhinestone cowboy who was Porter Wagoner.
And there are others you could add to that list. Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings (especially when he sang songs by Billy Joe Shaver), Loretta Lynn, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson and Captain Midnight.
I add Midnight to that list not because he wrote country music, but because the late radio personality Roger Schutt was sort of the clown prince of the over-hyped Outlaws movement. He perhaps helped keep some of their angry energy harnessed.
Most of the folks above had radio hits, but very seldom were they stories of bosoms, butts, beer, pickup trucks, and pontoon boats. For example, Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine” may well be the perfect country song. But how would it stack up with “Huntin’, Fishin’ & Lovin’ Every Day,” Luke Bryan’s celebration of the good ol’ boy country lifestyle? Or perhaps Thomas Rhett’s “T-Shirt” (“Next thing I know you were wearing my t-shirt right there ... your hair messed up like a Guns N’ Roses video ... Oooh ooh so hot…”, etc.)
This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with the country that drew 88,000 folks to town for CMA Music Fest and helped give the city its much-lamented “It City” tag.
But Tom T. Hall tells of a banquet when he was honored with the BMI Icon award. “They gave out 50 or so BMI awards on the same subject,” he says, as he sips on a cup of coffee in the kitchen just to the edge of the studio where he and his late wife, “Ms. Dixie,” devoted the last quarter-century to bluegrass music. “(The BMI-honored songs) all had the same four things: A pickup truck, a six-pack, a girl and a boy.”
While a smile crosses his lips at the hyperbole, he adds that it’s “a cultural change” and it’s fine with him, and says there are just four things he holds against today’s country entertainers: “Too young, too good-looking, too talented and they’re too rich.”
Hall’s songs are unlike those of any other, fueled by his rural roots and by his love of seeking out America’s “blue highways.” (They’re called that because of the color of the minor roadways on the maps that used to be freely distributed by Sinclair, Shell, Sunoco and their like.)
His stories came from the lives he encountered and sometimes even lived during that era. “I’d go whatever way the wind was blowing,” he says, licking his finger and holding it up to the air, as if he’s gauging the wind drift. “I’d get off on the blue highways, eat in the smalltown cafes, stay in old, roadside motels and watch people.” He famously even hitchhiked in search of songs.
“A song is like writing a letter to your mother,” he says. And he adds that his dispatches from the cafes and truck stops may have been confined to notebooks if it wasn’t for producer Jerry Kennedy.
“I took (Kennedy) some songs and he said: ‘I like those songs.’ Then he said, ‘If you don’t record them, nobody’s ever going to hear them.’”
He said he simply sang those life tales and Kennedy presented them to the world with a simple, acoustic backdrop.
That’s not to say Hall and his ilk (actually, perhaps Tom T. has an ilk all his own) would have been opposed to throwing a few loose bikini tops into the air for success on air waves. Sometimes, as they say, even Hank done it that way.
But the folks listed above are of an ever-dwindling pool of artists – singers and songwriters and usually both – who in their work detailed, without judgment, the human condition. Heck, even the late Johnny Russell is best known for his seemingly innocuous confection “Act Naturally.” But listen closely and it is no novelty song, but rather a tale “about a man that’s sad and lonely” and his unattainable dreams.
Less subtle is Russell’s jab at racism in “Catfish John,” with its warning to keep away from the old, black title character: “Don’t go fishin ‘round Catfish John.”
To many readers, the inclusion of Wagoner, who kept both Nudie and Manuel busy apparently trying to outdo themselves in the war of the great-spangled suits (which has nothing to do with the great-speckled bird) may be a surprising name for this list of the socially aware, tellers- of-truth singers and writers of “the good old days.”
But Wagoner was a complicated and gifted man. For all of his swagger and attire of near neon proportions, Wagoner never left behind his rural West Plains, Mo., roots and his understanding of the dirt-farmer, the day-laborer and the defeated. For one quick example, Wagoner put out an entire album titled “Skid Row Joe,” which had at its heart Bill Anderson’s “Cold Hard Facts of Life.”
All of the artists listed above could be called out for producing thought-provoking, society-jabbing tunes. Pull up the video of Van Zandt singing his “Pancho and Lefty” – turned into a standard by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson – and you’ll realize it’s not a harmless tale of the Old West, but really a story about defeat and life’s grit: “The poets tell how Pancho fell and Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap motel, the desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold and so the story ends we’re told...”
Haggard, who was either Pancho or Lefty in that duet recording (I’m not sure), is perhaps the most-acclaimed detailer of real-life melancholy and defeat.
Building upon his raised-in-a-converted-box-car youth, his solitary confinement at San Quentin and other hard-scrabble chapters, he wrote cold tales of life and love lost. Haggard, who died this year, earned the nickname “The Poet of the Common Man.”
“He grew up poor, and then in his plainspoken songs he confronted real troubles and working class struggles,” says Michael Gray, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum editor, who curated an exhibit featuring Haggard’s “blue collar point of view” and other things about the Bakersfield, Calif., sound.
And, of course, Haggard’s jail songs also came from reality, since the habitual young offender was dispatched to San Quentin, where he famously saw Johnny Cash’s concert and figured that was what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
“He sang with such believability because he lived it,” Gray says, adding “not all of his songs were 100 percent autobiographical, but they were a tribute to people like his parents who were part of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl migration.”
Mac Wiseman, 91, a Country Music Hall of Famer known for his own musical tales as well as his guitar playing, is one of Haggard’s most dedicated fans. And he’s also a close friend who teamed up with Haggard on a recent album, Timeless, currently only available at Cracker Barrel stores.
“I knew him as far back as 1957, back when he was hanging around Northern California.” He says he didn’t know at the time that Haggard was soon going to begin a career that would take him to the top.
Wiseman – also one of the original Foggy Mountain Boys (Lester and Earl’s outfit) – has had his own glorious career that recently included a taping of a “Country’s Family Reunion” tribute to Haggard on RFD-TV.
Of course, Haggard’s not around to detail his own songwriting, but Wiseman (“Love Letters in the Sand,” “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”) remains one of the Hag’s biggest fans.
That’s the impetus of the duo’s “Timeless” recording.
“Merle played the Ryman a couple years ago and called me from there and asked me if I was interested in (making the album).
“It took me about three seconds to say I was interested. I thought we were going to do his songs, since he had so many good ones, but he insisted we do six of mine, too,” says Wiseman, whose own life is being developed into a movie.
If anyone can understand the power and the root of Haggard’s music, it’s his old friend and co-conspirator.
“He was just a genius,” says Wiseman. “Merle’s songs were a slice of life. That’s what made him so popular.”
“He spoke for the working man and the downtrodden of the world,” adding that Haggard was mighty prolific in these types of songs. “He could get on a plane in California and by the time he got here, he had three new songs.”
One songwriter who knew a thing about grit was the late Guy Clark, whose song “Homeless” has such lyrics as “Now I’m living with the bums and the whores and the abused ... Man I hate getting old.
”While he wrote and sang about a variety of subjects, there was a constant. “He never liked to write a song unless all of the people in it were equal,” says his friend and biographer Tamara Saviano. “A prostitute and a wino were equal to himself as the writer.”
“He focused on the problems of the poor, hungry and homeless.”
Bobby Bare – who still should be a star but chooses to stay home and play with his grandkids – is another one who never hesitated to explore and document true-life’s oft-melancholy underbelly.
He says he likes to watch his grandkids eat and the reason: He can never remember NOT being hungry when he was a kid in the Appalachian coal country that also produced Loretta Lynn and Tom T.
Bare is perhaps best-known for his sole No. 1 hit, “Marie Laveau,” a part of the double album he did of Shel Silverstein compositions: Lullabys, Legends and Lies.
Throughout his long career he has focused on the problems of the poor, hungry and homeless. His empathy is a product of his upbringing and life experience. He left the coal country at the age of 16 and worked day jobs in Ohio and West Virginia. At night, if he wasn’t writing, he was honing his eloquently booming singing style in clubs and juke joints.
His folkish country music visited areas and places seldom mentioned in today’s wink-and-nudge radio soundscape about boobs and beer. For example, one of his early hits was “The Streets of Baltimore,” the tale about a man who takes his beloved to that city where she is seduced by the bright lights and becomes a prostitute.
“Every one of my songs was real,” says Bare. “I went out there. I knew those people.” He also liked those people.
Hard Time Hungrys, a 1975 collection of primarily Silverstein songs, is hopelessly magnificent. The title song pretty much describes the lives he and Silverstein encountered: “There’s an old man sittin’ in a rented room sittin’ and watchin’ the wall ... Tryin’ to remember the good ole days and wonderin’ why the kids don’t call ... They used to go drivin’ in the summer sun when his woman was alive, now he reads his Gideon Bible and waits for the welfare check to arrive.”
“Mostly all those songs that we were singing and writing back then were stuff we knew about,” says Bare, who still could compete with his old pal Waylon Jennings for the title of “best country singing voice.”
“I left home when I was 16. I hit the road. I went to California. Truth is I was actually more or less homeless for 10 years,” he says.
Well, he did have places to stay. A woman who owned a bar allowed him to stay in a garage on her little farm. That was 1954 in Long Beach, Calif., which then was filled with farms. “The whole area was filled with cattle. You had to go all the way to downtown Long Beach before you stopped smelling the cow s---,” he says.
“Then I stayed in a funky hotel. The guys that run the hotel had four or five whores in there. I’d go to pay my rent (and) I looked in the door. A buncha women in there. I’d pass them in the hall and they eyed me,” he says, noting he wasn’t interested.
“I was never worried about it. I always had some job picking and singing. I didn’t even have a car. Always had pretty girls drive me, but I also borrowed cars from my friends. I rented this little house in North Hollywood in 1962. Willie and Shirley moved in with me for awhile,” he says, speaking of his old friend Willie Nelson and his second wife, rockabilly singer Shirley Collie Nelson.
After flirting a bit with Hollywood movie people, Bare decided it was time to move to Nashville, write and sing songs, marry Jeannie (his wife of 61 years), and lay the foundation for the Outlaw movement. (Although Waylon, Nelson and Tompall Glaser get most of the credit because of Wanted: The Outlaws, the best-selling collection of songs by those three and by Jessi Colter, Jennings’ wife.)
That movement really was just a bunch of singers and songwriters. And their unofficial HQ was Bare’s office, where his pinball machines kept speed-gobbling guys like Waylon and Tompall busy all night when they weren’t outside throwing knives at a target.
All the while Bare was writing and singing of things he was familiar with, the real stuff. “I understood what I was singing, because I’d been through it all. Well, I never been to jail, but the warden did kiss me on the cheek when I sang at the Huntsville (Texas) jail.”
Bare’s primary influences were his guitar, country music and the people he sought out. Those weren’t just the expected Hanks, Williams and Snow, and their like. Much of his world-weary wisdom came because he befriended Pete Seeger, who picked up the “America’s folk minstrel” baton after his friend and mentor Woody Guthrie died.
He says Seeger planted in his soul the seeds to his own “no bullshit” way of writing and singing. “He’s an unusual man. Everybody should be like him,” he says of the singer who died in January 2014. “He’s just a kind, gentle, exceptionally bright no-bulls--- kind of person and if he tells you something, that’s exactly what it’s going to be.”
Seeger’s notion of sticking with reality has continued to flavor Bare’s music in the decades since he hung out with the song-weaving folk singer.
And Bare continues to identify with the people who live on the fringes, hungry people sometimes auctioning off their furniture to have enough to live on.
“I empathize with them,” he says. “As a kid, all I remember I was hungry. I don’t think I ever did get enough to eat. With my grandkids, it just warms my heart to see them hungry and eating.”
His association with Seeger puts Bare just one person removed from Guthrie, a man who took on such topics as hunger and homelessness and whose work pretty much created the mold Robert Zimmerman followed when he “created” Bob Dylan, as well as Springsteen (in his quieter “Nebraska” and “Tom Joad” mode.)
“The inspiration had to do with Woody traveling from Oklahoma to California, seeing the disenfranchised people, living in Hoovervilles and literally starving,” says Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla.
“The idea of a living wage was powerful (to Guthrie),” she says of the Dust Bowl bard who died in 1967, and – especially on his radio shows – used his music to put the spotlight on those in need.
“He was seeing those things, people being mistreated, not being able to find their own place in the world and not having any kind of program that would help them get back to work.”
McCloud credits Guthrie with exposing people to the trauma and hopelessness he witnessed, who she says otherwise would not have been awakened to those realities.
But I asked, “Wasn’t Woody primarily a folk singer?” Her response: “I think whenever you trace influences through country music or even hip-hop, it goes back to Woody. He sang about the real things, talked about real people.”
In October, Kristofferson will be the third-ever recipient of the Woody Guthrie Prize. The first was Seeger and last year Mavis Staples.
The honor is given to someone in the arts who has devoted much of his or her time giving voice to the voiceless, propping up the less fortunate while helping and praying for positive change to come about in America.
Of course, Kristofferson’s tales are not about idyllic skinny-dipping and beer-drinking and barbecue stains on white T-shirts. Remember “The Pilgrim” character in his classic ’71 album, The SilverTongued Devil and I?
“See him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans wearing yesterday’s misfortunes like a smile ... Once he had a future full of money, love and dreams, which he spent like they was goin’ out of style.”
Or perhaps: “Once my future was shiny as the seat of my pants are today/ till ol’ mother luck and all her daughters started ducking me,” in “I May Smoke Too Much” from his Spooky Ladys Sideshow album?
Sure there is a lot of the writer in any of his creations, and the former Columbia Records janitor and Rhodes Scholar lived the life he wrote about as a part of his songwriter schooling.
And now, just past 80 and months removed from a massive celebration of his life in a packed Bridgestone Arena – a party that included some of country’s contemporary artists – Kristofferson remains a wandering troubadour, still telling those stories.
He’s no longer an angry young man, but he is plenty pissed off.
“Back in the ‘80s, nobody was googling their twitters and we were involved in ugly, covert wars,” he says during a break from the road that takes him to the home in Hawaii where he and wife Lisa raised their now-grown kids.
“How could I NOT do something with my rage? That is how we songwriters process our world …. in song.”
Nashville-based journalist Tim Ghianni has spent the last four-plus decades, in part, telling the stories of musicians and other real people populating Middle Tennessee.