Merle and the Mystery

The most wonderful thing about music is the mystery of it.  The fact that you can think, or talk, or write until hell freezes over about it, and you haven’t gotten anywhere at all in terms of explaining why it works for you.

I don’t mean why music in general works.  That’s relatively easy.  The definition of “music” is so broad, and the availability of it so ubiquitous that the answer can be as simple as, “it makes me happy” or “I can’t help but dance” or even “it keeps my mind off what my dentist is doing to me.”

What I mean is, why does one particular piece of music, or artist, make you immediately seek to get it stopped, while another makes you stop doing whatever else it is you are doing when it comes on?  I spend a fair amount of time thinking about this, the curiosity partly professional and partly personal.

I remember my first reflections on this subject in my own musical world came when I awoke to my attraction to, my affection for country music.  If you read my review of Gram Parsons’ music in our archives, you will note that I admit that I was perplexed, at that early age, as to what was drawing me to country rock, especially with such a heavy emphasis on the “country” part.  Nothing in my background- two college educated parents, one from Philadelphia and the other from Chicago, and a childhood in East Side, suburban Milwaukee- screams “down home.”  Further, although both my parents were amateur musicians, I never, ever heard my father refer to his violin as a fiddle and my mother’s piano was utterly incapable of speaking honky tonk.

But I was, in my late teens, sufficiently convinced that Gram was speaking the truth to me that I did what I’ve always done with music, even back then.  I tried to explain the mystery by following the tree back to a thicker, earlier branch.  Who did Gram like?  In looking to answer, I discovered a gold mine of deeper country, and also that, contrary to what I thought, I was not allergic to it.  In fact, hey Mikey!  I liked it.

One day, at age 19, I went into work, at a small independent record shop, and ordered Dolly Parton Bubbling Over for the title tune, and Merle Haggard Okie From Muskogee for “Silver Wings.”  (A side note to young people, and older ones who have given up on the joys of unexpected discovery- I was ordering complete albums to get one song, secure in the thought that if there were one great tune on the record, there was a strong likelihood that there would be others that I would like, some possibly even as much as the one I was after.)

When the shipment came in a week later, I remember taking them out of the carton with Larry, the manager, and him asking, “Who did we order those for?”  Those are mine.  “Cool,” he said.  And he meant it.  Larry was a little older and less up tight about these things than I was.  For me, this was new territory, and I didn’t quite know what to think of myself.  I knew Mama Tried from Skull and Roses, but I kind of thought The Dead were mocking Merle Haggard.  Little did I know.

In those early days, I had to find compatriots carefully with whom I could discuss “country music.”  It seems funny to me now, as genre-agnostic as I am as a music lover, but those were the formative experiences of that very agnosticism which today yields such a bounty of great music in my life.  My instant love of Merle Haggard and real country music let me set aside the indiscriminate, go along with the crowd musical choices of my youth (never did play another Uriah Heep album after that day!) and find Bill Evans and Dmitri Shostakovich and Bob Wills and Charles Mingus and Joni Mitchell and Bill Monroe and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Igor Stravinsky and, well, the list continues to grow to this day.

Its was Merle who pulled me out of my self-constructed set of expectations for what kind of music could affect me.  Before him, it was as if the mystery could be explained as lying fully within a single denomination, a small subgroup, of the great and complete history of music.  After him, I wondered how could someone as seemingly musically alien to me as anyone whose lyrics are still at least in my native tongue be connecting with me so easily?  Gram started it, but Merle hammered it home. You know what?  Genres must be bullshit!  Duke Ellington was right.  There are only two kinds of music.  Good music, and the other kind.

Today, I bought a bottle of George Dickel No. 8 and tonight, I am celebrating Merle’s life and mourning his death with non-stop playing of his music.

PicMonkey Collage

Mama Tried

Swinging Doors

Today I Started Loving You Again

California Cottonfields

Workin’ Man Blues

The Fightin’ Side Of Me

White Line Fever

Sing Me Back Home

The Bottle Let me Down

My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers

And, of course, Silver Wings

I love it all dearly.  And I owe it a great deal more.  So, please, try something Merle taught me.  Knock over a genre.  Step in to some music you swore you would never listen to.  Roll around in it, study it a little bit, even.  Try to find what people hear in it.  You may find that the mystery doesn’t need to be unlocked.  And music you thought was the other kind isn’t at all.

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