This Merle Haggard Christmas album begins with a cheery If We Make It Through December and stumbles along in boozy haze till everyone’s miserable. His rotten kid is demanding a puppy and tell me that’s not the most self pitying Silent Night ever. And that’s just one side. Think I’ll flip it over and see if he gets insulted by a drunken Santa. It ends with Daddy Won’t Be Home Again For Christmas, which hopefully is about prison. I’ll probably be playing this every Christmas.
Stonewall Jackson, the singer, enunciated vowels in a way that reminds me of Stonewall Jackson, the general, sucking on lemons.
(April 26, 2013)
I’ve never told anyone this before, but there was a two week stretch there maybe a decade and a half ago when I must have listened to He Stopped Loving Her Today a hundred times. Over and over. Once turned to twice turned to thrice turned to twenty times. I couldn’t tell you why, but there I was, in the dark, maybe a little stoned, George Jones singing this most perfect song ever in a tone I knew I could never match in words even if I spent a lifetime trying. I met a trumpet player once, a fine jazz musician, a bebopper, who confessed to me over a couple whiskeys that he wished he could play like George Jones sang. The other jazzers kind of laughed nervously, unsure what to say. I said nothing. I knew exactly what he meant.
I started writing this a verse or two into the tune. A couple sentences later I spun it again. And again. He stopped loving her today fades, a piano descends five notes, strings disappear way into the background and are gone. They’re Nashville strings but you couldn’t tell here, they’re so subtle, the band is so subtle too, the drummer swings the thing like a funeral dirge. Which it is. They placed a wreath upon his door. I had a fight with the wife once, said things I wish I hadn’t, hid in the living room in the dark, and kept thinking about those letters by his bed, all the I love you’s underlined in red. I played the song. Played it again. Again. I went into the bedroom and said I love you. It was underlined in red. In my mind I mean, three little words underlined in red. This might sound like the dumbest thing you ever heard, but then I’m not talking to you people. I’m talking to the people who heard George Jones finally died, the ol’ Possum, and found themselves singing they left a wreath upon his door. You knew you would too. And you knew you’d cry just a little. Which you did. He stopped loving her today.
2011: Bruce Forman asked me to write the liner notes for the new Cow Bop album. I don’t want the usual jazz liner notes, he said. Just write like your usual crazy self. Just start riffing. So I riffed a take. I like this, he said, got another? I riffed another, and another. Yeah, he said, I like these. Anymore? So I dashed off another. That it? I gave him one more. Five takes. That enough? Yeah, this is great. I’ll use one for the CD, he said, and another for the website, and he cut me a check. Cool. Can’t remember which of the five he used, though. But if only all liner note gigs were like this.
Cow Bop Take 1
Too Hick For the Room my big city ass. Sounds just right by me. This town, hell this world, needs a lot more Bob Wills. Western Swing is air you can breathe, smoky and boozy and dudes out in the parking lot fighting. Inside the honky tonk everyone’s grooving and swinging, hell there’d be dancing with the ladies if all them uppity jazz swells and slick hipsters would or could take a step or two. Man, can these cats play. Cow Bop ain’t no country radio band (not yet anyway), ain’t no jazz band either, but mama they sure swing, and yup that’s some pure Charlie Parker you’re hearing there in that mind blowing guitar solo. Bruce Forman that cat is, a barbed wiry, smirking smartass in a Stetson. The fiddler trading licks with him is Phil Salazar, and the hottie singing sweetly in the middle is Pinto Pam. Hands off, fellas, she sizzles. A dude I knew heard this album just once, jumped into his car and headed straight up the Grapevine where the mule deer and antelope play. Bakersfield is up that away, he said, next best thing to Amarillo. They got pickup trucks there, and cows and oil fields and chicken fried steak, and they got the Silver Palace and Merle and honky tonking Saturday nights. They got Cow Bop? No, he said, but they should. Best western swing in the land.
Cow Bop Take 2
Never expected to see something like CowBop in a jazz club. Saw ‘em take the stage in cowboy hats, pronghorns glued to the bass drum, singer in a long cowgirl dress. The regulars in the jazz joint stared over their cocktails, not getting any of this. The music was lightning fast, kinda swingy but awfully down home too. And man could those cats play. Solos zipped back and forth from fiddle to guitar and back again. Damn if that smartass guitar player wasn’t quoting Charlie Yardbird Parker. And ol’ crooked horn Dizzy too. And a lot of Bob Wills. The pretty girl sang about Texas, and dancing, and drinking, and men doing ladies wrong. By set’s end I was hooked, line and sinker. Y’all got any records? They said they had a couple. We got a new one we’re working on too. Yeah? Any good? Goddamn right it’s good. It’s gonna make us stars. And they packed up their gear and tossed it in the back of an old red Chevy pick up and took off in a cloud of dust. Well, that new one is this one here, Too Hick For the Room. Hot damn. What they call great driving music. That long stretch of highway between Tulsa and Bakersfield went by in a flash. Cow Bop.
CowBop Take 3 Continue reading
This clip blew my mind.
Lots of time when people ask me about writing prose, I’ll simply tell them to listen to “Kern River”. Merle Haggard was a huge influence on me. Still is.
Listen to how spare it is, how bare boned. He has pared this thing down to the point that editing out one word might bring the whole ediface crashing down. Listen to how many stories he tells. How much information he imparts, the scenes he describes and how vividly you picture them as you listen. He does it all so simply, with so few words, a whole short story in a handful of lines.
It is some of the finest use of the English language, and of language itself, I have ever heard. I’ve listened to this song a couple hundred times over the years, and it nails me every time still.
Here he plays it on TV and the damn thing hadn’t even come out yet. It’s so brand new the words seem to glisten.