Merle Haggard was doing pretty darn good on his own, but the Grateful Dead certainly exposed him to a different audience by covering “Mama Tried” in concert and on the 1971 live album known as “Skull and Roses.”
It was the Dead’s Bob Weir who loved the cowboy, country-western songs, also covering Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and George Jones’ “The Race is On,” among others.
On Thursday, two days after the death of Haggard on his 79th birthday, Weir talked about discovering Hag in a teleconference with rock writers promoting the Dead & Company Tour, playing the First Niagara Pavilion on July 13.
“I listened to a lot of country music when I was a kid,” he said. “If there was a clunker song on the rock ’n’ roll station, oftentimes the country button was the first one I’d hit, because there wasn’t a huge difference -- still isn’t for that matter -- between the country presentation and the rock ’n’ roll presentation…I was listening to Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty for that matter, Johnny Cash.”
In 1969, Haggard took on the counterculture with the classic “Okie from Muskogee,” which took a direct hit on Weir’s Bay Area scene, with “We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.”
Weir took no offense. To him, it was Hag the storyteller, just playing a character.
“When he came out with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’ I had a pretty strong suspicion that he was laughing all the way to the bank. I had a pretty strong suspicion that he was smoking pot on the back of his tour bus and he came up with a character, and as a writer, as a storyteller -- and a singer is storyteller, any artist is a storyteller, first and foremost -- he is painting a picture of a character and it resonated with a lot of folks. But that was not a statement of who he was, and I did not suspect it was. And I read in later interviews with him that, like I said, they were laughing all the way to the bank with that one. As a writer you don’t know why this character presents himself to you and lets you color him in, and you don’t even ask why, you just go with it.
“I was in my early 20s when the song came out, but I knew instinctively that was what he was doing, and so when I was listening to it on the radio, I was living with that character as he was letting the character express himself on the recording. I wasn’t being judgmental about why is he writing this kind of stuff. I don’t judge other writers by what they write about, what stories they choose to tell, because a writer often doesn’t have that choice. What comes IS what comes.”
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg
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