Each week on the show, the DJs kindly play an official You Set the Scene pick. My pick for tomorrow's show is Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried." To the uninitiated, the Hag is probably looked at as that redneck who wrote "Okie From Muskogee." In reality, Merle Haggard's one of the all time best songwriters and performers from any genre. His lyrics are full of humanity and I don't think anybody has written so many great ballads.
Most of 2008's music trends left me cold (although a lot of great music was released). I wasn't feeling the no wave revival or the gay disco revival or all the bands (spanning genres) with tribal drum beats. So as 2009 started, I got heavy back into the Hag.
My year started with a road trip with three friends to Buck Owens' Crystal Palace in Bakersfield to see Merle Haggard's first show back from lung cancer. When the cancer was announced, I immediately kicked myself for missing so many of his shows (I'd only seen him once). I knew I wanted to see him again, but worried his voice would be shot from the cancer.
As soon as the Hag hit the stage, he was home. Unlike a lot of the living legends I've seen, Merle Haggard knows why people love him. He stays true to himself as an artist, and it definitely doesn't hurt that he can choose from 75 or 80 fantastic songs he's recorded.
He talked about fighting cancer and getting part of his lung removed. Remarkably, he still sounded fantastic. He couldn't quite hit all the notes, but most guys his age can't. With so many great songs, he didn't play everything I wanted to hear, but I'm not complaining. It was a long, generous set. With such autobiographical subject matter, it's amazing to hear his introductions to the songs.
Meanwhile, my friend loaned me a copy of Haggard's 1981 autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. The book's written in a folksy style and gives a lot of background on the Hag and the inspiration for his lyrics. Being an outlaw wasn't a marketing scheme/pose for him. When Haggard lost his father at a young age, he rebelled against society in a big way. He was constantly running away and in and out of juvie. He eventually got thrown in San Quentin for stealing a car. He already knew how to play guitar, but it was there that he saw Johnny Cash perform and got inspired to become a more serious musician. It's a warts and all look at Haggard, but I came away liking him even more.
"Mama Tried" is probably the quintessential Haggard tune. It precedes 2Pac's "Dear Mama" by almost 30 years, but tells the same story. It's a heartfelt ode/apology to a delinquent's poor, single mother. Haggard takes a couple of liberties with the lyrics (he wasn't an only child and he wasn't sentenced to life without parole) but it's otherwise true. In the book, his mom says it still chokes her up when she hears it.
Buy tickets to see the Hag at the Grove of Anaheim on 2/5/09
Buy the Down Every Road box set (you really do need all 100 songs)