Singing & Songwriting: Kristofferson & Haggard /

Part 1

What is it about Merle Haggard? He’s lived the hard life like the rest of them hasn’t he? How has the quality of his voice remained a constant when so many others have lost their chops? Charlie Louvin, George Jones . . . It’s hard to listen to the greats when they aren’t so great anymore but it is truly wonderful to still hear someone who’s still got “it” like Merle Haggard.

I only started listening to Merle Haggard in my twenties. Growing up in the Northeast I had a pretty strong prejudice against country music. I knew no one who listened to it and I had that knee-jerk reaction to all things Southern (thinking of course that country music only came from the South and that the South was filled with racists). But luckily for me, I ended up marrying a southerner who opened up a whole new rich world both geographically and culturally to me, erasing my uneducated assumptions. I also came to the sad realization that where I grew up — Southern New Jersey — was just about as “southern” as they come — scary racism with an active KKK presence and with no great musical heritage (Bruce Springsteen does not count in this context!).

My introduction to Merle Haggard came through a friend who grew up in the Central Vally of California near Bakersfield, home to Haggard and Buck Owens. When I first saw Haggard play live in Chicago in the mid-1990s I was stunned to see an “old man” walk on stage — I was so used to seeing his youthful face on the album covers. I was sure that this was just going to be one of those shows where you come to see one of the masters but don’t expect much of a performance. However, when he began to sing I was awestruck by the fact that he sounded virtually the same as he did thirty years ago. And now, at the age of 74 he is still a vibrant singer and still writing pretty darn good songs.

He is a consummate performer: a great songwriter, singer and musician. He also has an entertaining stage presence although his skills as a comedian pale next to his musicianship. His catalog is rich with many great songs even when his politics were a little distracting. He is truly one of the greats not just in the world of country music but in the history of popular music. I would put his singing right up there with the likes of Frank Sinatra — both of whom can turn a phrase and make you think twice about a line.

Part 2

Did everyone own a copy of Kris Kristofferson’s “Jesus Was a Capricorn” in the 1970s? It was definitely on my parent’s shelf. Earlier, I mentioned that I did not know anyone who listened to country music when I was growing up but in fact my family had some Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings records. But they weren’t country country. They weren’t Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, George Jones kind of country. They weren’t “twangy” — the word most used by people to describe what it is about country music that they don’t like. As a kid, I mainly knew Kristofferson as an actor from the remake of “A Star is Born” with Barbra Streisand and “Convoy.” And then after listening to Janis Joplin knew he had written “Me and Bobby McGee.” Later on I listened to and loved “Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson” and more recently I started listening to some of Kristofferson’s own recordings.

Earlier this year, Kristofferson and Haggard played together at the Fox Theatre here in St. Louis and I have to say it was a strange but moving evening. Strange because although they were given equal billing Kristofferson seemed to be just kind of along for the ride with Haggard and the Strangers. Haggard was obviously the better musician, singer and performer.

When Kristofferson first started to sing it was hard to listen to. The man had no voice. True, he has never been a great singer but the act of singing seemed particularly hard for him and unnatural (it became clear throughout the evening that he was ill). However, if you listen to his new single “Closer to the Bone” you will hear that the man indeed has very little voice left. He is a gifted songwriter and it was evident at the show that his songs are incredibly important to people. Yes, “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” might speak to those who know what it’s like to wake up with a hangover in the same way that people know every word to Haggard’s drinking and pot songs. But “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down<" is much more than a hangover song -- it is good songwriting:

And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’
Half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleepin’ city sidewalks
Sunday mornin’ comin’ down

It is a song that has been covered by many. After the show I came home and revisited the various versions I know — Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash — and it is Kristofferson’s own recording that I love the best. It’s not a song that needs a great singer — it perhaps needs a good actor (or a good songwriter who is simply trying to sing his song the best he can).

And then there is the song “Why Me.” Kristofferson wasn’t physically able to sing this song at the Fox so Merle Haggard sang it for him and when you hear him you of course can’t help think that Haggard sings it better than anyone. However, once again, I found Kristofferson’s own recording to be the most moving (Willie’s is pretty great and Haggard did record it in 1981).

Their joint performance has since led me to start thinking about many things: What makes a great performer? Why are certain versions of songs more successful than others? Why do certain songs move us? There are many other questions along those lines that are basically forcing me to try and articulate why music and certain songs and things like good singing are important to me at all.

This blog piece is the first in what I envision to be a regular “series” that I hope will encourage response from others in trying to figure out our collective experiences with music. In one of the next pieces I would like to explore more about why certain versions of songs are more successful than others. In the meantime, if anyone wants to give their two cents about any Kristofferson songs that have been done well (or poorly) by others I would love to hear from you.