Merle the Pearl

Is the Hag the greatest three-tool talent in country music history?

Willie famously dreaded getting drunk, because he knew he would act a fool and shame himself. In songs like "Hello Walls" and "Bloody Mary Morning" he seems to be gazing down from above his own life and shaking his head in befuddlement, while songs don't get more shame-ridden than "I've Just Destroyed the World" and "Darkness on the Face of the Earth." The early Willie loved to cast his characters — himself included — into lakes of fire and darknesses without end. When at last he wrote "Night Life," it seemed he finally convinced himself he wasn't such a worthless sinner after all.

Not Merle. There never was much shame in his game — he seems almost feral compared to Nelson. The only thing he dreads about getting drunk is the off chance that the bottle might let him down. "Mama Tried" is more a resigned statement of fact than a wallow in shame, and then there's a song like the exultantly salacious "Living with the Shades Pulled Down," in which his narrator shacks up with a New Orleans whore. Now you might think he's pulling the blinds in order to avoid offending standards of decency. You'd be wrong — he just wants to avoid the long arm of the law. "Nobody knows what-all we're doing, living with the shades pulled down," he leers, as the band provides a drooling, Dixieland-tinged backdrop. While he has no interest in encouraging her to get a straight job, he doesn't want you to mistake him for a pimp. "Some might get the wrong idea / about the kind of man I am / but I bring home my half of the bacon / pickin' in a guitar band / love is all my workin' girl brings me / comin' in off of the town / daytime life sho' gets cozy livin' with the shades pulled down."

But hell, a distinction like this is splitting hairs. At the level of Willie and Hag, it's like trying to distinguish between Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, The Sopranos and The Wire, Rembrandt and Vermeer. As Quinn Bishop puts it, "These guys are the Daniel Boones, the Davy Crocketts, the Sam Houstons of our time. True heroes."

The only difference is, Texans have ample chance to see Willie — Merle comes through much less often. Which is why you need to saddle up and gallop on up to the race track this weekend.

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