Who is the greatest three-tool talent in country music history? Who best combines singing, songwriting and playing, ev-var, in the annals of twang?
I put that question to an ad hoc panel of local performers John Evans, Miss Leslie, Hilary Sloan, Johnny Falstaff and Davin James, as well as former Cactus Music & Video general manager Quinn Bishop and Blue Corn Music director of sales and marketing Greg Ellis, and a consensus emerged quickly. The answer was Merle Haggard, who is performing at Sam Houston Race Park this Saturday.
"Merle's the ultimate triple threat," says Bishop. "Nobody has that skill set that Merle has, just top-drawer in every level, and any one of them would be enough to guarantee him legendary status."
"The first name that comes to mind is Haggard," says Sloan. "He wanted to play fiddle for a Bob Wills tribute, so he taught himself to play fiddle. He's a killer guitar player and he can write and sing in so many styles. I don't think there's anything he couldn't do if he wanted to."
"Merle's songwriting is unparalleled," says Falstaff. "He plays guitar great, he plays the fiddle. In fact, he's a lot like me." (Falstaff is a modest guy, as you can see.) "Like most of the legendary people, he's got a distinctive voice, a distinctive sound," he continues. "You know who it is when he comes on the damn radio, very much unlike today, when everybody sounds the same."
No, it wasn't unanimous. Miss Leslie equivocated a bit, while John Evans stumped definitively for Willie Nelson. Davin James is in the Hank Williams Jr. camp. (Others receiving at least passing mention include Buck Owens, Jerry Reed, Charlie Daniels, Vince Gill and Lefty Frizzell, who was a huge influence on both Willie and Hag.)
This being Texas, Willie's name came up often in my interviews, but Hank Jr.? James, a fearsome triple-threat talent in his own right, makes a pretty strong case. "He can play just about any instrument on the stage, and he writes and sings," he says. "Hank Jr. can play guitar and piano and fiddle and dobro. He's not the all-time greatest at any of those, but he is a better showman than Willie or Hag. Hag plays a little fiddle and a little guitar, but Willie's better at guitar. Hag can play, but he's not known for barn-burnin' playin', and he just hacks at that fiddle and he'd probably be the first to tell you that. He wanted to be Bob Wills, but he can't really fiddle that well."
That dissent aside, the debate mainly hinged on the relative merits of Hag and Willie. (For me, Hank Jr.'s songwriting is so far behind Willie's and Hag's, he's in a lesser league altogether.) Greg Ellis is a Hag partisan. In fact, just over a year ago he posted a thread positing the Hag three-tool theory on a message board, and he says he'll stand by that today.
"Certainly you can make a case for Willie, but I think Merle gets the edge," he says. "When you look up the sheer numbers of hit songs that each of them have written, Merle has more. I'm not implying that's a valid argument, really, but there is that."
What's more, as opposed to Haggard, who is as strongly associated with his own songs as his songs are with him, Willie is in the odd position of not being defined by his own best songs. Ask a bunch of casual country music fans to name two Willie Nelson songs, and a good chunk of them will throw out "Whiskey River" and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," neither of which Willie penned. On the other hand, Nelson did pen a slew of classics that were first made famous by others, including "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Night Life" and "Hello Walls." (Which is not to say that his own versions of these songs are in any way inferior to the covers; often his demos were as good as the official releases by people like Faron Young.)
Haggard is known as "The Poet of the Common Man," a title he richly deserves. Songs like "Okie from Muskogee," "If We Make It Through December" and "Fightin' Side of Me" speak for an entire seldom-so-eloquent class of people who were born in a specific reality blue-collar to downright poor products of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. He's a real-life Grapes of Wrath character, speaking in his own words, and "Okie from Muskogee" came to drive the national dialogue in a way that none of Willie's songs ever has.
Willie comes from a couple of rungs up the economic ladder while his childhood was hardly silver-spoon, neither was he born in a boxcar like Haggard. The teenaged Willie enrolled at Baylor, and it is almost impossible to imagine Haggard, who was locked up in San Quentin at 20, doing the same. As Hilary Sloan put it, it's easier to imagine the teenaged Haggard robbing Baylor freshmen than being one.
Nelson is more a poet of the uncommon man, a product of the small town and rural bourgeoisie who thought his own way through a whole mess of petty bullshit and decided to live free or die. He has an odd voice and over time, he has come to break all the rules of phrasing, both vocally and with his guitar. But in the early days, there was this tension, these sparks, as he escaped the gravitational pull of a rigid Southern Baptist upbringing. Willie's early songs are often about backsliding, wonder at the way your life has slipped off the tracks, warning fallen angels away from flying too close to the ground, where you have come to dwell in darkness and despair.
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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.