Artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens headed a honky tonk revival in the 1960s that sought to return authenticity to the music that had been whitewashed by the Nashville Sound (strings, background singers, etc.). In so doing, they really created a new sound: electrifed, hard-edged honky tonk, minus the fiddles but with the additions of the drums and the electric guitar.
Significantly, both artists, and the country scene which they came to represent and from which it took its name, did not hail from Nashville but from Bakersfield, California.
Many pop and rock artists were influenced by this movement, which helped bring country music a certain "hipness" among (albeit a small part of) the rock audience years before Willie Nelson accomplished a similar feat. The Beatles covered Owen's Act Naturally, for example. The Stones were no exceptions. Mick and Keith were especially big fans of Merle Haggard, and the Fender Telecaster, Keith's favorite guitar since the early 1970s and a big contribution to Stones records, was THE guitar of the Bakersfield Sound. In fact, the genre probably helped popularize the instrument more than any other music genre. If you want to hear some great Telecaster sounds, check out any Merle Haggard & the Strangers records from the mid-to-late '60s.
The Stones pay homage to the style in their song Faraway Eyes,
which includes a reference to Bakersfield.
MERLE HAGGARD (1937-2016)
Like George Jones, Merle Haggard is a giant of modern country music. His family having moved from Oklahoma during the Great Depression, he was born and raised in Bakersfield, California. A troubled youth, from the time of his teens to his early twenties Haggard was in and out of correctional school and prison because of robberies and other petty crimes. He finally more or less straightened out in 1960. Having already performed in Bakersfield honky-tonks, Haggard started having hits in 1964 and his career took off like a rocket. From 1964 to 1974, he was probably the most successful single country performer. He was also a much respected artist, in that he wrote many of his own songs as well and defined a very distinctive musical persona.
Most strongly influenced by Jimmie Rodgers and honky-tonker Lefty Frizzell, Haggard's often melancholic songs always evoked the restlessness of the Rodgers songs and the idea of the outsider. His songs like I'm a Lonesome Fugitive and Mama Tried romanticized the theme of the misfit forever in and out of jail, bound to be forever running from the law, a lonesome figure in pain.
Both Mick and Keith appreciated Haggard's songs. When Gram Parsons and struck up a friendship in 1968, Haggard's career was at its peak. Keith and Parsons sang a lot of his songs through the years. A favorite of Keith's was Haggard's Sing Me Back Home, a song about a prisoner led slowly to his execution, which he recorded privately after the Toronto bust in 1977. It is not surprising that Keith so often identified with Haggard's songs, since his own life in the 1970s (in his own eyes at least) was painted in similar colors of the pained, misunderstood outlaw. Songs like Hand of Fate and Before They Make Me Run are very similar to Haggard's in their themes.
A favorite album of Keith's during this period was also the Everly Brothers' Roots, released in 1968, which included two covers of Merle Haggard songs (including Sing Me Back Home).
(Mick) likes Merle Haggard. (Mick's country accent is) not Nashville. You're right - it's Bakersfield. I know he listens to - and used to - a lot of Merle Haggard.
I first met Hag about 10 years ago, doing a TV special. We're at rehearsal, and I'm sitting on the drum riser. There's a cat sitting to my right, grizzled beard, straw Stetson. A nod and a wink. Then I take a second look, and I know it's Merle Haggard. I almost lost the bridge on that song! What a lovely picker. Sometimes you meet somebody and you know instantly that you're friends. He was one of those kind of cats to me. Merle was warm. A twinkle in the eye. You knew he'd been around, and he knew I had too. Hence the nod and the wink.
When Merle broke through, he was akin to
Johnny Cash in the starkness of the sound. But it was more melodic. You
felt like this guy knew shit. There was a wisdom in it. I still sing
and play Sing Me Back Home on
the piano. That's my party piece, baby. It's just so real, so touching.
There's a guy on death row. You know when this song finishes, it's all
over. That’s it, pal.
Merle had a troubled past, but he was open about it. His message was, Stuff happens, but you just have to be your own man, and have something to say. You can't put a good man down. It's sad to lose someone like that. I always expected we'd play again, but that was the only time, unfortunately. It's another goodbye to another good friend.
Merle Haggard was supposed to open for the Rolling Stones in Dallas on November 29, 2005, but cancelled because of illness. He died on April 6, 2016.
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