As a kid, I gravitated to the music of the times. For the most part, it came about as a result of the music in my friends' and my older brothers' LP collections (or - for that matter - my friends' older siblings' LP collections). The music ranged from the Beatles to Boston to Queen. . .from Black Sabbath to Billy Joel to The Jacksons. . .from Blondie to Bowie to early U2. By and large, I wasn't interested in looking backwards to discover music. Like most kids, I had concluded that anything that happened before I was born (The Beatles & Stones aside) wasn't relevant.
While I spent the 70's and 80's focused on rock, pop & punk, something else was kinda percolating off to the side. Even though "Hee Haw' only run for 2 or 3 years, it remained in heavy syndication on the local UHF stations. "Hee Haw" was more than a little strange and intentionally corny (it took place in fictional "Kornfield Kounty" - so there you have it). The format was sort of a mash-up of "Laugh In" and the countless TV variety shows that were popular in the day (Carol Burnett, Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie and so on). "Hee Haw" didn't necessarily knock my socks off - but it was a way to pass the time in rural Ohio, a 2-hour drive from any city of significance. In those days, it also wasn't unusual to catch a ride from a friend's mom or dad. We'd be talking or goffin' around in the back while they might have an 8-track of Charlie Daniels, The Oak Ridge Boys or Waylon Jennings playing up front. It was kinda all around - but none of it really stuck with me.
Off to college I went - to dig deeper into U2, discover Pink Floyd and listen to the amazing WOXY - maybe the nations best "alternative" station at the time. In the late 80s, they were playing The Pogues, early REM, The Smith, Depeche Mode, Black Flag and more.
With age (hopefully) comes maturity. With maturity (hopefully) comes an appreciate and respect for those that came before you. So - as I entered my mid-20's, my focus was no longer strictly on the "hear & now" or what the shiny new thing was. I slowly started to look back. I started asking "Who inspired and influenced The Beatles?" It was Elvis, Buck Owens & Carl Perkins. What about The Stones? It was folks like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Gram Parsons. What about Wilco, who hooked me immediately with "A.M." (Side bar - thanks to Forbes magazine for having them open for Chris Issak at the the Roseland Ballroom. While everyone else was busy at the open bar, eight guys and I - along with my band-mate at the time, Brian Mulhern - got to enjoy Wilco front & center). So- what about Wilco? Again - Gram Parsons. Hmmmm. . . .
As I continued to dig, I found myself (re)discovering the country & western greats that sorta lived in the fringes of my childhood. The artists and music I "found" in my 20's and into my 30's included Patsy Cline, Johnny & June Carter Cash, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn. . . .and the legendary Merle Haggard.
So. Yeah. Merle. He is simply amazing. Telling his story would involve writing a master's thesis. If you're interested in his life and his story, I strongly recommend the PBS/American Masters program "Merle Haggard: Learning to Live with Myself" as good place to start.
So - for me? I went deep . . . .DEEP into Merle's story. . .into his music. . .his songwriting. . .his singing. As a writer, he truly took the "write what you know" credo to heart. His lyrics are simple and down-to-earth - yet extremely potent. There's no mention of red solo cups, sexy tractors or achy breaky hearts here. . .just stories about people, dealing with everything that people deal with in life. I love it. I simply love it! And his singing? He's one of my top 5 of all time - up there with Frank and Ella in my book.
So - a few years back. . .with December on the not-too-distant horizon. . .I set myself the task of writing the best Merle Haggard Christmas song that I could. (I have an insatiable appetite for releasing music at Christmas time - the back-story is here.) I hoped to keep it simple, I hoped to keep it real (many of the lyrics come directly from my own experiences) and I hoped to keep it relatable (if I did it right, anyone should be able to hear this song and "feel" what I'm singing).
For the simple and stripped-down production, I was joined in the studio by the lovely and talented Jon Herington on the acoustic guitar. (If you've bought a Steely Dan album or seen the band play in the last 18 years, then you've heard Jon's chops. He's also played with the likes of Madeleine Peyroux, Phoebe Snow, Miles Davis and countless others). Jon is truly a pro's pro.
So. . . .this all leads us to the track. Here it is (below). . .my ode to Merle. The story has to do with being in the Big City for the holidays, surrounded by a million people. . .but if the one, most important person isn't there to celebrate with you, it's hard to feel anything but alone. (Gee - there's some sunny, holiday vibes for you - eh?)
It's called "Christmas Without You".
I hope you enjoy it. As always, I welcome your feedback.
Have a very Merly Christmas!