Hag’s lament still resonatesWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
It is said that the songs and pop culture moments one experiences between the ages of 12 and 20 are the ones that become the benchmarks for one’s life. I find that to be more accurate as I age further away from The Police and The Clash and through the era of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, but I am currently immersed in an era that predates even my teen years.
Playing around on the wonderful and free Pandora Internet Radio recently, I created a “Bobby Bare Radio” station designed to cycle through some of the laid-back singer’s ’60s and ’70s work. Pandora uses the results from its Music Genome Project to study “melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals and lyrics,” to find other artists and songs that align with one’s stated tastes. This produces a flow of comfortable, familiar music, even with songs one is hearing songs for the first time. I would readily accept an argument that this result is as limiting as it is comforting.
Within an hour, my Bobby Bare Radio station resurrected a hit parade of singers and songs I love but have not heard since I discovered rock ‘n’ roll via a basement AM transistor radio in 1977.
“Wolverton Mountain” by Claude King. “Saginaw, Michigan” by Lefty Frizzell. “Skip a Rope” by Henson Cargill. “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean. “Waterloo” by Stonewall Jackson. Plus a string of favorites by cherished artists like Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, Buck Owens, Roger Miller, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Marty Robbins, Charley Pride and Johnny Horton.
Pandora can certainly produce some treasures. Two Horton songs caught my attention (and, as they were intended to do, drove me to a music site to purchase the tracks). One was “Go North,” an acoustic version on “North to Alaska” with none of that record’s production but twice its emotional impact. I grew up with Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” constantly in the background, but in addition to that classic, Pandora offered “Battle of New Orleans (British Version),” which tells the story from the redcoat point of view. Learning new versions of songs that have floated in my head for 40 years is an invigorating and exciting venture.
Robbins’ best-known song, “El Paso,” is about a cowboy’s ill-fated love for Faleena, a maiden in Rosa’s cantina. At the end of the song, the cowboy, who murdered a man in a fight over Faleena, is shot and killed by a posse. Several songs after playing “El Paso,” Pandora played “Faleena (from El Paso),” a sequel of sorts in which, during the course of eight minutes(!), Robbins sings of Faleena’s life from birth to the moment her cowboy lover dies in her arms, when she takes his gun and shoots herself. Not a happy ending, but it underscores one of the reasons I love this music; name a current song on the charts that contains enough story and theme to warrant a sequel. I refuse to fall into the trap of “the music these kids listen to just isn’t as good as my music,” but I am not apologizing for the nostalgia trip.
One of the artists who continually pops up on my “Bobby Bare Radio” station is Merle Haggard. The Hag may not be as well-known as Cash or Jennings to the wider pop music audience, but his body of work is as uniquely American as anything by Cash or American innovators such as Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers and Chuck Berry. In addition to “Mama Tried” and “The Fighting Side of Me,” Pandora played Hag’s 1982 song “Are the Good Times Really Over? (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)” The record, which one that year’s Academy of Country Music award for song of the year, is a downbeat rumination on the state of the union that remains so relevant it could have been written this morning.
The song slowly cruises through a litany of worry; the stability of U.S. currency, the impact of war, gender roles, problems with the automotive industry, drug abuse, lying politicians and the fight for liberty. The chorus is at first desperate and sad — “Are we rollin’ downhill like a snowball headed for hell?/With no kind of chance for the flag or the Liberty Bell?/I wish a Ford or a Chevy would still last 10 years like they should./Is the best of the free life behind us now and are the good times really over for good?” The song ends on a note of hope that looks naked on the page, but issued from Hag’s weathered, timeless voice, is as inspiring as any cinematic vista: “Stand up for the flag, and let’s all ring the Liberty Bell./The best of the free life is still yet to come and the good times ain’t really over for good.”
If “Are the Good Times Really Over” were released today, it would be Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity’s new theme song by tomorrow. And I have no doubt that as events and history cycle through their unstoppable paces, there will be a day decades from now when “Are the Good Times Really Over” will retain its relevancy and will again speak for the times.
Intellectually, I know there are people who will be as attached to Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber as I am to my Sting and Joe Strummer compositions. But on a heart and soul level, where music has its greatest impact, I’d rather be dying in Faleena’s eternal embrace than caught in one less lonely girl’s bad romance.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: Bobby Bare, Buck Owens, Charley Pride, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, Lighting The Fuse, Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, Pandora Internet Radio, Roger Miller, Tom T. Hall, Waylon Jennings