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Time was, country music was mournful, baleful, exciting and dangerous. Love didn't feel like it should. No one looked upon the likes of Garth Brooks as a paragon of family values. The drums didn't sound like they'd been lifted from a Def Leppard album. No Chippendales escapee with bulging biceps and a tragic mullet would have dared show his face when Hank Williams Sr. was still alive, much less shot up the charts with something as ghastly as "Achy Breaky Heart." No kewpie dolls like Shania Twain, no cornballs like Randy Travis. Not even an Eddie Rabbit-and lucky for you if that name don't ring a bell.

Merle Haggard plays country the dirty, old-fashioned way, in Evaro this Saturday.

The best country music is scabby around the edges and has a strong whiff of the-best-times-are-behind-us fatalism-music for losing, basically, hence the old joke: What do you get when you play a country record backwards? Your wife back, your dog back, etc. But there's also a stiff-necked resilience to the crap hands that life deals an honest man-in keeping with the Hemingway theme: A man can be destroyed but not defeated.

After four decades in the business, nothing's managed to destroy Merle Haggard yet. Not years of smoking and drinking. Not a couple-three marriages. And certainly not the fickle fancies of Nashville, which has in relatively recent times stumbled upon a sickening formula for selling sanitized country to soccer moms and made an endangered species out of asskickers who talked the talk, walked the walk, and didn't need a case of Evian in their contract rider. Now just the other side of 60 years old, Haggard is Rip Van Winkle in country years. Merle Haggard is so old-school, his surname even puts the acronymic "H" ("T is for T-bird, H is for Haggard, E is for Elvis, R is for REDNECK!") in Ray Wiley Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother." For a sizable contingent of die-hard fans, Haggard is one of the last good ones, an unrepentant Okie son of the soil (although he was actually born in California) who plays his country the dirty, old-fashioned way. Him and Johnny Cash, to name a couple. Unlike Cash, however, Haggard's jailbird air is no mere affectation. Cash spent a couple nights in jail-one for smuggling cross-tops across the Mexican border, one on a public drunkenness charge after picking flowers on private property. Haggard's erstwhile career as a breaking-and-entering man earned him six to 15 in San Quentin in the late '50s. He eventually served two years and nine months of the sentence-including a week in isolation-before being paroled in 1960.

Haggard has played in Montana before, and secondhand accounts all suggest a lowdown, dirty good time. Haggard-that's "Hag" to his friends-hasn't had a charting single since 1990, but give the guy a break: In 40 years, he's had 90 singles in the Billboard Top 40 and 38 number ones-including duets with Willie Nelson, George Jones and Clint Eastwood. Has Randy Travis sung a duet with Dirty Harry lately? The Hag can do whatever the hell he wants.

Merle Haggard plays Joe's Smoke Ring in Evaro, Saturday, July 10 at 4 p.m. Tickets $25. Call 1-888-MONTANA.


The lure of jam band culture has always baffled me. One of my early college roommates was one of those people who could rarely afford bus fare, yet managed to attend approximately 47 Phish shows per annum. Phish Roomie and I remained friends long enough for me to witness her evolution into Widespread Roomie. The Phish scene had gotten too crowded, I guess, or maybe she was tired of that thing they do with vacuum cleaners. I can't remember. But whatever the reason, she slowly became downright rabid over Widespread Panic, calling all the band members by their first names and spending all national holidays driving to places like Red Rocks to see them.

Upon learning that I'd be previewing the July 9 Widespread show at Big Mountain, I decide to risk appearances of extreme naiveté and just ask one of the band members (drummer Todd Nance, who I usually just call "Todd"), "What is it about you guys that makes people need to go to dozens of your shows?" Through the phone lines, I can practically hear Nance smiling self-consciously. "Our shows are studies in humanity," he tells me in his languid Tennessee drawl. "It started out with a bunch of college kids, and now it's working its way to different age groups. There are old-timers who all know each other, who practically have their own little culture. They hang out before and after the show, try to predict sets, talk to us. To tell you the truth I'm not crazy about that part. I don't have very good social skills."

Basically, Nance doesn't really seem to understand the jam band mystique himself. He honestly just seems interested in playing music. Widespread is famous for its live improvisational marathons (which associates them with bands like Phish and the Allman Brothers and even the Dead), but Nance claims they're gradually moving toward a tighter, more album-oriented sound: "The new album (Til the Medicine Takes) is a little more to the point than the rest of them. The average song is only like four minutes."

Join in the Widespread Panic this Friday at Big Mountain.

Will old-time fans be disappointed? "There's really no reason for them to be," he says. "It's still the same style and quality of music. And of course the nature of the shows won't change. I think the differences in the new album are just the result of a natural progression."

I ask him if Til the Medicine Takes could be their crossover album, the one that gets them some radio play and maybe the same sort of fans who came late to Dave Matthews. Although Widespread's been touring for practically fifteen years without mainstream recognition, their shows and albums are selling faster than chili cheese dogs-over 60,000 people turned out for a free CD-release party they threw in Athens. "I suppose it's possible," Nance says thoughtfully. "That'd be great. Already I've noticed a more diverse crowd at our shows." (I imagine Widespread Roomie crinkling her nose with disdain over all the "newbies" and experience a wave of satisfaction.)

After we hang up I dial old Widespread Roomie out on Long Island to tell her that about my new friend Todd. Her voicemail informs me she's at Red Rocks for "some shows" until Monday. I'm not kidding.

Widespread Panic plays Big Mountain July 9. Gates open at 5 p.m. Tickets $22 advance, $24 day of show. Call 406-862-2900.


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