Brow Beat

What Sturgill Simpson’s Viral Rant About Merle Haggard Misses About Merle Haggard

Sturgill Simpson and Merle Haggard
Sturgill Simpson and Merle Haggard.

Illustration by Slate. Sturgill Simpson by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images. Merle Haggard by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach.

Country singer and critical darling Sturgill Simpson posted a tirade to Facebook that went viral this week, by Thursday morning racking up more than 37,000 likes and some 15,000-plus shares, in addition to write-ups from everyone from Fox News and Entertainment Weekly to Rolling Stone and Stereogum. (Even Hitler reacted.) Simpson, who has never scored a radio hit but who’s most recent album, the rock-and-soul–inflected A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, topped the Billboard Country Albums chart in May, was set off by the announcement Monday of “The Merle Haggard Spirit Award,” a new annual honor from the Academy of Country Music.

The ACM was founded in 1964 to promote West Coast country acts like Haggard and his fellow “Bakersfield sound” star Buck Owens, a California-based answer to the Nashville-centric Country Music Association, or CMA. Honoring “the uncompromising integrity and steadfastness of spirit embodied by the late Merle Haggard” with an award bearing his name might seem an unlikely source of anger for a Merle Haggard fan. But Simpson, who is not only a great admirer of the country legend but who perceives Haggard’s rebel spirit as kindred to his own, sensed hypocrisy.

“I want to go on record and say I find it utterly disgusting the way everybody on Music Row is coming up with any reason they can to hitch their wagon to his name while knowing full and damn well what he thought about them,” Simpson wrote. “If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard, they should drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they’ve been pumping down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years along with all the high school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit and start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music.”

Later that same day, the ACM announced that the award’s initial recipient would be country superstar Miranda Lambert, and Simpson returned to Facebook to amend his original statement. He was not attacking Lambert, who he knew “Merle liked and respected.” But this addendum also underscored that Simpson wasn’t just pissed because he’d determined Merle Haggard’s name was being invoked in bad faith. Simpson’s beef was at once much broader and more personal:

I fully realize that as I type this, meetings and conversations are taking place on music Row to ensure I am blackballed from the industry and that’s perfectly fine with me. Im not sure how you can blackball somebody you don’t acknowledge in the first place anyway. Yet, even though they mostly go out of their way to ignore artists like myself and Jason Isbell, I assure you they are more than aware of our existence. They are also well aware that we don’t need them. Our last albums went to #1 without any help from the Mainstream Country Music establishment…and our next albums will too.

Simpson signed off with a postscript that echoed words he’d quoted Haggard saying once, long ago, at the beginning of his now-lengthy post: “Fuck this town. I’m moving.”

I can’t name an artist whose music and example have mattered more to me than the Hag’s. Merle Haggard, who died earlier this year on his 79th birthday, was both one of the greatest songwriters and greatest singers we’ll ever know, not just in the country genre but in all of American popular music. I’ve spent most of my life enjoying, and being challenged by, his modern, urban, blue-collar brand of country music, which in 2013 led me to write a book about it, what it’s meant and why it’s so important. So when I first saw that his legacy was being championed by one of today’s brightest country talents, my initial thought was, “Amen, brother!”

Simpson’s sound, both his singing and arrangements, have far more often reminded me (and many others) of Waylon Jennings than they have Merle—not unlike the way a young Merle Haggard routinely channeled one of his own honky-tonk heroes, Lefty Frizzell. But you could sense Simpson’s bedrock devotion to Haggard when he told of spending time together as they did a photo shoot for a promised cover story in Garden and Gun magazine and his growing anger when the magazine came out with Chris Stapleton, Simpson’s fellow country rebel who’d lugged home an armful of ACM awards just a few weeks before Merle’s death, on the cover instead.

Haggard had already seen his face on the covers of everything from Time to Down Beat to Hemp Times to the bible for Americana (née alt-country), No Depression, and he’d been around long enough to know that “Life Ain’t Fair …,” to borrow part of a Simpson song title. These things happen. Still, Simpson’s sense of betrayal on behalf of his new friend (“Its about keeping your word and ethics”) bled down my screen.

But as I reread Simpson’s posts, I started getting a bad, if all too familiar, taste in my mouth. There was the militant opposition between what gets played on the radio and what Simpson termed “actual country music.” There was the condescending claim that country audiences are dupes, the unwitting victims of “formulaic cannon fodder bullshit” that’s been “pumped down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years” (and this about a genre that hasn’t been primarily “rural” since before Merle Haggard started cutting records in the early 1960s). There were the studied sour grapes of complaining you haven’t been embraced by either the mainstream country industry or the mainstream radio audience even while boasting you neither need nor desire such acceptance.

And then there was that here-we-go-again sign off, which surely reminded at least few of us older Sturgill Simpson fans of a 1997 song by Robbie Fulks called “Fuck This Town.” Fulks was (and is—his new album is super) a hypertalented singer-songwriter in his own right. But his music was also a ’90s version of what Slate music critic Carl Wilson has more recently termed “Country for People Who Don’t Like Country.” In the song, Fulks laments that Nashville’s mainstream country music industry will survive “as long as there’s a moron market/ And a faggot in a hat to sign.” “Fuck This Town,” the song, in other words, is an alt-country forebear to Simpson’s “Fuck this town,” the Facebook rant. The times they are a-changin’, but the sneer remains the same.

Or, as historian Charles Hughes (author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South) wrote to me earlier this week about Simpson’s Facebook posts, “You know what’s worse than radio’s Bro-Country? Country Bros.” The evocation of a stereotypical Bernie Bro—rigid, self-righteous, sneering at those who disagree while bro-splaining to the rest of us just what constitutes real country music—was spot on, right down to the elitist class connotations.

So I second Sturgill Simpson’s desire to honor Merle Haggard, and, for that matter, the long, rich country music tradition, with more than empty gestures. I also recognize that placing “formulaic cannon fodder bullshit” in opposition to “actual country music” is itself a kind of tradition in country circles—and one that in Simpson’s case is sure to burnish his country cred among certain types of fans. But I’m also afraid the laying out of such divisive dualities is just another gesture, and just as empty.

For musicians who’d like to help ensure that Merle Haggard remains important to country music even after his death—for those who’d like to see his outsized legend, his masterful songwriting, his complex, often contradictory points of view, and his rebel artistic spirit persist in the meaningful (if often caricatured) ways that, say, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash have, what needs to happen? Fortunately, there’s a model close to hand for just this sort of backward-glancing–but–future-focused vision: the career of Merle Haggard.

One thesis of Haggard’s life’s work—as evidenced by tribute albums to Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Elvis Presley, not to mention roughly a gazillion recorded covers of Tommy Collins and Lefty Frizzell songs—was to argue that inspiration and gratitude experienced personally should be heralded loud and long, which is to say publically and repeatedly and, since this is Merle Haggard we’re talking about, through one’s own music as often as possible. This process is a key to how traditions become traditions in the first place and to how they endure.

Haggard was constantly checking in on the past. Sometimes these were retro moves. His 1970 album, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, was an earnest effort to mimic the sound of Western-swing pioneer Bob Wills, note for note. His on-stage impersonations of musical heroes like Hank Snow and Marty Robbins sprang from a similarly backward-glancing impulse but with an added wink.

More often, though, when Merle reached back for older music, he made the old songs sound new. The title of his 1969 Jimmie Rodgers tribute, Same Train, Different Time, nails the approach, and the music follows suit. Merle’s covers of Rodgers’ Depression-era standards such as “California Blues” and “Waiting for a Train” sound state-of-the-art, like Haggard’s own songs did in 1969. Indeed, “California Blues” had already debuted on another Haggard album from that year, what I’ve elsewhere nominated as the greatest country-rock album ever, Pride in What I Am. Soon, Dolly Parton was doing something similar with Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues,” and Waylon Jennings was tearing through Rodgers’ “T for Texas” in concert. Suddenly, 40-year-old Jimmie Rodgers numbers were brand new, a departed elder’s voice translated for a contemporary conversation.

That’s how the country tradition, Merle Haggard included, almost always worked. The trick is not to make the new music sound like the old music. It’s to let the music change, often drastically, while doing the work to keep it connected to all that tradition that’s come before. In Haggard’s case, this nurturing of the tradition bought him room to move artistically when he wanted it. Take a listen to his “I Can’t Get Away.” The track’s from 1979’s Serving 190 Proof, often mentioned as one of country music’s best albums ever, but it sounds as if Merle all of a sudden decided to front Steely Dan.

Who’s doing this kind of work today for the Merle Haggard songbook? At the end of his life, Merle missed out on that Garden and Gun cover, but he did see his songs repurposed in up-to-date ways. Fresh Hall of Fame inductee Randy Travis, for example, released the excellent 2013 album Influence, Vol. 1 and made sure it included several Haggard numbers. Ditto for Vince Gill and Paul Franklin’s recent California road trip, Bakersfield. Then, in 2014, Suzy Bogguss released Lucky, a full-on Haggard tribute that was smart and sexy and perfectly updated Nashville Sound sensibilities for our own world—acoustic less-is-more arrangements shaded by sultry organ. Lucky should go down, too, as beginning the process of extending Haggard’s classic period beyond his Capitol songbook to include his also-amazing post-Capitol work, putting the two chapters on more or less equal terms with each other. All of this was good news and good work, but it was all from an earlier generation of country radio stars who were no longer striving to get on the radio. For Haggard’s songs to endure, that needs to happen, too.

That’s why 2014’s Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard seemed in advance so exciting and was on arrival so disappointing. The album was loaded high with teen-behaving thirtysomethings like Jason Aldean, Randy Houser, Luke Bryan, and Jake Owen, along with a few of what can only be termed (at this point, in these times) vintage acts like Toby Keith and Garth Brooks. Some of it was not so good, some of it was fantastic (check out Aldean’s “Going Where the Lonely Go”), but none of it was going to get on the radio or, honestly, was even trying to. It was another sincere retro move, trading its contributors’ big bro-country guitars and hip-hop–inspired beats for a sound that mostly resurrected the Hat Act of the 1990s. A missed opportunity, in other words, to get Haggard’s songs into the ears and the lives of a larger, younger contemporary country audience, the way Hag had once done for Rodgers.

On the other hand, hats off to Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Jake Owen, and Randy Houser, a quartet of bro-country dudes who have now each released more Merle Haggard songs than country bro Sturgill Simpson. (In the meantime, Simpson has made headlines instead with his cover of Nirvana.)

I’m certain that Merle Haggard’s body of work could yet be a vital and necessary part of the country story as it unfolds. For that to happen, though, musicians from all parts of the country music business are going to have to make Merle’s old songs sound brand new for a new generation of fans. My fingers are crossed that Miranda Lambert will back up her Merle Haggard Spirit Award by including a 2016-sounding version of a favorite Merle song on her next album. Wednesday night, after accepting her award in Nashville, she once again performed an acoustic version of his 1980 hit “Misery and Gin,” but I bet she has a long list. I hope, too, that Lambert will then spend some of her hard-earned (in the biz) social and cultural capital to try and get that modern record on the radio.

Meanwhile, I’ll just take it on faith that Sturgill Simpson’s Merle Haggard tribute album, aimed square at an altogether different segment of the country audience, will be forthcoming. No matter what town Simpson winds up in, I’m confident his tribute to the Hag would be amazing.