Columns » John Brummett

Politics with Merle and Bruce

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It turns out that a couple of my musical favorites have made political news lately. Perhaps it's mildly ironic that Merle Haggard seems more relevant than Bruce Springsteen.

Before we get to that: You might wonder how someone could admire simultaneously the music of a Jersey rocker like Springsteen and an Okie-to-Bakersfield country singer like Haggard.

These fellows share more than you might think. They write their own guitar-driven songs. Their lyrics emphasize common-man themes. They offer homages to their influences — Elvis, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie on the one hand and Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams and Buck Owens on the other.

If you don't readily see that those eight musical forces overlap into a rich stew, then you don't know beans about your Americana.

Merle has ties to the Southern rock group called Lynyrd Skynyrd. Springsteen had a couple of videos played on the country cable network.

Deep down they are much the same, and, even in their differences, there are connections.

Springsteen appeared on the Charlie Rose Show and got asked why he writes so much about his dad, but not his mom. He said rockers don't write about their mamas. He said Merle had that covered.

Bruce sings about sitting in his daddy's lap steering the car as they ventured out to get a newspaper, with his dad holding forth on the old hometown, now abandoned. Merle sings that his mama tried to raise him better, but her pleading he denied. We all know that dad, that kid, that steering wheel, that downtown, that mama, that bad boy.

So about the politics: I should say first that I'm generally more comfortable with artists expressing themselves through their art than in a direct political way.

It would mean more to me to hear Springsteen sing a moving ballad about some poor sap at Guantanamo Bay than to hear him interviewed like a politician on “60 Minutes,” as happened last week, and decrying the un-American abandonment of habeas corpus.

This guy was born to run on thunder road, not sound like a member of Congress spouting Democratic talking points. If I wanted those, I'd see if there's any Chuck Schumer to download from iTunes.

This Springsteen political seriousness started in the last presidential election when he went on the road for John Kerry. Now comes an interview by Scott Pelley of “60 Minutes,” using as context a new album by Springsteen that is supposed to be political, but which, actually, I don't glean any strong message from.

I admire Springsteen's staying relevant, but he hasn't hit on all creative cylinders since the '80s, except maybe for one song, “41 Shots,” about a New York City police shooting.

He was really something in the day. Would you like to hear a great American short story? Get Springsteen's “Born to Run” CD from 32 years ago and plug up “Meeting Across the River.” Now there is some artistically expressed commentary. Those boys in that song are going to need some habeas corpus.

Now comes Merle, the Okie from Muskogee, long identified via his music with the irascible right wing.

He just gave an interview to Time about the ode he'd written to Hillary Clinton. The song says it's time to give a woman a chance, and that the woman is “Hill-ree.”

Merle said he cracked himself up writing it because he knew how it would “(bleep) off the right.”

He told Time that political labels are all gummed up anymore. He said he liked FDR, then Reagan, then Bill Clinton, and was being fully consistent.

He said George W. Bush had gone to war for bad reasons and tried to make us live in fear. He said Bill could help Hillary with what she didn't know.

Merle probably represents a telling shift in American politics. Hillary is odds-on to be the next president, partly because the Okie from Muskogee whose mama tried is so sick of Bush's crazy war that he's ready for serious change.

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