“Dallas Observer” Mischaracterizes Merle Haggard Comments in Support of Misguided Think Piece

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It really smarts when someone in your line of work, a colleague of yours, someone whose writing you’ve respected for years and have even promoted upon numerous occasions apparently believes you’re Joe Jerkoff and all your efforts are misguided. It makes it even worse when this same person uses spurious information, and outright lies attached to the names of country music heroes of yours to back up and promote those incorrect assertions. That was the unpleasant set of circumstances I woke up to Wednesday morning (11-11) when someone passed me a link to an article published in my own hometown’s alternative newsweekly, the Dallas Observer, written by Kelly Dearmore.

Kelly also has written for American Songwriter, and Lone Star Music. Saving Country Music regularly links to Dearmore’s work in the news crawl at the top of the site, and has cited his articles as sources in the past. And apparently he thinks so little of the effort to save country music, he’s willing to go on record in print characterizing me, potentially other critics and columnists, and concerned country music listeners all across the country and world as “Insecure Elitist Country Music Fans,” and owners of “Insecure Elitist Country Music Fan Membership Kit’s,” as well as “keyboard warriors with an inferiority complex.”

Don’t get me wrong, every morning when I wake up and grab hold of the poison pen, I have my big boy pants on and am perfectly willing to take as much punishment as I dish out, if not more, and regularly find myself in the midst of that very scenario. But to receive it from a well-recognized outlet and a respected journalist is incredibly unique.

In an article that bookmarks as “Country Music Doesn’t Need to be Saved by Chris Stapleton,” but comes up now as “Country Music Isn’t In Need of a Savior” meant to apparently promote an upcoming appearance by Merle Haggard, Kelly Dearmore takes to task anyone who would get excited about what Chris Stapleton’s recent success at the CMA Awards might mean for country music at large.

But I couldn’t even get to the first official sentence of this article before it was made patently clear that Kelly Dearmore was completely and utterly full of shit.

At the very top of the article is a photo of the sainted Merle Haggard in shades playing a guitar on stage. And below the photo is this caption: “If Merle Haggard doesn’t think country needs saving, then what are we fussing about?”

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It’s one thing to mischaracterize my opinions, or the opinions of Chris Stapleton fans, or concerned country music fans in general. It’s another thing to use the name and visage of a respected country music legend to assert the wrongful and misguided opinions of your think piece, especially when the aim of that think piece is to attack active and concerned country music fans. Not only has Merle Haggard never said anything even remotely close to what Kelly Dearmore and the Dallas Observer are characterizing, Merle Haggard is on record numerous times, and numerous times this year specifically, and in many instances in years past, saying the exact opposite.

The other misguided opinion of Dearmore’s piece is that Stapleton’s wins at the CMA Awards “makes Stapleton at least the third artist in a year (it’s getting more difficult to keep track) to be crowned the Musical Messiah by the vocal minority who hardly claim to give two craps about mainstream country music under normal circumstances.”

The other “Musical Messiahs” he goes on to say are Sturgill Simpson, and potentially, Jason Isbell for claiming a #1 album in country earlier this year.

The problem is that nobody in any great numbers, or in a positions to speak with authority about country music is saying anything of the sort. At the same exact time Kelly Dearmore’s piece was being posted on the Dallas Observer, Saving Country Music was putting the finishing touches on an article called, “The Case Against Chris Stapleton As Country Music’s Savior.” The impetus for the piece, which I began writing the morning after Stapleton’s CMA wins, was this incredible backlash on social media and other places against Chris Stapleton being called a “country music savior,” when in fact very very few, if anyone was actually lumping that distinction on Stapleton’s shoulders. As I said in the article,

There is something in the country music ethos that can’t help our brains latching onto the idea that at some point, some traditional country artist will come along and become a superstar without compromising and help turn the tide in country music. But even then, lumping such a distinction on any artist seems like an unfair load on their shoulders. Their job is to play music.

But who exactly is declaring Chris Stapleton a “country music savior”? As the proprietor of a site called “Saving Country Music,” I can say the vast majority of people associating Stapleton with being a country music savior are the same exact people complaining that he shouldn’t be regarded as one. In other words, even though you have to travel far and wide to find someone saying, “Chris Stapleton is country music’s savior,” you can’t post anything on Facebook about him without hoards of “REAL” country fans telling you how “he’s not a country savior.” It’s a “Straw Man,” or painting an extreme viewpoint to then refute it, when the case isn’t even really being made.

The only instance I could find of someone declaring Chris Stapleton a “country music savior” was the sports site Deadspin. And are we really going to let Deadspin write the book on Stapleton’s impact on country?

Kelly Dearmore cites “Facebook posts and tweets” as where he saw this anointing of Chris Stapleton as a “country music savior” occurring. That may be one of many mistakes Kelly Dearmore made. Anyone can go to Facebook or Twitter at any point and find enough people with an opinion to help fit to their predisposed argument.

Some people wondered aloud why Saving Country Music went through the effort to publish a 40-plus paragraph dissertation about the misnomers surrounding Chris Stapleton and his success. Some may wonder what all the fuss in this article is about. But Kelly Dearmore’s article is the perfect example of why such explanation is necessary. Otherwise, Saving Country Music and fans of country who show concern for the overall well being of the genre will be grossly mischaracterized and attacked and lampooned for their viewpoints; and not just on social network, but by well-known journalists in major periodicals. For whatever reason, there is this unmitigated anger at Stapleton’s success and the folks celebrating it, and it’s coming from people who you would assume would be allies and like-minded individuals to Stapleton proponents, including Kelly Dearmore.

But let’s go back to this question of whether Merle Haggard believes country music needs to be saved, or if he believes in a country music savior.

In an interview with The Boot from September 28th, 2010, Merle Haggard, when asked if there might be someone who could rise up to help carry on country music traditions, Haggard responded, “There’s got to be somebody in the corning fixing to spring out and save the day. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

On September 3rd of this year in an interview with In Form‘s John Lamb, Merle Haggard lambasted modern country, and he did it in the context of praising Sturgill Simpson—one of Kelly Deamore’s “Musical Messiahs.”

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the only one out there,” Merle said of Simpson. “The rest of them sound like a bunch of (crap) to me. He comes out and does a great show.”

Merle goes on to say, “I can’t tell what they’re doing. They’re talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don’t find no substance. I don’t find anything you can whistle and nobody even attempts to write a melody. It’s more of that kids stuff. It’s hot right now, but I’ll tell you what, it’s cooling off.”

Does this sound like someone who thinks country music doesn’t need to be saved?

Then three days later when speaking to The Blade, Haggard doubled down on his downgrading of modern country music. “It needs a melody,” Haggard said. “It needs a melody real bad. Not sure what they’ll have to remember. A song is defined as words put to music, but I don’t hear any music. All I hear is the same band, the same sound, and everybody screaming to the ceiling. You stand off at a distance and you couldn’t tell who they are. They are all screaming for one note they can barely get. I don’t find it very entertaining. I wish I did.”

So what material basis is Kelly Dearmore using to say that Merle Haggard doesn’t think that country music needs to be saved? He cites an interview he conducted with Merle Haggard back in 2012, but Haggard says nothing even close to what Dearmore is asserting he said or believes. In the interview, Haggard said, “The involvement of the Internet will help everyone get their proper due. More fans will be made because of it. The best talent will be found and people will discover Johnny Cash easier than they would have otherwise.”

Huh. Well isn’t that exactly what a site like Saving Country Music does, using the internet to help “everyone get their proper due”? Isn’t that what fans do when they share their opinions about music on Twitter, Facebook, and their own blogs? And isn’t the sharing of music and opinions party to blame for the recent successes of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and many others? Would it be possible for any of these artists to find the success they did if their fans kept their opinions of their music to themselves?

Nothing about what Merle Haggard said even touches close to the country legend swearing off the idea of saving country music, or even the idea of a country music savior. Kelly Dearmore used Merle Haggard like his puppet, putting words into his mouth to further the agenda of his think piece instead of properly representing Merle Haggard’s true opinions.

Dearmore then goes on to say of Merle Haggard, “He didn’t save a damn thing. If Merle Haggard never ‘saved’ country music, then I’m not sure why we should expect anyone else to.”

Huh. That’s certainly a debatable opinion. See: The Bakersfield Sound vs. Countrypolitan.

In the article, Kelly Dearmore also includes enough factual information to make you buy in to what he wants you to think Merle Haggard believes. He talks about the cyclical nature of country, how it’s always ebbed and flowed between pop and traditionalism, commercialism and substance; sometimes swinging in one direction, and other times swinging back the other way. This theory is nothing new. In fact, it is the entire embodiment of the country music journey and narrative. Anyone who has stood in the center of the rotunda at the Country Music Hall of Fame, with all of the weight of history and all the names of the greats who contributed to it hanging in the air, and sees the words written around the edge of the ceiling which read “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” knows this all too well.

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The problem is, Kelly Dearmore makes no sense in his argument. Basically, he’s telling people they shouldn’t care about country music—that if they have access to great artists, which they do thanks to the internet, then it should be of no concern to them what happens in the mainstream. And if they do concern themselves with things like Chris Stapleton’s success and what it means, they’re “elitist.”

However the most elitist thing you can do as a music fan is to say, “I’ve got mine. Who cares about anyone else?”—which is exactly what Kelly Dearmore is advocating for.

God damn Saving Country Music and the thousands of country music fans who celebrated Chris Stapleton’s wins because it meant that country music might be showing signs of improving. Screw us for thinking it is a virtue to care not just about the music you listen to, but the music your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends, your family, and your kids listen to. To hell with folks who want to help spread the word about good music so that it can find the support it needs to be sustainable and prosper. Forget about people who believe and care about something bigger than themselves.

I started Saving Country Music eight years ago under the idea that music sounds better when it’s shared, and is more fulfilling when it’s passed on to a friend. Like Haggard said, the internet opened up a new era to make this exchange and sharing of music that music easier.

I don’t expect or desire an apology or clarification from the Dallas Observer or Kelly Dearmore. Merle Haggard is the one who deserves the apology for having his opinions misrepresented.