Something that even some traditional country fans don’t fully appreciate is how country music has always been about paying traditions forward. That’s what separates the genre from all the other major genres of American music.
In 1927 when Ralph Peer commenced The Bristol Sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, recording acts such as Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family and giving birth to country music as a commercial enterprise, these acts weren’t playing country music of the late 1920’s, they were playing traditionals from the 1800’s, and originals that were written and performed to emulate the traditionals. From the beginning, country was nostalgia music and neotraditional, paying the roots forward of a timeless art form with the most important element of all being preservation for the generations to come.
In the 30’s and 40’s, the big stars of the Grand Ole Opry were doing the same thing. Roy Acuff sang old Appalachian music, and Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys took the old time fiddle tunes of the Kentucky region and contemporized them to make what we consider bluegrass today.
In 1969 when Merle Haggard was the biggest thing in country music and was launching hit singles left and right, he surprised everyone by taking the time to release a 25-song tribute record to Jimmie Rodgers that took six months to make. And then the next year, Haggard did the same for Western Swing legend Bob Wills. Neither record sold nearly as well as his original material, nor did they launch any major singles for Merle. But he’d gone from a prisoner and delinquent to a superstar through the grace of country music, and he was bound and determined to pay tribute to the greats who came before him that helped make that all possible, and that inspired much of his own music.
On August 29th when Sturgill Simpson decided to twist off on the ACM’s for naming an award after Merle Haggard, some may have looked at him sideways. Why now? Why with this particular award? After all, the ACM’s were just trying to name an award after Merle Haggard in tribute. But Sturgill was just fulfilling the same role so many country artists have done since the beginning of the genre—he was standing up for the roots, and doing what he could to make sure they are being paid forward.
Many saw Sturgill’s missive as a pretty Outlaw move. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and the “Outlaws” of country music in the 70’s are given credit for bucking many of the traditions of country music that were in place during their era, but they were doing it in spite of the sedated and controlling Countrypolitan movement of the time, not the true traditions of country music. In fact Willie and Waylon made it a point to include the old-timers as part of their movement, to help preserve their music at a time when they were being shifted aside for more contemporary sounds and artists. Willie Nelson’s Dripping Springs Reunion, and the first few 4th of July Picnics in the 70’s featured performances by Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and other older country artists right beside the rowdy cowboy hippie songwriters of Central Texas, and the Nashville Outlaws.
Willie Nelson’s opus Red Headed Stranger included songs from Fred Rose and Eddy Arnold. In 1975, Waylon Jennings released a song called “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” that went to #1. The B-side to it was a song called “Bob Wills Is Still The King.”
But preserving the roots of country is not always just about paying homage. Sometimes it is about sowing disharmony or speaking out in protest to help force country music back on the right path. Music Row and the country music industry will always be about money first. It’s a business and that only makes sense. But the artists are the ones who must take the lead and reign the business in when it forces country music to meander too far away from the roots.
What Sturgill did was not an unprecedented act of rebellion, it was the solemn act of an artist doing what he thought was best to make sure the roots of country music are preserved, and was strictly in line with the tradition of country artists taking matters into their own hands. These were things that Sturgill learned from Merle Haggard personally. Merle spent the final months of his career doing two principal things in interviews: calling out the modern state of country, and praising Sturgill Simpson as one of the few left doing it the right way.
“They’re talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don’t find no substance,” Merle said in one tongue-lashing.
Saving Country Music or some other outlet could have said what Sturgill (or Merle) said, and does on a fairly regular basis. But it’s nothing special. It’s not out of the ordinary. It’s what’s expected. That is why the effort to save country music and preserve the roots of the music ultimately rests with the artists, and always will.
Many wondered what all the fuss was about when Hank Williams III made a big stink with the Grand Ole Opry over the issue of reinstating his grandfather. Hank Williams was fired from the Opry months before his death. But what would be the point of reinstating a dead guy? One of the main issues Hank Williams III raised was how the Opry was using the name and likeness of Hank Williams without properly paying respects to him. As Sturgill said in his rant defending Merle Haggard, “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.”
Reinstate Hank was never just about symbolically reinstating Hank Williams to the Grand Ole Opry. As Sturgill points out, these institutions will use the name and likeness of these country legends at their convenience, but when it was convenient to shove them aside for new stars, they were more than happy to. That’s why it doesn’t matter how many ACM Awards Merle won over the years. It was the ones he should have won, but didn’t, and the tributes he should have received in life, that now they want to assign in death.
In 1994, when Alan Jackson showed up to the ACM Awards wearing a Hank Williams T-Shirt, Dick Clark asked him, “Here you are on television in front of millions of people. Why do you have a Hank Williams T-shirt on?”
Jackson’s response was, “Well, I love Hank, and a fan…I get a lot of gifts on the road playing, and a fan gave me this shirt, and I just saw it in the closet before I came out here this weekend and I grabbed it and said, ‘I’m gonna wear it for my song,’ you know, ‘Gone Country.’ Hank’s country.”
Later that evening for Alan Jackson’s ACM performance of “Gone Country,” he was asked to play to a backing track. Instead of acquiescing, Alan Jackson told his drummer to play with no sticks, that way the savvy viewers at home would know Alan Jackson was not being disingenuous with his performance.
Years later, in 1999, when the CMA Awards told George Jones he could only perform a shortened version of his hit song “Choices,” George walked out of the venue in protest. Alan Jackson, in solidarity, stopped halfway through his performance of his single “Pop a Top” and broke into George’s “Choices”—Jackson’s own version of protest. The song “Pop a Top” was a tribute in itself to another country legend, Jim Ed Brown, who first recorded the song in 1967.
At that same CMA Awards in 1999, Alan Jackson and George Strait performed the country protest song “Murder On Music Row.” The next year it earned the CMA for Vocal Event of the Year, and Song of the Year at the CMA’s. How did a song ostensibly calling organizations like the CMA out win two awards? It’s because George Strait and Alan Jackson were doing what country music artists have always done: preserving the roots of country by the act of protest; and because the CMA voters deep down in their hearts agreed. Just like they did when Chris Stapleton nearly swept all the major CMA Awards in 2015, despite being a virtual unknown, and receiving no radio play.
Everybody knows that most of the country on the radio is garbage. The performers know it, the songwriters know it, the label executives and DJ’s know it. But they’re powerless to do anything about it because their livelihoods depend on the harmony on Music Row remaining undisturbed. It takes someone with the guts to speak up to send country music back on the right path. But what Sturgill Simpson did wasn’t unprecedented. It was right in line with what the past legends did themselves. Sturgill learned this from Merle Haggard personally, and took it personal when he saw Merle’s name associated with an organization he knew Merle didn’t condone in his final days.
This is the battle of evermore that The Carter Family was waging to keep the spirit of the music of their ancestors alive when Ralph Peer cued up a microphone in front of them in an era when industrialization was crowding out America’s agrarian culture, and what Sturgill Simpson did when he took to Facebook to deliver a pointed missive about a legend who had taken him under his wings in his final days.
And the circle remains unbroken. For now.