The anatomy of a great country song: From the dirty streets of LA

A few minutes ago I came across an interesting story in The Wall Street Journal. Now that in itself may seem unusual if you are familiar with my writing. Since the Journal became a part of Australian-American right-wing mogul Rupert Murdoch’s empire, I read the paper’s website even less than I did than when it was just a right-wing paper in its own right. But I have to admit the paper has some very talented writers and the story I came across is an example of that stable.

Writer Marc Myers penned an interesting look at the anatomy of a country hit made within a very short time period by singer, C & W legend Merle Haggard. The connection between the WSJ and a Merle Haggard song is the entertainer’s scheduled appearance on the Grammies come Sunday. The tale is of how his 1982 hit “Big City” stemmed from Haggard returning to his tour bus from a recording session only to find his bus driver and childhood friend Dean Holloway stewing over some thought. Haggard learned that Holloway hated the “dirty old city” of Los Angeles where they were. Hag tossed his friend a piece of paper and asked him to take out his discord on that paper. Within less than an hour, said the recording star, the song was written that would become his 28th No. 1 single.

I have long been a Merle Haggard fan since his hits started playing our radios back in the 60s. I never knew what to make out of “Okie From Muskogee,” whether it was a piece of satire by Hag or if that was his sentiment back then. I have heard many other Haggard songs and his views expressed in interviews that made me think, if that had been his views, they had changed somewhat over the years. People do change, after all. I remember singing some of those songs with an impromptu group of my brother John on piano, me and a young man slightly older than I — the son of the town’s cobbler — whose taste ran more toward black gospel. The music sounded okay and it was fairly loud enough to drown me out. The effort seemed to please our audience of nursing home residents. They’d probably have liked anyone to play.

Haggard said in the article that his lifelong friend, who also became his bus driver, passed away a few years ago. But he once told Haggard that he had earned — after Haggard split the song credits with Holloway down the middle — around a half a million dollars. Not bad for an afternoon’s discontent.