The Story Pool – by Madonna Hamel
Every time I start my shift at the Harvest Moon Café, after I’ve tied on my apron and located my glasses on the top of my head, I reach for the radio dial and give Caitlin, the owner and cook, a sheepish grin.
“Oh, alright! Go ahead,” she reneges, once again.
Cailtlin is a coffee house gal. I’m a roadhouse gal. Don’t get me wrong, most of my favourite musicians began in coffee houses. There was a day when you could hear the likes of The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, or Kelly Joe Phelps for the price of a cup of coffee. Then again, you could hear B.B. King in a juke joint for the price of a beer. (The only reason I don’t tune in to the blues station is because I’d probably hear my ex and then I’d be no good to anyone. The blues makes me weep at the best of times; a testament to its powers.)
My problem with this particular coffeehouse channel is that it takes hit indie-pop songs, unplugs them in a way that sounds like they’ve been de-boned, like a fish with its spine removed. And then, it slows them down! And some of these songs were pret-ty slow to begin with. And then, as if the songwriters plum ran out of observations, they opt for some la-la-las and oh-uh-oh and oh-oh-oh-ohs. I’m sorry but that’s just laziness. It gives songwriting a bad name.
To keep the peace Caitlin lets me switch to the roadhouse station, where Kitty Wells sets the record straight, informing us that “it wasn’t God that made honky-tonk angels” but “married men who act like they’re still single”. And Floyd Tillman reminds me not to dwell on the past; because “I’m just drivin’ nails in my coffin over you.” I can sing along to Big City, comforted by the fact that Merle, at least, understands, why I would want to give up working for nice money with semi-famous people, and turn myself loose, set myself “free, somewhere in the middle of Montana”, in this case, “on the border of.”
One of my favourite songwriters is Rosanne Cash. The reason I love her is because she is a writer, first and foremost. When I was first introduced to her it was through her short story collection. Throughout her career she has successfully done her job, which is “not to maintain my father’s legacy”, but “ to write.” When I did come to her music, I listened for the stories. And I found them. And myself in them.
“I grew up in an era where the songwriter was revered,” she explained to me. “Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury, Rodney Crowell, Marijohn Wilkins. It was all about the writing!”
I admit I came to country music late, as did Rosanne. In fact, her music would best be described as ‘Americana’. In 2010 I managed to convince my producer at the time to let me take a road trip to Nashville and interview a whole bunch of songwriters and listen to a whole bunch of music and make a radio doc about this new Grammy award category called “Americana”. The result was “Portrait of Lincoln with the Wart”. (it’s still online at CBC if you should so desire to hear it and the great music it contains).
One of the artists I got to speak with, several times and at length, thanks to her generosity, was Ms. Cash. She referred to Americana as a river and “folk, country, jazz, protest songs, blues, Tejano music” as “feeder streams” into Americana. (Six years later, I still wish the industry had the grace to call it North Americana music, but that’s a whole nuther column!). She talked about her decision, at the prodding of her husband and producer John Levanthal, to finally record The List, in 2009. In doing so, she finally acknowledged a list of songs her father gave her when she was eighteen years old. That list contained one hundred country songs he insisted were essential to her formation as a songwriter.
There’s more than songs about falling in love and breaking up here, she says about the list. There’s songs about family, death, travel…life is more than just boy meets girl.
You can bet Merle Haggard was on that list.
Caitlin has one proviso when she relents and lets me have my roadhouse”“All I ask you, is to change the channel if they start talking. There’s too much talking on roadhouse!”
“Will do, boss.”
For the last three days, ever since he died on his birthday, it’s been nothing but talking, punctuated by a few songs to illustrate the stories told by friends and family of Merle Haggard. But Caitlin is off on one of her adventures and I’m holding down the café, and nobody is complaining about the ‘talking’.
It starts when Gerald comes in the door brandishing a couple of bags of hamburger buns: “I had to make a run to Bracken anyway, and you said you were out of buns.”
“Excellent! How about a piece of pie for your troubles?”
“Oh no. No need. Just a coffee if it’s not too much trouble.”
“I think I can manage that, Gerald. You hear about Merle Haggard?”
“Been listening to him in my Cutlass drivin’ home. Still got a cassette player in that thing, eh.”
Gerald’s Cutlass rides like a big couch on wheels. I’ve had the joy of driving it. One early summer day, I stood waxing poetic while Gerald waxed the hood.
“You know my dad used to sell these”, I reminisced, “he’d bring a new big boat like this home from the lot every week.”
Finally, probably just to stop my blabbering, Gerald held out the keys.
Hot on the heels of Gerald came Eugene. “I’ll have the usual, ” he says.
Snapping open a lite beer and nodding at the radio sound of Merle singing “Okie from Muskokee”, I ask Eugene if he’s heard the latest.
“You mean about Judith’s new well?”
“No, I mean Merle! “
“Oh. Yeah. The Okie from Muskokie is gone. It’s a shame. One less guy who knows how to write a song. Wasn’t he actually from Texas?”
“Well,” I begin, donning my documentarian cap, “he, along with Willie and Waylon, started Outlaw Country music as a protest against the way Nashville was going in the fifties and sixties with its slick commercial sound. But he’s from California.”
“California, eh? You don’t normally think of country music when you think of California, do you?”
“You do if you think of the Bakersfield sound. That’s where he came from.”
“Oh that’s right! And Buck Owens, too.”
“Yep. And you know, what else? The dobro, the great steel guitar, was invented by the Dopero Brothers, hence ‘Do’ plus ‘Bro’ equals dobro. And they were Czechs living in California!”
“You don’t say.”
“And their inspiration was the Hawaiian guitar!”
In walks Maurice and Pat. Maurice is already humming a tune, and when he hears the radio he slides seamlessly into the song Merle is singing. He and Pat lift a table and pull it alongside Eugene’s and Gerald’s.
“Hey guys. Guess you heard about Merle.” I set out cutlery. Maurice nods and keeps on singing ‘Okie from Muskogee’. “One of my least favourites, this one.” I offer. “ It supported the whole Tricky Dickie Republican so-called ‘silent majority’ … So, tonight we have an alfredo pasta and, for you Pat, deep-dish pork pie.”
“Ooh, my favourite!” She claps her hands with glee.
“My personal favourite is ‘Wake Up’” And he switches his song midstream.
“Good choice,” pipes Eugene, just as Judith walks in, followed by Rolly. They pull up another table and minutes later Leo and Vi do the same.
By the end of the evening, the whole restaurant resembled a wake, or a banquet, held in a roadhouse for a guest of honour present via radio waves. People hummed snatches of tunes, repeated stories they’d heard, over the last few days, about “country music’s people’s poet”. One of my favourites is about his houseboat in California.Apparently, he cut a hole in the middle of the floor so he could fish and watch the game on the tv at the same time.
The consensus, when it came to his songs, was: “He just told it like it was.”
Rosanne writes, she says, because she needs to keep “discovering the mysteries.” And that means “accepting the good and the bad” in herself. Through the likes of Merle (and Rosanne) we get to “hear it like it is”. We are encouraged to step into the mysteries of our own lives, and do our own essential “telling it “like it is”, too.
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at firstname.lastname@example.org