A war which continues today: In fairness, Merle Haggard didn't start the Nixon-era culture war, a war which has continued right through to the present day.
He didn't start that culture war, but he certainly helped it along! Just consider our own encounter with one of the Tex Montanas.
Who don't refer to Tulsa's Tex Montana, the "pioneer on [that city's] rock [and rockabilly] scene"—also, an accomplished visual artist—who died of cancer in 2014.
We don't refer to the Tex Montana of Tex Montana Will Survive!, the 2014 feature film you can watch on YouTube for free.
Almost surely, we refer instead to the Tex Montana who recorded the rockabilly single, Devil or An Angel, back in 1958. To hear that single, click here.
We encountered Montana twelve years after he cut that record, in the late summer of 1970. The story unfolds like this:
We were attending a wedding in Massena, New York, "a town... along the county's northern border, just south of the St. Lawrence River and the Three Nations Crossing of the Canada–United States border." So says the leading authority on this far northern border outpost.
Massena is about as far north of Nashville as you can get without being forced to play hockey. But here's the story on the Tex Montana to whom we refer, as related in comments to his 1958 song:
RUSTIN (2015): The Tex Montana I knew owned a country & western bar in Massena named the Diamond Horseshoe...Tex hosted some big name country singers and led the house band. While working at WYBG I engineered a Saturday morning show for Tex on which he played country music on what otherwise was a rock station. I remember Tex driving a big old Harley! I always wondered what happened to him. The last time I was in Massena (probably 20 years ago), the Diamond Horseshoe was gone.Apparently, so true! At this link, you can see Montana profiled in the Syracuse Post-Standard in 1982. ("Tex Montana Still Singing Country.")
Back to Massena, New York! On the evening before or after the wedding, the bride and groom escorted their friends to the Diamond Horseshoe, perhaps as a tiny bit of a lark or possibly just for no reason. Montana himself was on stage.
Apparently struck by the bicoastal, "eastern elite" air of the youthful wedding party, Montana launched into a spirited, perhaps somewhat menacing version of Okie from Muskogee. He performed the Haggard anthem as some of the over-educated youngsters attempted to dance.
Alas! A country music-fueled culture war was everywhere at that time, even on the country's farthest northern frontier. In a general sense, this is what James Carville had in mind when he is said to have said, at a later date, that the state of Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.
It might have been better if Carville hadn't said whatever he actually said. But on a strictly cultural basis, this is what he meant—and his "Alabama" carried Pennsylvania in 2016, as was its perfect right.
At any rate, that deeply unhelpful culture war was pretty much everywhere in the summer of 1970. It was splitting region against region, and children against their parents. Bob Dylan had even taken the side of the parents in his heart-breaking Tears of Rage (1967), performed here by The Band:
We carried you in our armsMajor parts of that war never ended. Further fueled by crackpot talk radio and by partisan cable, it exists today in the viewpoints and understandings of the red and blue nations who are devising and embracing talking points for an impeachment war.
On Independence Day
And now you throw us all aside
And put us all away...
Way back then, we got the impression, perhaps incorrectly, that Tex Montana wasn't thrilled by that far north wedding party. What did he possibly think he was seeing on the dance floor before him?
To answer your question, we'll journey far west of Nashville. We'll go all the way to Bakersfield, Merle Haggard's literal home town.
As part of his new PBS film, Country Music, Ken Burns describes the rise of the branch of country music known as "the Bakersfield sound." Its founding father was Buck Owens, a Dust Bowl refugee who was forced to leave Texas with his parents in 1937.
What might Montana have thought he was seeing that night, way up north in Massena? Owens' songs and attitude sometimes reflected the experience of the "Okie" underclass, as in the chorus of The Streets of Bakersfield, a song Owens popularized, though only within one part of the world:
You don't know me but you don't like me,Haggard's songs sometimes reflected the same type of class resentment. Yesterday, we quoted Rolling Stone praising the Haggard album which came out just before he unloosed Okie From Muskogee on a waiting world in 1969.
You say you care less how I feel.
How many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
According to that Rolling Stone review, Haggard was "pure country," a performer whose "songs romanticize the hardships and tragedies of America’s transient proletarian." As is clear in interviews in the Burns film, Haggard saw himself as a cultural Okie—as someone whose parents had been derided as same when they arrived in the Golden State during the Dust Bowl years.
One of the songs on the album praised by Rolling Stone was Mama's Hungry Eyes. In a romanticized version of his family's history, Haggard described a certain "class of people," some version of which Montana might have believed he was seeing that night:
A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labor campAs of 1970, was "another class of people" putting Tex Montana's class "somewhere below?" Citizens, please! Of course they were, and that has never ceased to be the case, not even to this every day as we sit on the edge of our latest somewhat dumb war.
Stand out in this memory I revive;
Cause my daddy raised a family there with two hard working hands
And tried to feed my mama's hungry eyes.
He dreamed of something better, and my mama's faith was strong
And us kids were just too young to realize
That another class of people put us somewhere just below;
One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes.
What's the basis of the nation's tribal divide as we move toward impeachment war? With regard to that question, we plan to visit this interesting recent post, in which we think Kevin Drum fumbles his assessment while laying down an intriguing challenge—but we'll have to postpone till tomorrow.
Many Trump voters, even today, believe that "another class of people" put them somewhere below. In that view, they surely aren't wrong—though this doesn't mean that anything Trump is doing is right.
This powerful, unhelpful divide was floating around all through the Burns film. It helps explain the approaching war for which we see no happy ending.
Tomorrow: Faron Young [HEART] Charlie Pride, or so Burns seems inclined to say