The Punk/Country Connection & Merle Haggard

Jon Langford of the Mekons goes back to the roots of his British Punk band’s feeling for hard country music before memorializing Merle Haggard.

We never heard Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells & Buck Owens in Leeds—we got boxcar Willie instead. The mystery and misery of real hard country music only filtered into our strangely parallel punk-rock universe through some cassette tapes we were sent by an American college DJ in 1983.

At the time the Mekons were languishing in post-punk hibernation; not making records or playing live but far too lazy to actually split up. Some key members had quit the band after we were dropped by Virgin Records, but there was still a hard core that sat in the pub every night plotting revenge on a world that was resolutely not interested.

WZRD DJ Terry Nelson’s favorite bands were the Mekons and the Pretty Things, and after a chance encounter with the Gang of Four’s road crew he set off from Chicago for London to exhume them both. He had this idea that the Mekons were a country band—‘cos while proper Punk bands rated about bondage and smashing the system, our simple clattering dirges mostly dealt with failed sexual relationships and drinking in bars. When he met us, Terry handed us a compilation tape of drinkin’ & cheatin’ songs he’d titled HONKY-TONK CLASSICS VOLUME 1 to illustrate his theory.  The Punk/Country connection seemed a bit of a stretch, but we were hooked nonetheless. It was a total eye-opener, a confirmation that something dark, sinewy, and uncomfortable lurked beneath all that Nashville easy listening.

The tunes on Terry’s Hard Country cassette lived up to our egalitarian Punk Rock ideals effortlessly. These honky-tonk guys knew their crowd ‘cos they lived in the same world as them, confronting the same realities head on every day with the same defiant humor & fatalism, the barrier between performer and audience melting away in a pool of common experience.

Corny as it seems, these stripped down honky-tonk tales of lust & loneliness, sex, drinking & death struck a chord with us (usually E-major) and connected our alienated, drunk, commie souls to a strident tradition we hardly knew existed.

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I was lucky enough to see Merle play many times. The first time was back in 1986 at the Rosemont Horizon near O’Hare when he opened for Hank Jr and we turned up kind of drunk in leather jackets and hammer & sickle T shirts. He had a full Western Swing band with twin fiddles, steel etc. His voice was just amazing and we were very excited but you could tell that to most of the people in the room he was not the main attraction. This confused us no end! By that time we were obsessed with Merle, George, Patsy, Ernest Tubb etc. and were touring the States looking for that classic honky-tonk sound but not finding it anywhere. When Hank Jr. came on we were almost forcibly ejected after our Chicago pal Terry screamed “Audrey slept around!” And “Hank never did it this way!” Strange tubby bearded creatures with leather waistcoats, mullets and huge belt buckles stared us down menacingly!

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