Merle, Waylon, Willie, Patsy: Classic Country Takes Center Stage in Nashville

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach

Merle Haggard performs at Stagecoach on April 24, 2015 in Indio, Calif.

Simpler material from another era still has a place in a high-tech world.

Just days after the 52nd Academy of Country Music Awards recognized the state of the genre in 2016 and 2017 on national TV, Nashville turned back the clock.

Willie Nelson taped a SiriusXM special on April 4 that mixed in music from his forthcoming album, God’s Problem Child, along with reminiscences of his wild days as a songwriter and frustrated country artist in the 1960s. Alan Jackson, the late Jerry Reed and songwriter Don Schlitz (“The Gambler,” “Forever and Ever, Amen”) were announced April 5 as new members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. An all-star tribute to Merle Haggard had the likes of Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney retooling more than 30 titles from the Hag’s rich catalog at Bridgestone Arena on the one-year anniversary of his death. The Patsy Cline Museum opened on Third Avenue (on the second floor above the Johnny Cash Museum) on April 7. And CMT premiered a multiartist Waylon Jennings tribute on April 7, with Eric Church, Jamey Johnson and Kris Kristofferson among the celebrants.

Country, once considered a secondary genre, is widely regarded as a mainstream format in the post-Taylor Swift era, and it has borrowed heavily from other genres in the process. Florida Georgia Line has infused hip-hop sensibilities into its multiplatinum singles, Jason Aldean threads hard-rock power chords under his distinctly Southern voice, and Thomas Rhett borrows profusely from R&B and blue-eyed soul in his high-profile act. And yet, there’s a rabid audience that’s still passionate about past works and the artists who created them — the Cashes, the Waylons and the Hags.

“There are giants in every genre,” said Allman Brothers Band/Gov’t Mule veteran Warren Haynes on the red carpet at the Haggard event. “Those were the giants in the same way as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Bob Dylan. They raised the bar for everybody, and consequently, that music’s timeless."

That was evident during the week. Haynes and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons wrangled a blues-tinged arrangement out of Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues,” extending its life in the process. The Nelson-penned “Crazy,” heard through the speakers at the Cline Museum, remains as elegant as ever. And Jennings’ “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” which Chris Stapleton delivered with fire in the opening minutes of the CMT special, embodied the unvarnished character of the rural and blue-collar folks who consumed country before it crept into the cities and suburbs.

“It’s real,” said 2013 inductee Bobby Bare of the classic material at the Hall of Fame announcement. “It’s great songs, and it was never really a visual thing. All the country music’s visual now. If you put on five pounds, you’re out of the business.”

The music itself has added weight. Productions in the 21st century are often so elaborate that some of the emotional content in the background — programmed piano chords or background voices — are sensed at a subliminal level. Historically, country’s instruments were given more separation in the arrangements, more carefully framing the voice and the story at the center of the performance.

Jackson invariably applied those principles during his run of hits, which began in 1990, and that same stripped-down approach was at the core of his writing. He employed common language in exploring difficult subject matter — small-town decay in “Little Man,” aging in “Remember When,” national grief in “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” — with clarity and poignancy.

Hank Williams has always been my favorite,” said Jackson at the Hall announcement. “He wrote simple, and said so much and [was] poetic at times.”

In some ways, country's tradition benefits from modern distribution forms. In the not-so-distant past, there were few classic country stations, and the genre’s hits often lost their recognizability faster than at other current formats. When songs disappeared from top 40 or rock radio, for example, they might have resurfaced on the playlists of adult contemporary, oldies or classic rock stations. But there were few classic country outlets, so when a track was removed from current country playlists, it was pretty much lost to the average consumer.

Now, thanks to the proliferation of satellite radio -- with SiriusXM’s channel Willie’s Roadhouse -- plus Internet outlets and classic country terrestrial stations, it’s easier than ever to discover what Garth Brooks would call “the old stuff.” And in an age where nearly everyone is confounded at some point by technologies that fail to work on the platform of choice or poor Internet connections, that straight-forward, low-tech sensibility of the classics is suddenly refreshing — even when it’s delivered through such modern tech options as YouTube or Pandora.

"It's real music, honest music, created with integrity, created with raw talent," says Blackbird Presents founder Keith Wortman, who produced the Haggard and Jennings tributes. "I think it's a reflection of the mood of the country as well. People want authenticity, and that's why you’re seeing people like Chris Stapleton break through and Jason Isbell have this great run and Sturgill Simpson have this incredible run. From my perspective, all of this bubbling up is coming out of Nashville."

That musical honesty plays out in the classic artists' public lives, as well. Cash, Cline, Nelson, Williams and George Jones were all examples of performers who dealt with profound tragedy and/or personal weakness. By embracing their shortcomings in a public way, they formed a real-world bond with fans, who invariably deal with their own Achilles' heels.

"That’s what I love about Cash," says Bill Miller, who founded the Cash and Cline museums. "His life was an open book, a book that he purposely opened. Every time he stumbled, every time he fell, he wanted to share that with people so hopefully they could avoid the same pitfalls. He never denied his demons, and I think in his case, people of every sociological and economic background and race and creed embrace that."

One by one, the legends invariably disappear, and a track on Nelson’s new album, “Still Not Dead,” pokes fun at the numerous times when some Internet source has incorrectly pronounced his passing. Nelson said during his SiriusXM taping that he and collaborator Buddy Cannon have written a gospel song that suggests he may continue to beat the Grim Reaper.

"Heaven is closed, hell's overcrowded, so I think I'll just stay right here," he said, quoting its lyrics and drawing a laugh in the process.

But the museums, the tributes and the classic country outlets pretty much guarantee that even when the body is gone, the Nelsons, the Haggards, the Jacksons and the Clines will still be making a connection to future generations.

"It's the substance and the back story," says Miller, "that keep these people alive."

This article first appeared in the Country Update newsletter. Sign up for it here.