For Merle, it must be like singing to the same crowd every night. In fact, maybe it is a traveling nation called into existence at every concert. Call it Country Nation.
Merle Haggard came to town last week, and his Working Man Tour transformed the Huntsman Center into an outpost of Country Nation, complete with Hag’s Country Store, a table set up between portals 21 and 22 where CN merchants offered Hag paraphernalia to the faithful: embroidered black caps with a suede bill, T-shirts in hues of sky or midnight blue, key rings, refrigerator magnets, and color photos of Bonnie Owens one-time wife of the late Buck, one-time wife of Merle himself, and present day back-up and harmony with The Strangers, Merle’s band.
People used to talk about Woodstock Nation, as if smoking dope and dropping acid and dancing naked in the mud constituted cultural coherence. Country Nation is a true nation a nation with customs, dress, language, values as finely calibrated as the arcane kinship patterns of Trobriand Islanders.
Country Nation antedates Woodstock Nation by at least a century, maybe even two. The ethos of CN derives from the farm, from hard work, from family. The citizens of Country Nation are the salt of the earth, practical-minded patriots (We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse, Okie From Muskogee) who have always been the true moral majority.
Country Nation is inhabited by the people praised by Tocqueville in Democracy in America people whose singular strength resides in the superiority of their women. This superiority is implicitly acknowledged in song after song, including Merle’s Mama Tried To Make Me Better.
The song that made Merle famous was Okie From Muskogee, Country Nation’s battle song a formulation of CN values asserted in the face of what seemed in the late ’60s to be the burgeoning power and eventual triumph of Woodstock Nation.
When Merle sang Okie From Muskogee at his Working Man Tour concert, he himself acknowledged an irony or two in lyrics composed 30 years ago. When Merle crooned we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, he cocked an eyebrow and glanced conspiratorially at his saxophone player. Merle even changed the words to one verse, the one that long ago defined the battle front between Country Nation and Woodstock Nation. Instead of We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy, like the Hippies out in San Francisco do, Merle sang We let our hair grow long and shaggy.
Long and shaggy hair is now a distinguishing feature of Country Nation, especially shaggy hair that barbers along the Wasatch Front refer to as the Heber City Cut short on top with a flowing mane sprouting from the crown of the head to the nape. The senior citizens of Country Nation with surviving hair follicles, for the most part, still sport the immaculately coifed and Brylcreamed pompadour. The women style their hair in the shag or the lacquered bouffant.
Within Country Nation are certain sub-genres of apparel. Prevalent is the Garth Brooks look: the candy-striped cowboy shirt molded to the male torso so as to reveal every contour of subcutaneous fat, the black Levis, the big hat and the belt buckle like a gilded mirror from the Court of the Sun King. With their standard issue cowboy boots (Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear Okie), the CN males perambulate in a curiously mincing manner, surely the consequence of pinched toes and high heels. The habitat of the Garths is rural Country Nation.
Urban Country Nation is more the province of the baseball cap with the funnel-bent bill, the T-shirt and the fleece vest.
In Female Country Nation are three genres of dress, corresponding to the three ages of woman. Gals wear tight Levis; Ladies wear fringed jackets; and Mamas wear polyester pant-suits.
Any authentic nation has its absolutes, and in Country Nation there are at the present moment in history two such inviolable values. The first is a universal contempt for Bill Clinton, as evidenced by the cheer that went up when Merle expressed a wish for our commander in chief to vacate his office. Clinton represents the apotheosis of Woodstock Nation, its smarmy self-congratulatory goodness and corresponding moral laxity.
The second, and most important, absolute is the enjoyment of tobacco products, whether masticated or inhaled. Drinking fountains in the Huntsman Center under edict of CN were put into service as spittoons, redolent of amber expectorate and bolus. Only a radical fringe exercised their right of civil disobedience and ignited Marlboros during the concert. At intermission, however, everyone in Country Nation, except four medics on emergency duty, exited the premises to partake in a communal and sacramental smoke-in.
As Merle says, We like living right, and being free.