Seattle Weekly: Why did you start an all Merle Haggard cover band? I mean, why Merle and not Hank or Johnny Cash?
Merle Haggard With Neko Case. Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., 467-5510, www.theparamount.com. $44.50–$49.50. 7:30 p.m. Sun., Feb. 11.
Mama Tried. Shanty Tavern, 9002 Lake City Way, 526-9854, $5. 9 p.m. Fri., Feb. 9.
Jack Rainwater (guitarist for Mama Tried, the Seattle-based Merle Haggard tribute band): It was kind of a side project for everyone involved. A lot of us, in our other bands, had been doing covers of the country greats already. And I just felt that Merle's songbook was so vast that we would have enough material to do anything we wanted, just exclusively Merle stuff. And people wanna hear this stuff—that's why I was into it. I'd been listening to him since I was a kid, so it was really easy for me to pick up the material. I mean, people, when we play live, they just love the songs. So it was a no-brainer for us that we could just play all Merle Haggard songs and it would be successful, because people love those songs.
What is it about Merle that separates him from the other elder country statesmen?
Part of it is he's a folk writer, but his songs are pop songs. They're really catchy—I mean, "Silver Wings" is a pop song. And "Mama Tried" is really a rock song. Even though he's a country great, he just crosses over those genre lines a lot. He's done the honky-tonk stuff and the old Bob Wills stuff, the western swing thing. He's worked in so many different styles that you could probably build a set out of just one of his genres. The set we have now is pretty much straight honky-tonk and alt-country, but we could probably do a whole one of Merle's western swing songs.
Have you seen Merle live before? How was he?
Oh, he's awesome. The last time I saw him was at the Lynden Fair out in Lynden, Wash.—which is pretty much farm country. And he's playing for mostly farmers. He was doing a fair tour at the time, so he'd been playing to a lot of farmers the whole time. And his new record was speaking to that. So it was really great to see him in that environment. The nonhip people really dig what he does, but the hipsters like it, too, because they think it's kind of kitschy. He just speaks to a lot of people. I used to not like Merle when I was younger. My grandma listened to Merle all the time, and I was like, "I hate that stuff; I wanna listen to Led Zeppelin."
He wrote a lot of songs in the old days, but throughout the '90s and even today, he keeps writing incredible records. He's more prolific than any other elder country star I can think of. What do you think keeps him going?
He's toured the country a lot; he's seen a lot. I think he has more to say now than what he did 30 years ago. When he did The Fugitive, he was a star. He was kind of a James Dean–looking guy. He was a Nashville pop star. He's got more to say now than what he did back then. He has a feel for what working America is going through. He's developed more of an opinion. And it's interesting because he has kind of an unusual outlook on things. You're never quite sure what he's thinking. But I think of him as a gun-toting, meat-eating liberal.
It's funny, because Merle Haggard seems to embody that weird American dynamic. We're always the first to adopt radical viewpoints, yet we're some of the most conservative people on the planet.
Oh yeah. Y'know, the Drive-by Truckers said that "Okie From Muskogee" was written from Merle's dad's point of view. I thought that was interesting. But then I'm thinking, 'Merle's gotta be pushing 70. That would make him 40 years old in 1960.' I don't think it was written from his dad's perspective. I think that's really Merle singing what he believed. He's like a combo of John Steinbeck and James Dean. Steinbeck was that kind of old codger out there traveling America. I think Merle really is that kind of guy from the Grapes of Wrath. And you know, we're playing this show with a rockabilly band called Fistful of Cash—they do all Johnny Cash stuff from the Sun Records days. Plenty of people have done that already. Nobody's really done an all Merle Haggard tribute. Actually, a friend of mine told me about a band from Texas called Girl Haggard, an all-female Haggard cover band.
Yeah. I thought that was kinda weird, too, but I haven't checked them out yet.