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AN ESSAY ON MERLE HAGGARD
by E. PLURIBUS GERGELY
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Old Farts That Love Quartet Gospel 78s, Sunspots, and Untamed Hawks

Kev,

Hope all is well. You asked me about Haggard, so I'm gonna tell ya about me and Haggard.

Some time ago, me and a couple of my buddies went to one of those Allentown 45 and 78 only shows, held during the first Saturday in March. That's right. Dealers weren't (and still aren't) allowed to sell anything but 45s and 78. Sounds kooky, but it's always a great show. Anyway, we got to this particular show fairly late. As soon as we walked in the door, they went their way, and I went mine. Most of the better 45s were gone, so I concentrated on 78s. Because I was a nut for black quartet gospel, the field was still pretty open. As far as I knew the only people who were actively looking for that stuff were John Tefteller from Oregon, Charlie Horner (I think he might be a Philly guy), and a chunk of the 78 Quarterly dudes. None of them were there, and because of that, I managed to find a ton of Peacock and Specialty stuff that I was pretty desperate to hear.

Right before we left, I spotted a dealer with a box that was marked 'white gospel 78s'(take it from me -nobody wants white gospel). I figured it couldn't hurt to take a look. Everybody makes mistakes, putting things in boxes that didn't belong there (I once found a $500 soul record in a country box). Lo and behold, this dealer had placed 10 mistakes in the box, 12 mint discs (5 copies of one title and 5 of another) by the Sunspot Quartet on the Sunspot label, co-owned by Sam Phillips and his brother Judd. The label was more or less an adjunct of Sun, during Sun's early days when Sam Phillips was cutting anything to find out what would keep him afloat (a lot of that talk about Sam Phillips and his vision is a lot of poppycock. If the 1952 Buddy Cunningham- Perry Como like outing had sold, he would have pulled the plug on the blues, rockabilly, and country all together). I asked the dealer what he wanted for the lot. 10 bucks. No problem. I stuck 'em under my arm and headed by the door, but was stopped by one of the bigger players at the show, Jay Monore, world famous for his Sun collection. He pointed at my booty and said, "You selling those things?" I replied that I'd be more than willing to trade for something. To make a long story short, he gave me 35 bucks, a copy of "Let's Go Out to the Programs, No. 2" by the Dixie Hummingbirds (great, great record -the Birds imitating their favorite female quartets), and a Barbara Pittman record that was pretty bad. I knew I was getting screwed in some way or another, but Monore said he was writing a Sun book. Whatever. It was a done deal. I headed out the door with my buddies and compared notes during the car ride home.

A week later, I decided to call Tefteller. He appeared to be a decent human being, a rarity amongst record collectors (a truly hopeless crew of losers, myself included). I told him I had "these Sunspots and. . ." He interrupted me right away and said, "Yeah, I know exactly what they are. Tell ya what. I'm going to be on a record buying trip on the east coast during the third week of June. Would it be okay if I stopped by to take a look at them?" Sure, why not?

He dropped by during that third week of June and looked at two titles, all that I was willing to give up. "How about a trade?" No. "How much?" Back then, I would have been happy with 100 for the pair, but I figured I might as well press my luck. My ball and chain was planning to visit her sister in Portland, Oregon. A little extra money would be nice. "Well, I've never really seen any Sunspots up for auction before. How 'bout $1,500 for the pair?" Out came the checkbook, I was $1,500 richer, he told me to call him immediately if I had anymore great finds, and promptly headed for Chicago.

So this Sunspot thing was good, despite the fact that the music in the grooves was pretty bad. My wheels kept turning.

A week or so later, I got in touch with Richard Weize, another decent human being, owner of Bear Family records, and told him I had "these Sunspot records". Talk about timing! It just so happened he was currently putting together a compilation of Sun Gospel recordings. Would I be interested in sending the discs to a German recording studio for digital transfer? No. Too chancy shipping 78s, especially overseas. Would I be interested in driving to Hoboken where a friend of his would make the transfer in his home studio? No problem, but how about some money and credits on the CD when it's finally released? The money's not gonna happen, but how about the credits and some free Bear Family product, CDs, boxed sets? You like Merle Haggard?

Now there was a guy I needed to check out. Really, the only thing I knew about Merle Haggard was that he was a pretty popular country guy and that Gram Parsons thought he was God incarnate.

Hey, money's not everything! Especially when someone's offering to give me a lot of neat stuff, CD credits, and a Merle Haggard boxed set!

Months later, a rather large shipment arrived at my door, including the Sun Gospel CD. A picture of one of the Sunspot 78s was in the accompanying book, along with a photo credit next to Colin Escott. Call me a simpleton, but I was tickled to death. Colin Escott, yet another guy I really admired, right up there with Peter Guralnick. Two guys that took one of the all time worst fields of writing (along with science fiction), the rock biography, and turned it into life changing art. Life was good!

And it got even better while I digested the 5 disc Merle Haggard "Untamed Hawk" collection. I kicked back, read the accompanying book (if you want class, nobody does it better than Bear Family, even if you disagree that Ray Price really doesn't really warrant a 15 CD retrospective), and let Merle sing his stories about prison, booze, family, and getting screwed over time and time again by someone he was absolutely gun-ho about. Let me tell you something. Hands down nobody sings stories about prison, booze, the importance of family, and getting screwed over time and time again by someone you're absolutely gun ho about better than Merle Haggard.

Kev, I don't know what Haggard CDs to tell you to buy 'cause all I have is this boxed set. All I can do is give you the following list of faves, songs that prove that there might indeed be some kind of God somewhere:1- Loneliness is Eating Me Alive -currently one of my top ten favorites of all time, 2-I Threw Away the Rose, 3-I'm a Lonesome Fugitive, 3-Somebody Else You've Known, 4-Gone Crazy, 5-Some of Us Never Learn, 6-Piedras Negras, 7-You Don't Have Very Far to Go, 8-Wine Take Me Away, 9-Don't Get Married (I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about how great this one is), and 10-Sing Me Back Home. Yeah, there's a whole lot more, but they're the ones that put a lump in my throat every time I hear 'em. If Haggard had recorded nothing but "Loneliness is Eating Me Alive", he'd still be a genius.

The boxed set ends at his last session on December 8, 1968. And what I know about Haggard ends there. Truth be told, I'm not the man to ask when it comes to what Haggard sides to listen to. What I *can* tell you is that it's been ages since I've really listened to anything without analyzing the absolute beejayzus out of it. Was the song well crafted? Were the instruments recorded well? Did the players have decent chops? After playing in bands and writing songs, you can't help but do that. You lose the ability to allow the music to just flood your senses. That sounds REAL dumb, but it's true. Listening to Haggard was the first time in years that I didn't bother with the analysis. Those unbelievably sincere song stories just walloped me, and I just lost myself in all that booze, misery, and heartache. God almighty, you even feel bombed without even taking a sip of liquor as soon as the man opens his mouth.

And you know what I just realized? The guys and gals that really have IT, have that *something* that has very little to do with the music itself. They've had lives that compel them to tell their stories. And because their most creative avenue isn't always words, their voices and instruments allow them to tell their tales in ways that make their stories and observations more interesting than those of poets and novelists.

Again, sorry that I couldn't be of much help as a tour guide. It was just real nice to sit here and tap away, writing about someone I just think the world of.

Talk to ya soon, Kev!


E. Pluribus