OK, bring it: Cash v. Haggard
Picking one of several threads from my last handful of posts, whose output is more essential — more worth absorbing, listening to, and giving shelf space to — the assembled works of Johnny Cash, or those of Merle Haggard?
I have limited personal experience with both artists.
I spent the best part of a day in a studio in Seattle watching Johnny Cash record “Time of the Preacher,” and interviewed him very briefly for Rolling Stone. The next day I drove to Portland to see Mark Lanegan open for Cash (and, I think, to deliver a show of Coop’s art to a gallery down there) during what I believe to have been the next-to-the-last date he did on tour. And I followed him onstage at the first Americana Music Association awards, an unnerving thing which nobody thought to prepare me for, though I was that year president of the bloody association. A rough joke, I suppose.
Haggard I interviewed on the phone for a Time Out New York article, and then again because during the writing of that piece Johnny Cash passed on, and I was obliged to do the distasteful job of asking for Haggard’s thoughts on the subject. I used some of the unused portions to augment Andy McLennon’s interview, and then stepped in and co-wrote Andy’s piece for ND when he had trouble making his ideas fall onto the page. I saw Haggard once, at the Ryman, just after he’d signed to Anti- when no Nashville label would have him. I’d expected a brilliant show, a rebellious middle finger full of life, but he just ran through the numbers as if he were in Branson.
That said, there is a Charles Peterson photo of Cash from that day in the studio glaring at me over the monitor to this computer, and it has been in that same place in every home I’ve had since I acquired the print.
I think of Cash as a very complicated kind of holy man, in part because of what I saw that day in the studio, how he handled the chords of his fame. I would note, too, that it is essential to my way of thinking that one listen to and grapple with the implications of Personal Files, a two-disc posthumous release of home studio guitar and vocal workouts begun in 1973, before deciding about the vitality of his 1970s (and even 1980s) releases. And I renew my plea for SOMEONE to find the “Chicken In Black” video he turned into CBS when he wanted finally out of his deal in the 1980s. Maybe it’s hyperbole from his second autobiography, and maybe not. But we all have our whales to chase, eh?
Now…Cash became a pop star, and Haggard never did. One of the crossroads “Okie From Muskogee” represents. (On the other hand, Cash sang about prison, and Haggard did time, so…) Haggard’s oeuvre has not benefited from the bump Cash’s catalog received in the American Recordings era. Which is to say I don’t have as much of it. Plus, Haggard recorded for a bunch of labels, while Cash spent most of his career with one. It’s hard for me to tell from Allmusic’s discography, which seems incomplete but I haven’t time nor patience to double-check, but it appears both men cut roughly the same number of albums (which is to say, not even half as many as Willie has).
Which isn’t really getting to the point. Let me toss out a hypothesis, then: Haggard’s albums are worth keeping — as are Charlie Rich’s albums — simply because there’s always at least one song worth discovering that wouldn’t be anthologized. But Cash can be summarized in a well-chosen two- or three-disc compilation with no dimunition of his gifts, nor of his importance. Just as Hank Williams could be summarized in the old Original Singles box set leaning against the cabinet to my left, and the only reason to keep the rest of the stuff is because I have it. (And because the singles set doesn’t have Luke the Drifter, best I recall.) (Although, again, Hank’s career is rather abridged.)
Not, of course, that I’m getting shed of the Cash collection. Just trying to throw some fresh meat into the fray. Now to go change the litterbox and take out the garbage before it’s too late.