Tift Merritt and Merle Haggard
Saturday, Aug. 23
8 p.m., $10–$129>
Merle Haggard is a country artist, arguably the finest since Hank Williams when it comes to scratching the form’s eternal itches of simple hopes, truths and misgivings. But at his best, Haggard has made bona fide folk music, with everyday people at its coreno matter the beat below or the steel guitar licks above.
An incorrigible youth, Haggard has often been aligned with outcasts and fugitives, an aspect echoed by his association with outlaw country. Sure, part of his allure stemmed from the hard-edged rejoinder he lodged against Nashville’s plush cosmopolitan nature.
But more than his rapscallion tendency, Haggard’s plainspoken gravitas gave heart, blood and lungs to internal characters and troubles. From the worried, single-parent patriarch of “The Farmer’s Daughter” to the tale of inevitable loss awaiting a “Kentucky Gambler,” his songs come sketched with the same internal grace that lights Robert Frank’s The Americans. Even some of his notorious tunes, such as “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie from Muskogee,” are crisp and clear in their point of viewso much so that many believed he must share their sentiments.
Haggard enjoyed a two-decade run of popularity before his commercial fortunes flagged in the late ’80s. He rode back to prominence with the Americana revival, though, which enabled him to make real, folk-rooted Haggard albums, not the commercial compromises that soured his ’90s catalog. His last two records2010’s beautifully reflective I Am What I Am and 2011’s less moribund, Working In Tennesseefind him moving at an unhurried pace, sharing a wistful perspective. “I’ve seen it in its pride and all its glory,” he sings. “The sad part is I’ve seen it go away.”
Raleigh native and New York transplant Tift Merritt opens for Haggard in Chapel Hill. The legacy she’s steadily building veers from his stylistic rigor by showcasing an ability to work country, rock, soul and classic pop at once. Still, there’s fetching vulnerability and ease to her voicethe common-person core at the heart of everything she does. Last year’s Traveling Alone, for instance, traffics in self-determination, from the title track to the no-fault break-up song, “Drifted Apart.” Now in her late 30s, Merritt’s moving toward a comfortably mercurial identity: “I don’t know who I am but I can’t stay here,” she offers.
Haggard and Merritt share the same power: They have a simple refrain or melodic verse to give voice to experiences for which we haven’t coined words or felt yet, even if we’ve understood them for decades.