The Roads and Highways Less Traveled
To give one example of the crossroads country music found itself at in the beginning of the 2010s, critical “best of” lists for the year 2013 included not only familiar and reliable mainstream stalwarts and rising stars like Brad Paisley, Kacey Musgraves, and Gary Allan, but also, among others, names like Simpson, Isbell, Lindi Ortega and Brandy Clark.
Ortega, a Canadian singer/songwriter from Toronto, Ontario, drew comparisons to Emmylou Harris for her ethereal vocal style, and earned the nickname “Indie Lindi” as she promoted herself and her independent releases for her first 10 years in Toronto. She broke through with both the Drifter EP, in 2008, and Cigarettes and Truckstops, in 2012, in addition to earning further exposure through having song placements on the hit television show Nashville. Above all, she considered herself a student of classic country music. “If there is one thing I can respect more than anything, it’s individuality in music,” she says. “And I think back in the early era of country music that was so apparent. Like, you could really tell your Johnny Cash from your Waylons from your Merles. They all had a distinct thing happening. And they were all really great at what they did. It was really important for me to etch out my own thing as a student of that.”
Thanks to further breakout success, she moved to Nashville off the strength of follow-up projects, but later married and moved to Western Canada in 2017, with that time period informing an EP released that year, Till the Goin’ Gets Gone, in which the pressures of trying to make it made her ponder quitting the music business altogether. Thankfully, a change of heart and a reorganization of her career prevented that, and she followed her creative ambitions with a Spaghetti-western concept album through 2018’s Liberty.
Clark could somewhat relate. She began as a songwriter, inspired by her mother, who taught her how to write songs, and by her grandmother, who introduced her to country legends like Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and Patsy Cline. She moved to Nashville in 1998 after enrolling in Belmont University’s music business program and leaving behind a possible career in basketball, eventually landing a publishing deal upon graduation. Her first success story came when LeAnn Rimes took “Crazy Women” to the top 40 in 2010, but would soon be eclipsed by the success of both “Better Dig Two,” recorded by the Band Perry, and “Mama’s Broken Heart,” written with Kacey Musgraves and Shane McAnally and recorded by Miranda Lambert. Both were top five hits, the former a No. 1 hit, and paved the way for Clark’s own solo debut album, 2013’s 12 Stories. A critical success known for its sparse production approach and heightened songwriting and narrative-driven approach, the album earned a Grammy award for Best Country Album.
Country radio wouldn’t budge on Clark’s singles, but attention surrounding her single “Stripes” earned her a record deal with Warner Bros. Records anyway. In 2016, she released her sophomore album, Big Day in a Small Town, another critical success that brought on producer Jay Joyce – who by this point was notching consistent success with Eric Church – and had a top 40 hit in “Girl Next Door.” And while Clark enjoyed success for her own work, other artists continued recording her material – most notably Kacey Musgraves, who recorded both “Follow Your Arrow” and “Biscuits.” But she’d later come to dislike the radio-driven approach she took with her sophomore set, and has since devoted her time and creative energies to meeting her own artistic needs first and foremost, the most recent example being 2020’s Your Life is a Record. “I admittedly was very heartbroken that it [“Girl Next Door”] didn’t fare better on the charts,” she told NPR in 2020. “I had supporters at country radio, but not enough to get beyond about 39. That was one of the bigger heartbreaks of my life, if I’m being really honest, as someone who grew up getting a lot of my musical influences from the radio. Because when I was a girl, people like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, the Judds and Pam Tillis and Trisha [Yearwood], they ruled the airwaves – or at least you felt like that.”
Another artist would find her breakthrough from carrying on a family tradition. Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Williams, daughter of Hank Williams Jr., and half-sister of Hank Williams III, didn’t grow up loving country music, but gravitated toward it in time. Her first two albums – 2004’s The Ones We Never Knew and 2009’s Here With Me – were critical success, but not commercial ones; The Highway, released in 2013, changed that. Released on her own Georgiana label and self-produced alongside Charlie Peacock, in addition to being mostly self-written, The Highway truly cemented Williams’ legacy, thanks in part to songs like “Waiting on June,” dedicated to her maternal grandparents, and “Railroads,” the album’s original title and a song about a preacher’s son who wanders aimlessly never quite understanding why he left home. It’s somewhat torturous and thoughtful, cementing Williams as a rightful heir to the family legacy. “It took me a while to really understand the legacy,” Williams told Rolling Stone in 2013. “Growing up, I was really not exposed to the music business. My dad would always say, ‘I’m not Bocephus, I’m Daddy.’ We would be on the farm, we would hunt, we would fish, but there were very few concerts when I was little. His concerts were so wild, he did not want us anywhere near them. People think we’d have breakfast with Garth [Brooks] and dinner with Waylon [Jennings].”
The years afterwards, however, have been mostly dedicated to a domestic lifestyle for Williams, and outside of a contribution on Dave Cobb’s Southern Family compilation album, she hasn’t released new music since her breakthrough moment.
As a testament to the growing independent insurgence forming in country music, in 2015, The Guardian writer-turned-YouTube critic Grady Smith argued, “it’s imperative that country radio starts looking … to the people not already on radio. Because if the format doesn’t, then country radio will become so one-note that it will collapse upon itself and go the way of rock radio, ceasing to exist altogether.”
The Underdogs and Travellers of this Earth
By 2015, country music’s mainstream and underground realms were beginning to converge in ways they hadn’t before, thanks in part not only to an increased dissatisfaction with the former component’s direction, but also due to the rise of social media and mediums such as streaming that offered easier access to non-major label talent. Despite this, country radio was still the dominant method of promotion for the genre, evidenced clearly by then-CEO of Sony Music Nashville Chairman Gary Overton’s remark that, “if you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Indeed, a 2015 poll conducted by The Infinite Dial, a marketing research and media poll from Edison Research, found that 75% of people still discovered new music from terrestrial radio, with XM Radio and Spotify coming in at 20% and 18%, respectively. While still the biggest medium, though, it was far from the only one by this point.
An artist from Texas with no major label support would prove that, when Aaron Watson claimed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Country Album Charts almost a week after Overton’s comments were made, with his album, The Underdog, which sold 26,340 copies in its first week without major label or country radio support. After slinging it out for more than a decade in Texas, Watson finally broke through to Nashville. In a statement blatantly directed at Overton, he said, “My name is Aaron Watson. I’m not played on country radio. And I have the No. 1 record in country music this week. I do exist.”
Far from a fluke, southern-rock band Blackberry Smoke actually proved Overton wrong as well just one week earlier, when its Holding All the Roses album debuted at the top of the charts. Originally signed to the Zac Brown Band’s Southern Ground label, Blackberry Smoke became the first independent band in the modern era to top the country albums chart, arguably garnering more success than it ever had before. Both Blackberry Smoke and Watson would find continued success without country radio, but the latter act would take it further, by independently releasing and promoting a single, 2017’s “Outta Style,” which made it to the top 10 of the country airplay charts.
And if their combined success helped pave the way for a wake-up call, it would only be amplified that November, when a Kentucky native achieved his own breakout moment – not quite independently, but independently minded in spirit, at least. At that year’s CMA Awards, singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton was nominated for the CMA Male Vocalist Of The Year, New Artist Of The Year, and also had his solo debut album, Traveller, nominated for Album Of The Year. His highest-charting hit hadn’t yet charted. He descended from a family of coal miners and originally went to college to study engineering. After a year, he dropped out, destined to move to Nashville to pursue a music career. His earliest musical contribution included fronting a Travis Tritt tribute band. By 2001, he was signed with the publishing house Sea Gayle Music, and would find success writing chart-topping hits like Josh Turner’s “Your Man” and Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More.” In 2005, he and industry veteran Mike Henderson had written a batch of songs that felt right for bluegrass instrumentation, and after a few casual get-togethers with banjoist Richard Bailey, bassist Mike Fleming, and fiddler Tammy Rogers, a new band, the Steeldrivers, was born. Instead of high lonesome tenor, as is typical for the style, the group was fronted by Stapleton, a noticeably more grizzly, raucous presence. The band released a debut album through Rounder Records in 2008, and a sophomore album, Reckless, in 2010.
It would also be the year Stapleton left the group and founded a Southern-rock band called the Jompson Brothers. The independently released self-titled album later that year would showcase the soul and rock influences that would characterize Stapleton’s solo work to come, including its final song, “Barely Alive,” that emphasized his main appeal – a wide-ranging, howling delivery that aimed for pure, unfiltered power. By 2013, he was signed to Mercury Nashville and releasing singles attached only to his name. But “What Are You Listening to?,” released in October of that year, did not perform as expected, and Stapleton once again found success mostly from writing for others – including Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer” and George Strait’s “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright,” among others.
He released his debut album, Traveller, in May 2015, its title track inspired by a trip taken with his wife, Morgane, in 2013, following the death of his father. The project was produced by Dave Cobb, and, in a twist of irony, inspired by Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. “The sound of it was so striking to me,” he said upon the album’s release. “I didn’t know that it was something that could still be done sonically, ‘cause we had lost a lot of whatever that is in modernity and technology. So, I really set out to find Dave [Cobb] and I said, ‘I gotta at least meet this guy,’ and go, ‘Hey man, I like the sound of that record.’ ”
Recorded at the historic RCA Studio A, Stapleton intended to make “a pretty grown-up record,” and didn’t care if the simple, hard-country approach took to radio. It didn’t, but it opened with sales units of 27,000 in the first week of its release, enough to open at No. 2 on the Billboard Country Albums Chart. Sales were respectable but still paltry, until a performance with Justin Timberlake the night of the aforementioned CMA Awards – in which the two performed Stapleton’s take on David Allan Coe’s “Tennessee Whiskey” and Timberlake’s “Drink You Away” – revolutionized Stapleton’s career overnight. He’d also win all three awards he was nominated for, beating out prominent mainstream figures, and even upsetting Blake Shelton’s win streak for Male Vocalist of the Year.
Since October of that year, Traveller had sold 66,900 more copies, equating to a grand total of 93,900 copies until the night of the awards. Afterwards, it sold 176,000 albums in its next week, nearly 50% more than the album had sold in total, and a 6000% increase over its sales from the week before. Furthermore, it climbed from No. 25 to No. 1 on the Billboard Country Album Chart and came in at No. 1 across all genres of music. It stayed at that top spot for a second week after selling 109,000 more copies. In addition to increased album sales, Stapleton’s single from the album, “Nobody to Blame,” climbed all the way to No. 10 on the Billboard Airplay chart after looking like it was going to stall out, picking up adds from radio stations across the country (the previous single from the album, the title track, failed to even chart). Meanwhile, the song that Stapleton performed on that eventual night, “Tennessee Whiskey,” saw a massive sales increase similar to the album from which it came from, selling a total of 118,000 downloads the week after the performance.
Though he had cemented himself as a songwriter within the industry, to the general public Stapleton was still considered a new artist, and one that people wanted to get to know. As a sign of its lasting impact, the album was certified platinum by March 2016, and has, as of this writing, continued to maintain lasting impact on the charts, as has “Tennessee Whiskey.” Stapleton became a superstar overnight, even if radio success didn’t follow. He wouldn’t achieve his first No. 1 hit until three years after the event, with “Broken Halos.” Follow-up projects came in 2017 through the From a Room collections comprised of older material, but a true solo sophomore effort wouldn’t come until 2020’s Starting Over. His influence extended beyond country, too. Pop singer/songwriter Adele championed the Steeldrivers’ “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” before Stapleton’s solo success, and artists as diverse as Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, and P!nk have all collaborated with him.
Stapleton, however, never aimed to capitalize off of that night’s success; it just happened naturally. “I remembered that what I want to do is make music that I like and that I think is fun and good,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. “If you think about what everyone else will think, you forget to just make music. I didn’t have any expectations with Traveller – I don’t think anybody did. That’s how I prefer the process to be.”
Less remarked on around this time was the release of Eric Church’s fifth-studio album, Mr. Misunderstood, released as a surprise release to his fan club members (dubbed “The Church Choir”) before going public with it, just one day before the CMA Awards broadcast. “Chris [Stapleton] went Beatles-on-Ed Sullivan on me,” he jokingly told Vulture in 2016. He went further, saying, “The way the music industry works is all based on hype. The label gets the music first, and then it’s media or critics, and then it’s radio. All these people are telling the fans to get the record, which is backwards to me. You’re trying to get it in the hands of the fans, but you give it to everybody else before you go to the fans. I like flipping that.”
The album was written in 20 days, and its title track referenced Americana stalwarts like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy while the remainder of the album pushed Church’s sound into similarly influenced blues and rock-leaning Americana music. Radio success was still inconsistent, especially following the polarizing release of 2014’s The Outsiders. But Church, like Stapleton, was following his muse and bringing an alternative sensibility to the mainstream world. So, too, was a ‘90s veteran entering his third decade as a performer.
Their Aim is True
By 2015, Tim McGraw had been removed from the Curb Records roster for three years and had found new success through Big Machine Records. He was in his third decade as an entertainer, and after sidestepping expectations with the unfortunate ditty “Truck Yeah” and even more dreadful “Lookin’ for That Girl,” he found success again as something of a neotraditionalist, thanks to hits like “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” and “Shotgun Rider.” Not to be typecast, though, he also had a No. 1 collaboration with Keith Urban and Taylor Swift through 2013’s “Highway Don’t Care.” He’d find his biggest success story of the 2010s, however, in 2015, when he recorded songwriter Lori McKenna’s “Humble and Kind.”
Born in Massachusetts, McKenna was named for her mother, Lorraine, who died when Lori was seven. As a songwriter who still lives in her hometown of Stoughton, familial themes became important trademarks of her work over time. Indeed, it was her brother who introduced her to the guitar and encouraged her to attend open-mic nights at the Old Vienna Kaffeehause in Westborough when she was 28 years old. Rather than face ridicule and embarrassment, as she initially expected, the audience members loved her. She’d find help in Nashville through fellow singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, who introduced McKenna’s 2004 album Bittertown to friends around town.
One of them happened to be Faith Hill, who stalled her completed Fireflies album to include tracks written by McKenna. Hill and husband Tim McGraw asked McKenna to tour with them in 2006. McGraw co-produced her Unglamorous album the next year and helped her sign to Warner Bros. Nashville, but following the album’s poor sales, she went back to being independent. Early success of the next decade came first with Hunter Hayes’ “I Want Crazy,” then with Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” which received a Grammy award for Best Country Song in 2016.
“Humble and Kind” was penned in May 2014 simply as a message to McKenna’s five children. “I was thinking about what we want the kids to know, and honestly how they don’t always listen to the things we say,” she told The Boot in 2016. “I just thought, ‘I’m going to write it down.’ Honestly, it’s a very simple song, and it’s really just this list of things that I wanted to make sure we told them, in this rhyme form. I was lucky that the chorus made as much sense as it did. I did write it in that one sitting; it took me a few hours, but it was a lucky day. I sang it in my phone, and I sent it to Tim. I said, ‘I wrote this song. Thought maybe you would want to hear it.’ ”
He did, though not right away. It was released as the second single from his 2015 Damn Country Music album in 2016, becoming a No. 1 hit by June, the first solo-written song to top the charts in four years since Taylor Swift’s “Ours,” and an award-winning, multi-platinum-certified single. At a time when country radio became less accepting of slow ballads, this simple, thoughtful, mostly acoustic-driven tune about gently suggesting ways the world could become a little nicer became one of the biggest hits of the year. That year, McKenna said, “Music in general … wakes us up from things we didn’t know we were feeling, or shuts down things we don’t want to feel anymore. I just hope in every song that I write, there’s a line that makes someone stop for a second and think.” Around this time, too, McKenna was prepping another album, 2016’s The Bird & the Rifle, featuring her own take on the song and a production credit from none other than Dave Cobb.
McGraw’s success with “Humble and Kind” also reflected that not every male artist on country radio was not necessarily a “bro,” so to say. Kip Moore, for instance, may have broken through with the bro-tinged “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck,” but his discography thus far has been more indebted to Bruce Springsteen’s brand of blue-collar, Americana-driven rock music, even if success outside of that single has largely alluded him. Still, he maintains a ravenous fan base and boasts impressive sales numbers for an artist whose scattered chart success brings to mind comparisons of Eric Church, and was also outspoken against the bro-country movement. There’s also Charlie Worsham, a Mississippi native who started as a mandolinist in the band KingBilly before striking out on his own in 2012, and found early success from touring with Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert. His debut album, Rubberband, featured both Vince Gill and Marty Stuart and a sound indebted to both artists. But while the album became a critical favorite, Worsham never broke through beyond the minor top 20 hit, “Could It Be,” in 2013.
As far as older artists were concerned, Dierks Bentley mostly remained a positive exception. Instead of following the same predictable route as his peers, Bentley released “Bourbon in Kentucky” in 2013, which featured Kacey Musgraves and served as the lead single to 2014’s Riser, a noticeably more mature, contemplative release. The single missed the top 40 altogether, but the eventual No. 1 single “I Hold On” proved there was still a place for smart, uplifting, substantive music on radio dials.
And as a sign of where country music was at during this point in time, Rick Kelly, vice president at Marco Promotions, acknowledged many of the aforementioned artists and why they didn’t get played on country radio. “While country or country-leaning artists like Sturgill Simpson and [Chris] Stapleton and [Jason] Isbell have had banner years, outselling many chart-topping radio artists, programmers have not embraced them. These artists are more critically lauded than the artists that make up much of country playlists. Lots of music fans consider country radio to be a foreign thing that has nothing to say to them … There was a time when radio programmers were arbiters of taste, but that was a pretty long time ago. Now there are more ways to find the music you like than ever before. Country radio … is not about music, it’s about commerce. Once we all accept that, these arguments are moot.”
Or, as Sturgill Simpson said, “A guy like me or Jason [Isbell], we can kick down doors all day but we’re not going to be the ones to walk through them … Chris Stapleton is a friend of mine. That guy is a phenomenal talent … because he’s in the inside, he’s in a better position to orchestrate change more so than anybody like Jason or myself or a lot of others could, and I think that’s a great thing. ‘Cause it has to move forward.”
Sing Me Back Home, and Sing with Me, Too
Independent country talent would continue to make waves as the decade rolled on, evidenced by the emergence of Billboard’s Americana chart in May 2016. It also, however, showcased how widespread the term had become, for better and worse. Its first chart included folk-tinged acts like The Lumineers and Bonnie Raitt, but it also included rock and soul-leaning acts like Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, the Jayhawks, and the Alabama Shakes. Of course, too, it also featured country acts like Chris Stapleton, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sturgill Simpson, and Loretta Lynn, meaning that it was a catch-all term used to describe a musical melting pot that was hard to pin down – as far as a definition was concerned, that is. Like before with alt-country in the ‘90s, Americana was beginning to be used as a way of capturing an attitude or ethos, rather than a specific musical direction.
That was most certainly true for Margo Price, when she released her 2016 debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. After a long struggle to release it, she had a banner year promoting the record. The Illinois native formed a band with her husband, guitarist Jeremy Ivey, as the political-leaning Secret Handshake, in her early twenties. Their ventures took them to Colorado, where Price says they lived in a tent on a free campground and busked for their dinner every night, using a sign that said, “Just married, need money for rings.”
They’d later form Buffalo Clover, after returning to Nashville – its name inspired by Price’s hometown. She later formed her own Margo and the Pricetags, intended as a supergroup, and eventually reached that title, given that prominent names like Sturgill Simpson and Kenny Vaughan, guitarist in Marty Stuart’s band, became members at one point. As a child growing up in the country of the Buffalo Prairie, Price remembered the closest town having a sign reading population 33. Her family circle lost their farm, a personal insight that would eventually make its way to the title track of her sophomore album, 2017’s All American Made, She moved to Nashville after studying dance in college, and took jobs anywhere from waitressing to roofing.
Her debut album, released in March 2016 and led by the autobiographical, six-minute “Hands of Time,” entered at No. 10 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, marking the first time a solo female artist debuted in the top 10 without the benefit of any history on the Hot Country Songs ranking. She was the musical guest on the Russell Crowe-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live in April, marking yet another moment in time a country artist broke through without the support of a major label or country radio. It didn’t come easy, though. She pawned her wedding ring (which she eventually got back) and sold her and her husband’s car to record her debut album, which caught the attention of Jack White and Third Man Records, the first country album the label ever released. Country music’s alternative connections weren’t mainstream, but they were becoming more prominent nonetheless.
As a testament to that, in March 2016, producer Dave Cobb finally fulfilled one of his dreams – to craft a concept album uniting country music’s biggest and brightest mainstream and independent talent together. Inspired by White Mansions, a concept album about the American Civil War, written by Paul Kennerley and released in 1978, Cobb’s Southern Family was, as its name implies, a way of asking artists to share their own personal, family oriented stories. “I wanted to have really talented artists custom write and do songs that mean a lot to them, and also just make the song that maybe they wouldn’t put on their record: the deep song, or the song that doesn’t fit in the queue or wouldn’t be a single. I wanted them to do the most honest song they could possibly do … Selfishly, I wanted Chris [Stapleton] to be on the same record as Jason Isbell, and Morgane [Stapleton] to be on the same record as John Paul White or any of the other people who have done it.”
Released on Cobb’s own Low Country Sound imprint, the album brought together mainstream stalwarts like Miranda Lambert, Chris and Morgane Stapleton, Zac Brown, and Jamey Johnson, as well as independent talents having their own banner years: Jason Isbell, Holly Williams, cousin Brent Cobb, and Shooter Jennings (whose 2005 debut Put the ‘O’ Back in Country was one of Cobb’s first country production works), among others. While not a huge commercial success, it was a testament to the inroads made by rising country music talent to foster success on their own terms, on an equal level to their mainstream peers. Cobb would also begin a long-term residency at RCA Studio A on Music Row, adjacent to the famed RCA Studio B that opened in 1956.
Noticeably absent from the Southern Family project was Sturgill Simpson, who by the beginning of 2016 was an Atlantic Records-signed artist, thanks largely to the landmark success of his Metamodern Sounds in Country Music album, and on the conditions that he was allowed to record what he wanted and retain creative control over his own music. His third album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, was released in April of that year, a concept album written as a conversation with his young son, framed around a series of life lessons passed down. Throughout the release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson spent the first year of his son’s life on the road promoting the album, watching him grow through pictures. He recalled the time as “bittersweet,” and A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was as much a love letter to that lost time as it was an album Simpson wanted to make.
Unlike his previous two releases, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was not a straightforward country project; it blended in horns to craft a project more akin to soul or hard-rock, based on its lead single “Brace For Impact (Live a Little).” It was still a country album, but one deeply entrenched in the Muscle Shoals sound. Or to frame the dichotomy another way: It featured a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and a redone Sunday Valley cut, “Oh Sarah,” dedicated to Simpson’s wife. It became Simpson’s first No. 1 country album anyway, and won a Grammy award for Best Country Album as well as a nomination for the general Album of the Year.
Around this time, too, Simpson formed a common kinship Merle Haggard, who acted as a mentor to Simpson in the same way he had to Iris DeMent just a few decades before. “I think he’s about the only thing I’ve heard that was worth listening to in a long time, to be real honest,” Haggard told Garden & Gun Magazine in 2016. “I heard [the song] ‘Long White Line’ and it knocked me out … I think he knew what his target was and he hit it.” The two further bonded over their history with railroads, not so much a love for them as it was a reminder to never return to that sort of lifestyle. When Simpson said he wasn’t sure if his new album could be considered country, Haggard said, “Good. If it’s like what they’re calling country, you don’t want to go near that shit.” They met at a festival while hanging out on stage, and had planned to do it again. “We’re going to a lot more shows together, I think,” Haggard said, “if I don’t die or something.”
Sadly, Haggard passed away on April 6, his 79th birthday, just nine days before the release of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. In the weeks following Haggard’s death, Simpson stood up for his departed friend. When the Academy of Country Music created the “Merle Haggard Spirit Award” to honor Haggard’s contributions by acknowledging artists who exemplified his integrity and “singular vision in carving an indelible path in country music,” Simpson noted, through Facebook, “Many years back, much like Willie [Nelson] and Waylon [Jennings] had years before, Merle Haggard said, ‘Fuck this town. I’m moving,’ and he left Nashville. According to my sources, it was right after a record executive told him that ‘Kern River’ was a bad song. In the last chapter of his career and his life, Nashville wouldn’t call, play, or touch him. He felt forgotten and tossed aside. I always got a sense that he wanted one last hit … one last proper victory lap of his own, and we all know he deserved it. Yet it never came. And now he’s gone.”
Simpson was referencing an incident in which Haggard’s aforementioned 1985 single was released to country radio and eventually became a top 10 hit, much to the dismay of CBS Records executive Rick Blackburn, who hated the song. After hearing Blackburn’s complaints numerous times, Haggard replied, “That’s about the third time you’ve told me that. It’s more like five times. Well, I’m about five times short of telling you to go to hell. Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.”
Simpson did not offer these criticisms as an outsider, though. While never actually nominated, both he and Margo Price were early nominee contenders for several categories at the 2016 CMA Awards. They weren’t mainstream, but their stature within the industry gave them an increased presence regardless, proving that country music’s mainstream and independent scenes were no longer running parallel to one another, as they had before. And while Haggard himself never attained a final commercial victory lap, as Simpson pointed out, he would gift Simpson with one final song. While in the hospital in his final days, Haggard penned “Hobo Cartoon” with Simpson. “He was writing a lot at that time. I think he was optimistic that he was gonna come out of there and be OK,” Simpson said. Haggard sent the lyrics to him through a text that just said “From one railroad man to another.” They never finished it together, but Simpson would see it through by including it on his second album release of 2020 – the bluegrass collection Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2, as the final song on the album.
Haggard began his life growing up in a train car converted into a family home by his father, James, who died when Merle was nine years old. Unable to properly process sorrow and grief, he channeled his anger into a young life of crime and reckless abandonment, and became a disciple of artists like Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, Chuck Berry, and Jimmie Rodgers. Though he did turn 21 in prison, thereby living up to part of his own “Mama Tried,” he determined in time to not live his life that way any longer. As Bakersfield, California bustled in the 1960s with a sound far more vivacious than anything else on country radio at the time, Haggard found early success as a country music performer, his first hit being “Sing a Sad Song.” Though a hit like “Okie from Muskogee” was both beloved and vilified by certain audiences in the wake of the Vietnam War, Haggard always spoke from his mind, rather than from a platform. “Branded Man,” for instance, spoke of the fear and shame that followed his prison release, which he felt important to discuss after Johnny Cash encouraged him to be forthcoming with country music audiences about his past. “Sing Me Back Home” dared to ask for empathy for an inmate on death row, inspired by a friend Haggard knew in prison. He found his sound through his first No. 1 hit, 1967’s “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” combining a plaintive acoustic guitar with a sizzling electric lead. From there, the rest is history.
Two months prior to his death, Haggard made his final two recordings. One of them was “Kern River Blues,” written while he was in the hospital. As author Peter Cooper notes, “His body was shutting down, but his mind was still restless.” Songwriter Odie Blackmon described Haggard as “arguably the best songwriter that our genre has ever seen. At the level of songwriting he’s achieved, and the honesty and the depth, that man wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s a moody, emotional person, and everyone around him understands that. It’s a little like his burden, his curse.”
And as country music sang Merle Haggard back home following his death, it once again became imperative for the genre to follow in new and interesting directions as it headed toward the remaining latter half of the 2010s.