Still Haggard 

Bob Dylan still knows how to stir a pot. The legendary artist was named MusiCares 2015 person of the year and used his recent acceptance speech to remind fans that Memphis is the heart of rock-and-roll and to throw some unexpected shade in the direction of iconic Nashville songwriter Tom T. Hall and Bakersfield bad boy, Merle Haggard.

"I admire Merle ... but he's not Buck [Owens]," Dylan said. But other than lighting up social media, what was the point? Sure, Haggard and Owens have a lot in common. They even shared a wife, country singer Bonnie (Campbell) Owens, and both men spent time playing with Wynn Stewart, an under-recognized architect of the Bakersfield sound. But for all of the common ground, Haggard and Owens couldn't be more dissimilar or more complementary. With the help of consummate sideman Don Rich, Owens created shimmering, classic country pop built to stand the test of time, while Haggard's outsider's perspective, tendency toward personal lyrics, and interest in blues, folk, and Texas dancehall traditions place him in the running alongside Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Dylan himself, for the title of greatest living American songwriter.

click to enlarge Merle Haggard - TRAVIS HUGGETT
  • Travis Huggett
  • Merle Haggard

Although few barroom anthems can measure up against "Swinging Doors" and "The Bottle Let Me Down," Haggard's best songs, like Dylan's, have a more literate and critical edge, from the hobo utopia of "Rainbow Stew," to the straight-faced satire of "Okie From Muskogee," and the ever-relevant "Branded Man." And even if his smooth baritone can melt butter, Hag, like Johnny Cash before him, shows no real evidence of mellowing with age. In fact, "What I Hate," a song on 2011's Working in Tennessee collection, might just as easily have been vintage Dylan: "What I hate is a statesman speaking out of both sides of his mouth. What I hate is the war still going on down in the South. What I live for is a chance to change a little bit of it all. What I hate is most folks don't seem to care at all."

Now here's a sentence I never thought I'd type: Haggard responded to Dylan via Twitter saying, "Bob Dylan, I've admired your songs since 1964."

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