Dylan, Haggard merge music styles
The songs that made the singers popular had lyrics that spoke to different groups.
By DAVID HINCKLEY
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Forget, for a moment, the sheer volume of great music that Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard bring to the party.
Just enjoy for a second how delicious it is that they are currently touring together.
In the mid-'60s, this would have been like the Chicago Seven stopping by the White House for a beer with Lyndon Johnson. Like George Wallace campaigning in a Malcolm X T-shirt.
Forty years ago, Dylan was a musical North Star to civil-rights marchers, war protesters and everyone else who thought America was doing things terribly, terribly wrong.
"How many roads must a man walk down
"Before they call him a man? ...
"How many times must the cannonballs fly
"Before they're forever banned?"
Then along comes Haggard, an equally strong voice for everyone who thought these damned hippies ought to cut their hair and take a look at what's right with America.
"If you don't love it, leave it
"Let this song that I'm singin' be a warning
"When you're running down our country, man,
"You're walkin' on the fightin' side of me"
Millions of Americans thought Bob was singing their song. Millions of others felt the same about Merle.
Funny thing is, though, neither Dylan nor Haggard ever saw it as quite that simple.
Dylan's recent book, "Chronicles," makes it clear he loathed being seen as the leader of anything other than maybe the Blind Willie McTell Fan Club.
Haggard has said for years that loving America has never meant giving a blank check to her leaders, too many of whom feed on the honest people whose sweat makes the country run.
Still, Haggard agrees that he and Dylan could be seen as an odd couple.
"At first glance, it looks complex," Haggard said. "But we aren't the same America we were 35 years ago."
We've become, he said, "a country that's afraid. And we've got a government using that fear to make us give up the freedoms the country was founded on.
"I see a lot more government now in places it's never been and doesn't belong. We're fighting a war to bring freedom to others when we don't have our own freedoms in a first-class manner anymore.
"We're afraid to stand up or even have fun," he added. "Our national question is, 'How much Valium do you take?' How can anyone in their right mind say we're going in the right direction today?"
New Haggard CD
He's a little more optimistic about music, though not the music business. He released a long-simmering album of standards last year, "Unforgettable," and he has a more country-style CD cued up for 2006. He's real pleased with both and expects no radio play for either.
"Good music can't get on the radio today because of the force-fed programming," he said "The good music today is underground."
That puts Haggard right next to Dylan, whose music hasn't been played on pop radio for years. Both survive, and survive nicely, on a solid and still-growing body of music nestled securely in the broad arms of traditional American music.
"Some people won't acknowledge it," Haggard said. "But Hoagy [Carmichael] and Hank [Williams] are very closely related."
No wonder Merle and Bob get along.
"I've always liked Bob's music," Haggard said. "How could you not? That's how this tour came about. When Bob calls, you answer the phone."
Dylan, in turn, is tipping his hat by playing Haggard's melancholy song about a doomed convict, "Sing Me Back Home."
Further reflecting their kinship, both have recorded tribute albums to Jimmie Rodgers, the 1920s country-music pioneer -- though Haggard notes that none of this means they'll necessarily end up as drinking buddies.
"Do I know Bob?" he asked rhetorically. He laughed. "Does anyone know Bob?
"I know he has a good sense of humor. But he plays his cards pretty close. I'm enjoying this tour. I just couldn't tell you I think I know him any better now that I did before it started."