If you want to know somebody, ask, “Beatles or Stones?” Whichever they choose will reveal certain truths. Those who pick the Beatles tend to be thinkers, more taken with detail, curious about the far-flung and engaged in the minutiae. The ones who claim the Stones lean to the visceral; they’re hard-hitting, gut-driven, earthy and often seeking pulse-pitching thrills. One thing, though, is consistent: each is passionate about their preference.
Second only to the great Beatles/Stones debate is the Haggard/Jones face-off. Its heated rhetoric devolves into flat-out name-calling when the issue’s raised in any Saturday night beer joint, honky tonk or roadhouse with a decent selection of classic country on the jukebox. It’s the kind of back and forth that goes long past closing time.
In this corner, George Jones, the duck-tailed Texas caterwauling ’50s Starday Records sensation who could set a song on fire—and recorded arguably the greatest country song ever with 1980’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” In the other, Merle Haggard, a hawk-eyed Bakersfield ex-con who exhaled honky-tonk velvet with a pure blue-collar bent, who defined patriotism and swagger with 1969’s anti-counter culture anthem “Okie From Muskogee.”
On one hand, the Possum’s lack of emotional restraint makes him perhaps the most full-tilt vocalist of all time, certainly compelling as the definitive country artist of our last 60, 70 years. To hear him lurch into “I’m Ragged, But I’m Right”—voice pole-vaulting up to the final line of the verse, or dropping down into a deep bass register on the chorus—or slide from note-to-note for a single syllable on the James Taylor-written tribute “Bartender’s Blues” is to hear a man whose prowess as a singer defies gravity and logic.
He Evel Knievels “White Lightning” and “The Race Is On” with a brash hillbilly brio that almost swerves out of control when the tempo surges, bumping up and over notes as the songs hit another peak. When he opens the taps of full lament—as he does watching the cold jarring truth go down on the second floor across the street in “Window Up Above”—it is a gush of anguish, overwhelming and emotional chaos.
In ache, Merle Haggard never gets so rent. When things are hard, he is stoic, occasionally vulnerable. “Shopping for Dresses,” laden with a creeping bass and the silkiest strings, finds the oaken baritone rising from his loneliness by taking in all the sartorial colors and styles for the woman he’s yet to find, while the buoyant, gut string-driven “If We Make It Through December” lets philosophy temper the tough luck the out-of-work father/narrator needs to keep hope and dignity for his hard scrabble situation.
Haggard is never merely downtrodden. When his fighting side activates, without losing his cool, you know it’s on. Occasionally feisty (there’s no confusion about “Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”) or straight rejecting—the “no thanks” Western swing of “Big City”’s smooth- as-good-moonshine declaration “take your retirement and your so-called social security…”—Haggard is nobody’s fool. When he throws down, duck.
“Working Man’s Blues,” all train-beat shuffle and railroad tie percussion, is a stout fist-pump of solidarity for those putting in the overtime with its “I ain’t never been on welfare, and that’s one place I won’t be…” His justifiably riled patriotism ignites “Fighting Side of Me” with its taunt of “If you don’t like it, leave it” like a straight fist to the jaw.
While Haggard is regarded as the people’s poet, Jones’ songs have an elegance that imbues jukeboxes with elevation. “Good Year for the Roses,” also the single from Elvis Costello’s 1982 countrypolitan Blue, paints a cast-off lover viewing the remains over swollen strings: “I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray, lying cold the way you left ‘em, but at least your lips caressed them while you packed/ A lip print on a half-filled cup of coffee that you poured and didn’t drink/ but at least you thought you wanted it is more than you can say for me.”
Rarely is Jones a creature of introspection—rather pure immersion in sensation, emotion, moment. “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” is all pain no waiting. His voice wrings every measure of agony from the tale of a man who can’t drown what’s haunting him.
Haggard thinks. For all the barroom reference—“Swinging Doors” or “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down”—“Goin’ Where The Lonely Go” and “A Place To Fall Apart” suggest the tavern as temple of reflection more than a high time memory-numbing hub. With a few spilled piano notes, “Mis’ry & Gin” lives with the ghosts, trying to conjure what was sweet and face imploding one’s happiness in a world of folks just like him.
For Haggard, reckoning takes on mourning the American way of life (“Are The Good Times Really Over,” which considers when “a Ford or Chevy could last 10 years, like they should…”), as it realizes how broken enduring romance can be (“Today I Started Loving You Again”) and hardscrabble origins hold (“Mama’s Hungry Eyes”). In true elegy form, there is compassion in the bittersweet, but recognition that can also no longer be denied.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jones fears no joke. “The One I Had Back Then (The Corvette Song)” employed his deep bass growl with zest, for a chorus of “She was hotter’n a two dollar pistol” before revealing what the convenience store clerk coveted: the redhead, not the car. “The King Is Gone (Yabba Dabba Doo)” finds him unscrewing the head from an Elvis decanter this ache out from a Flintstones Jelly jar—and 1992’s gauntlet-throwing “Rocking Chair” pairs Jones with every ‘90s young country comer to mock retiring.
Haggard isn’t really one for jokes. His laughs come from looking back, often with a side order of randiness. “Rainbow Stew,” with its bouncy beat and little kid imagery, is pure whimsy, while “Red Bandana” paints a cozy picture of a paramour. Still, the best fun may well be “It’s Been A Great Afternoon,” with its reference to “one rowdy afternooner” suggesting his kind of fun is more to be experienced.
The flesh for Haggard is a big piece of it. He sings of sex without mincing words. “My Favorite Memory of All” captures the bliss that comes from the conjugal—and suspends it over a melody so ethereal it shimmers. Ditto his oak to Janie Fricke’s flutter on “Natural High”—or the pointedly direct “Let’s Chase Each Other ‘Round The Room Tonight,” twin fiddles reeling.
Their overlap comes with the gently rising ballad “I Always Get Lucky with You,” a paean to an old flame, that both men recorded. If Hag’s is philosophical, hushed, almost a lullaby, Jones is more forceful and to the point. In one of his rare moments of “putting it out there,” Jones lets you know just what’s on his libido.
Throughout their career, both Haggard and Jones have sung grown-up songs about real adult situations, but Jones may be too busy…well, getting busy to worry about putting it in song. For him, sexuality registers more as solidarity—the romping “She’s My Rock” and “One Woman Man” have a definite backbeat and message. Deeper ties define “Golden Ring,” “Hold On,” “Near You” and “Jet Set,” his best duets with Tammy Wynette.
That solidarity also tempered Jones’ perspective as he aged. “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” finds Jones weighing the onslaught of “new country” against his heroes and peers—and finding the new kids lacking. With a latter career repertoire that includes “Choices,” Jaime O’Hara’s Memorial Day classic “50,000 Names” and “The Cold Hard Truth,” the literal sobriety caught up to Jones—though his ability to turn out great songs out never eluded him.
Haggard, on the other hand, teamed with Willie Nelson—his duet partner on Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty”—for Django & Jimmie. Still randy, still thoughtful, his final recording merged political/cultural-skewering with outlaw fury on “It’s All Going To Pot.” Voice a bit more gravel, Haggard maintained the no fuck-giving, but tempered the stridence with serious naughty boy glee.
At the end of the debate, to pledge solidarity to either, you win. For me, the naturalness of Haggard’s delivery, his ability to stand down and stand up, to coo and inveigle the most carnal of notions and fill me with pictures has always won out. He is Steinbeck with a full command of honky-tonk ethos, saloon singing, Western Swing and the soul of being heroically strong in your beliefs.
Jones, on the other hand, is combustive, electric and a white-hot flame when he sings. It’s all emotion completely overwhelming anything in its path—a feat worth watching, being mesmerized by. Absolute bravura performances that make grand opera, the ballet “Giselle” and most telenovelas seem understated in contrast, and always, always, the kinds of feelings that bring great men to their knees.
Different kinds of men, but both virile, both wild. Pick whomever you like—to paraphrase Alice’s Caterpillar—they’re both distilling hard stuff at 190 proof.