Saturday, April 09, 2016


Phil Ochs, radical iconoclast that he was, had an almost perverse fondness for singing “Okie from Muskogee.” To him, it was simply a good topical protest song. So what if the lyrics were somewhat arrogant and intolerant, and the work of a redneck from one of the “red states.” Phil was born in El Paso, after all, and his early influences included country singers, especially Faron Young. And where, outside of a broadcast of a baseball game in China, would you ever hear the phrase "pitching woo?"

I can’t say that Merle Haggard was one of my favorites, or others in the outlaw bunch (including Waylon and Willie) or the California crowd (Buck Owens). Still, he was a prolific songwriter, a vivid presence on stage, and he stubbornly kept going until pneumonia forced him to cancel shows a few months ago. He died on his birthday, April 6th, at the age of 79. With Phil finding such pleasure in him, I also got some kind of a kick from the “Okie” song. Of course I tended to listen to Phil’s version of it, and save my country listening time for Johnny Cash, George Jones, and the West Coast C&W/rocker Gary Alan among others.

Oh yes...Haggard was actually born in Oildale, California. His people did come from Oklahoma, but as many did (go read 'Grapes of Wrath,') they moved West to make a living. Many picked produce for low wages, but Merle picked at the guitar and...well, picked up a three year sentence for robbery. Yep, he was an authentic outlaw. While in San Quentin he saw Johnny Cash perform, and that inspired him to pursue the honky tonk lifestyle, and perfect his talents in local Bakersfield clubs. His first big hit was "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" in 1966. At that time, on the East Coast, Phil was a hot Elektra folk star playing Carnegie Hall with topical material.

On March 27, 1970 Phil returned to Carnegie Hall for two scheduled performances. Now on A&M, and having recorded several critically acclaimed albums that didn't sell too well, he decided to try something radical. This would be the infamous "Gold Suit" show (released in single-disc truncated form by A&M only in Canada as "Gunfight at Carnegie Hall"). Fans were perplexed by Phil wearing some kind of Elvis suit, rambling about how Elvis was the king and could change things if he’d only become political. They detested Phil’s weird cover versions of everything from Buddy Holly to, Elvis, to Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa" to, yes, “Okie from Muskogee.” The disaster ended with fans demanding their money back. A frustrated Phil obliged them by smashing his fist against the box office window.

But…he had a second show to do. Pissed off, bleeding, but determined to get his message across, he took to the stage yet again. Looking back on it, “The Night of the Cut Thumb,” was a triumph. Learning from his mistakes, Phil took the time to explain what he was up to. With some wry monologues (“America is a Cunt…”) and coaching the crowd to keep an open mind, the show was a fine mix of nostalgia (Holly and Presley), political humor, beautiful ballads, and stinging proteset songs. And that included that prickly number “Okie from Muskogee,” your download below.

OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE from the second show at Carnegie Hall, not released in any form, “The Night of the Cut Thumb”


Timmy said...

Good god, that live version of Okie sounds warped out! And, by the way, who the hell is Gary Alan? I thought I knew all the genre's performers... Guess I'll have to investigate. Seen Merle 5 times, he was ALWAYS serious about putting on a top notch show. Phil was one of the greatest. Me? I'm just a robot, and I can't prove I aint.

Ill Folks said...

I think Gary Allan first got some attention as "the guy whose wife killed herself." He's one of those California guys who mix rock and C&W. Probably pissing off both the pure rock and the pure C&W crowd. The frowning indie does what he pleases, singing outlaw masochism ("Get Off On the Pain"), hardheaded tunes ("See If I Care," "Things Are Tough All Over") and the usual heartbreak ("Best I Ever Had"). He can also sing about hot bitches ("Wrecking Ball"). Here's a guy who aside from the expected odes to whiskey, will drop a tender reference to wanting to come over to his ex's apartment and search for the disc missing from the Led Zep III cd case. Some of his stuff just comes across as "Dennis Miller Tries To Do Country Rock," but a lot of it has the authentic hurt and grit that you find in the best country-crossover stuff. (PS, despite being my favorite living C&W guy, and even have an autographed CD booklet, I still sometimes forget how to spell his name.)