By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
At first glance, the touring package of Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard boggles the imagination. Is it some musical version of a national unity ticket for the 2008 presidential race pairing Hillary Clinton and John McCain--the rabid leftist with the old-school conservative? Or is it a bout between competing song sluggers? In this corner, from the Iron Range of Hibbing, Minnesota, Mr. "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." And in the other corner, the Bakersfield Bruiser, Mr. "Fightin' Side of Me."
This match-up from opposing sides of the 1960s cultural divide could be a bandleader battle royale: The Hag fronting the ever-reliable Strangers, chugging like a well-oiled locomotive through a canon that dips into everything from blues to Dixieland to Western swing to the mightiest honky-tonk shuffle on the planet; and Dylan, challenging the latest line-up of his combo (on his seemingly never-ending tour of the last decade-plus) to follow his lead through the constantly changing set list and "strike another match and start anew" in the nightly reinvention of his songs. But look closer at both artists and you'll find that something strange has emerged in America's greatest living poets since the '60s--a surprising commonality.
Let's not forget that Haggard wrote "Okie From Muskogee" as a wry joke on his fans and proverbial country kinfolk for the amusement of the boys on the bus as they rolled through his spiritual native land of Oklahoma. Today, check out "Where's All the Freedom" on his latest CD, Chicago Wind, and it sure sounds like the one-time fervent flag waver is wondering what the ultimate price of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security will be in these post-September 11 times.
Then there's Dylan's time proselytizing for Jesus in such numbers as "Neighborhood Bully" and "Union Sundown" on his 1983 album Infidels that don't exactly follow leftist cant. But he is, after all, the guy who warned us early on, "Don't follow leaders" and since then has zigzagged so wildly it'd drive a fan nuts to follow "Mr. Tambourine Man" in any fashion other than musically.
As they've grown into well-weathered icons, The Zim and The Hag have also morphed into flipsides of the gold coinage of American music. They're both, in their roots, sons of Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl populism embodied in his songs. Haggard emerged from the rural agrarian California Central Valley wing. Dylan, after migrating to New York City, sprang from the bohemian urban intellectual milieu. Yet neither has ever let the expectations of their fans and the music industry strap them into any identity other than their own--followers of their muses, wherever they may be led.
Instead of left versus right, this bill matches two highly iconoclastic and fervent individualists (as well as notorious loners) for whom folk, in Dylan's case, and country, when it comes to Haggard, were just starting points, not permanent labels. And they continue to wander and redefine their songwriting identities in maturity, albeit with less youthful fire, yet still heated by the glowing coals of wisdom as the musical and lyrical mastery expected from such legends.
Really, this pairing's friction only comes from that of two kindred souls and fellow travelers on parallel musical paths--hopefully a friendly and mutually respectful cutting contest that should invoke the best from both, who are, after all, the finest American musical artists performing today. Whether it's Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues" or Dylan's "Tom Thumb's Blues," it's all from the same root, has ridden similar roads, and is--believe it or not, for all their seeming differences--sung by much the same guy. Decades ago, few would have ever believed even the notion of this show. Today, it makes perfect sense.