Miranda Lambert Deserves the Merle Haggard Award, No Matter What Sturgill Simpson Says

Sorry, Sturgill, but the Academy got this one right. Earlier this week, self-styled don't-call-him-country outlaw Sturgill Simpson took to the stump (i.e. social media) to lambast the dreaded country music establishment. Usually, this might be music to the ears of any old-school country believer. But he didn't figure on one thing: Miranda Lambert.

The object of Simpson's disgust was the Academy of Country Music, who late last week announced that they would be introducing a new Merle Haggard Award, so named to honor the legendary Californian who died earlier this year at the age of 79.

Simpson saw the accolade as an exploitation on the part of Nashville. "I find it utterly disgusting the way everybody on Music Row is coming up with any reason they can to hitch their wagon to [Haggard's] name while knowing full and damn well what he thought about them," Simpson wrote in a Facebook post on Monday.

Within minutes of Simpson's writing, however, came news that the award's first-ever recipient would be none other than Texas native Miranda Lambert. Frankly, the choice made the award look a lot more credible — enough so that Simpson issued a clarification that "[his] words were in no way directed at her."

The award is intended to recognize "uncompromising artists in the spirit of Merle Haggard," and Lambert certainly fits that bill. For all the blather in recent years of Simpson or Chris Stapleton "saving" country music, it's hard to think of anyone in the genre who walks the walk quite like Lambert. She's a songwriter with a knack for writing hits, but who hasn't strayed from her old-school roots. She's the most "uncompromising" female artist in the country boys club since the height of the Dixie Chicks.

Her Haggard bona fides are beyond dispute as well. "He's the reason I write songs, he changed my life so much," Lambert said of Haggard, whom she referred to as "one of my heroes," at the ACM Honors ceremony on Wednesday. She's long included the Hag's songs in her live performances, and even been chosen to showcase them at awards ceremonies, including the 2014 ACM Awards where Haggard received the Crystal Milestone Award.
Speaking of which, this is by no means a cursory recognition of Haggard on the part of the Academy. In total, he won 20 ACM awards, including becoming the first artist to ever win the prestigious Entertainer of the Year Award (in 1970) and joining a list of only six performers to earn the Triple Crown. No, he wasn't the most decorated by any means, but he wasn't exactly overlooked, either.

Granted, the most truly influential musicians usually never receive the recognition they're due from award committees, but that's a problem across genres. Bob Dylan, for instance, as big of an outlaw (or at least iconoclast) as they come, didn't win the Grammy for Album of the Year until 1997's Time Out of Mind. It was a late-period masterpiece, to be sure, but also a record that paled in comparison to his work of 30 years prior — none of which received so much as a nomination.

Neither Haggard nor Dylan ever cared much for the establishment — and Simpson is certainly correct on the Hag's feelings about Nashville — but neither really gave a shit, either. They were outlaws because they forged their own paths, much like Willie and Waylon did here in Texas, and eventually the establishment had no choice but to come around.

The bigger question is why Simpson should give a shit. OK, country music has a real navel-gazing obsession with its own authenticity. But Simpson has gone out of his way to separate himself from country music, not only saying that he "just doesn't see [himself] as a country singer" but also releasing a record earlier this year, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, that is steadfastly not a country record.

Chiding the Academy — which has never so much as nominated Simpson for an award, even though he's made two of the best records of anyone, anywhere, in the past three years — does, however, make for an opportunity to play the outlaw role. Like it or not, that makes for its own bit of opportunism, and looks more than a little like Simpson trying to have things both ways.

Perhaps Simpson could learn a thing or two from Lambert, who's shown nothing but class this week. She's also been known to do more than talk. Just ask Lindale about that one.
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Jeff Gage
Contact: Jeff Gage