A two-step shuffle, a slightly exaggerated country croon, and two feisty saxes with occasional late-period Coltrane wails arousing suspicions that these are wack jazz guys playing Merle Haggard, not dedicated country music musicians. Suspicions that turn into hardened convictions when one last shout of “If you don’t love it, leave it!” kicks off a free jazz freak out.
If that’s how “Fightin’ Side of Me” is sounding like, then this must be Bryan and the Haggards playing it.
When this rowdy troupe led by saxophonist Bryan Murray came forth with their first album Pretend It’s The End of the World back in 2010, I thought then that the idea of rendering the music of a country music icon through the free form blender was a good — even great — for a one-off album. But Murray, second saxophonist Jon Irabagon, guitarist Lundbom, bassist Moppa Elliott and drummer Danny Fischer have had way too much fun and indulged their diversionary pleasure again the next year with Still Alive and Kickin’ Down the Walls. And now, album number three is forthcoming, and it’s a doozy. Because they’re being joined this time by one of the godfathers of outlaw jazz, a banjo and dobro virtuoso, the zany and incomparable Dr. Eugene Chadbourne.
There can never be a pairing more natural than the Haggards and Chadbourne. Chadbourne has long delighted in contorting country music and confounding its fans and causing a Reagan administration spokesman to declare that his music poses “a direct threat to the American way of life.” Chadbourne has always wanted to make an album like this, outside of his Shockabilly side project. His banjo and dobro bring more twang to the group, without sacrificing any of the crazy. If anything, the crazy got turned up.
The band likes to get going with chugging, train like honky-tonk rhythms as on “Old Man From the Mountain” and “Working Man Medley,” where Murray and Irabagon can be heard behind Chadbourne nearly-straight vocal delivery, chirping and generally being mischievous, and guitars barely staying in tune with the melody. The band makes a barely tempered racket behind the lyrics on “If We Make It Through December,” and the Glenn Miller-styled saxes temporarily pull the song into another key, like an unholy alliance between Nashville and LSD. The vocals, bass and banjo render jaunty “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am” straight, but there’s no telling what the rest of the band are playing, and the resulting dissonance can push country music fans from mere confusion to outright derisioin.
A medley of Bob Willis tunes has less abrasion than the rest of the fare, perhaps because Texas swing has at least a small connection to Downtown New York jazz. Still, it’s loose, campy fun. One of Haggard’s signature tunes, “Okie From Muskogee,” begins with Murray’s puckish balto! sax sharing the lead with Chadbourne’s singing. Later, both saxes combine for an intentionally off-key drone, which can make some reach for the skip button. But then they’d miss out on the off-kilter simul-soloing between Chadbourne’s dobro and Lundbom’s acoustic guitar. In perhaps an intended bit of irony, Haggard’s anti-war song “That’s The News” is included, too, with the saxes replaced by Irabagon’s penny whistle and Murray’s nose whistle.
It’s a pretty safe bet that these renderings of Merle Haggard songs won’t appeal to traditional Merle Haggard fans. Although it’s hard to tell sometimes, it’s also music made by sincere Merle Haggard fans who happen to make a living playing free form jazz. If they weren’t sincere, they wouldn’t be doing it for three albums running and they once again demonstrate that music isn’t meant to be fenced in by barriers marking genres. That’s what Eugene Chadbourne has preached for decades, and now his gospel has found the perfect choir section. The “Merles” do have a lot of fun on this album and so should any listener who like for their music to roam on the open range.