There is no voice that evokes childhood nostalgia for me more than Willie Nelson. When I play his music, I am instantly transported to the contented security of my youth. My dad played the Red Headed Stranger album frequently, and the songs from that album are the earliest recollection I have of lyrical storytelling. Willie’s rich, heartfelt vocal triggers memories of dinner parties winding down in the late night hours as a young child, falling asleep on the couch to sound of laughter from my parents and their friends from the other room. I associate his voice with the grin on my father’s face as he and Willie serenaded to me “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” and I associate his storytelling with the “Red Headed Stranger” lyric quoted many times to me over the years:
The Yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset
The stranger went free, of course
For you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman
Who’s trying to steal your horse
The appreciation for Willie Nelson’s singing that I learned as a child has, indeed, grown into the great respect and admiration that I have for him as a songwriter and a storyteller now; I still listen to him frequently. I was raised on a mix of classic rock, folk rock, and old country music, but with the exception of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, none of the country music stuck with me into adulthood.
That said, I do have a strong affinity for Merle Haggard, and although I rarely listen to him now, his voice is also strongly evocative of childhood memories. My earliest recollection of listening to Merle Haggard was driving through the Sierra Mountains with my father and brother for an annual backpacking trip. I was probably about ten years old. I had no notion of what an Okie from Muskogee was, but I had spend enough time in San Francisco to know that Merle Haggard was insulting the Californian in me (although, he too is Californian). But, if my dad - a reformed shaggy-haired hippie like the ones Haggard was singing about - was OK with singing along, then I guess I could too. Merle has the quintessential country-singer voice, confessing tales of regret for past wrong doings.
And so thanks to my father, the two richest voices in country music are forever seared in my mind as the soundtrack to a stable and happy childhood. For years, I had heard Willie albums and I had heard Merle albums, but I don’t recall hearing them sing together until I was 23 years old, 3,000 miles from home, and homesick as hell. That’s when I heard “Pancho and Lefty” for the first time. I played it into the ground that year, drawing every ounce of comfortable familiarity from Willie’s vibrato and Merle’s deep baritone. It’s ironic that a song about betrayal and ill-fated endings can provide such consolation; perhaps it is the undertone of solitude in the song that made me feel less lonely and homesick at the time. Nah, I give all of the credit to the character and integrity of those voices and the happy memories I associate with them.
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard Live “Pancho and Lefty”