Today, back in 1969, Merle Haggard, Lewis Talley, Chuck Berghofer, Jim Gordon and James Burton sat in Capitol Records Hollywood studio together and recorded the Workin’ Man Blues. The song would hit No. 1 on the Billboard C&W chart in July of that year and was part of one of the most extraordinary runs in country music. Between 1966 and 1976 Merle had 24 No. 1 hit records with songs like Sing Me Back Home, Hungry Eyes, Okie from Muskogee, The Fightin’ Side of Me, Daddy Frank, If We Make It Through December, and Mama Tried.
Workin’ Man Blues – which needs no pedestrian explanation, unless you’re running for President – would become a staple of Merle’s live shows and even after seeing him nine or ten times I’m still thrilled to hear the chicken pickin’ kick off as The Strangers rip into it.
If you listen to Walkin’ the Floor regularly I’ve bored you with this story before and you have permission to move along to what suits you. Otherwise, listen up pilgrim and read how the Real Mr. Heartache, a workin’ man to be sure, for once used his brains rather than brawn.
Since 1928 the Paramount Theater in Seattle has entertained the huddled masses. First with silent films and vaudeville to today where it still plays silent films and some vaudeville. It is one of the great theaters in the northwest and I’ve seen everyone from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, Neko Case and Norman Blake there to name check a few.
If memory serves, and it really doesn’t, I believe I’ve seen Merle perform there three times over the years. The most memorable of them being a night about five years ago. My wife and I had just settled into our balcony seats when a drunken fellow a couple of rows in front of us began hollering as loud as he could, hands cupped around his mouth and using his diaphragm “WORKIN” MAN BLUES!” Good lord the man wouldn’t quit. In between every song it was the same thing. As his pipes warmed up along with Merle’s I swear he became louder, if a touch less coherent (there’s always a sacrifice) as the show went on.
I’m generally a congenial guy, which comes with being extremely handsome and witty, but if you were to ask one older brother, possibly a sister-in-law, maybe a college pal and certainly my wife they might tell you, in hushed tones, that beneath all that charm lurks an ill tempered, grumpy redneck with a fiery and regretful tongue. They are wrong of course. My quirks are more roguish I would say, rapscallion even. We agree to disagree as I deny ever trying to stick my brother with a train spike. Such are the vulgarities of life, lies being spread and such!
That said, if anyone (other than my brother) ever needed to be staked with a train spike this knucklehead yelling workin’ man blues was the guy. Then, during an extra long break between songs, when he finally worked himself into a complete froth. As I began to stand up to take matters into my own hands, he did the same. The difference was after I stood he kept going. And going. The dude was b-i-g. How I failed to realize that Paul Bunyan or possibly his blue ox had been in front of me I do not know. Then he turned around in the way a man does while watching his team lose when trying to rally the crowd into a wave. He hadn’t been getting through to Merle and was looking for support. That’s when I saw his shirt. It was just a white tee. A Streetcar Named Desire undershirt purchased in a package of six. Written on the front though, in huge black letters, from what must have been a thick and smelly sharpie pen, in the scrawl of a…did I mention he was big…was the words WORKIN” MAN BLUES. Moments later, me, and about 37 of his closest seatmates were all yelling “Workin’ Man Blues,” as loud as we could. And as his hands lifted high overhead in prayer the old familiar chicken pickin’ blasted through the speakers. The song never had before and I doubt will ever again sound so good.
Here’s to all us workin’ folks. If you have to ask, you ain’t.
Workin’ Man Blues, Merle Haggard