Thursday, April 7, 2016

Merle Haggard, Country Legend: 1937-2016

Country legend Merle Haggard passed away Wednesday, April 6, in Palo Cedro, California. Haggard recorded more than 3 dozen number one hits over the past six decades; he will be remembered fondly by the music industry. 

Simple, American, working-man pride. That's the organizing theme of Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard, which features a generous 26-song track list spanning nearly 40 years. Released in 2006, the compilation features all of Merle's biggest hits, including: "Mama Tried," "Bottle Let Me Down," "Sing Me Back Home," and "Okie from Muskogee." As an introduction to Haggard's music-- or even to the Bakersfield sound that he helped popularize-- Hag may be unparalleled.

The New York Times said it best: "He had an immense influence on other performers — not just other country singers but also ’60s rock bands like the Byrds and the Grateful Dead, as well as acts like Elvis Costello and the Mekons, all of whom recorded Mr. Haggard’s songs. Some 400 artists have released versions of his 1968 hit “Today I Started Loving You Again.” 

Eric Church is the opposite of modern day country music, yet he still gets played on modern day country radio. His debut album, titled Sinners Like Me, was released in 2006- the same year that he was kicked off Rascal Flatts' tour only to be replaced by a not-yet-famous Taylor Swift. Here, Church raises a glass to Merle with his song "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag." 

Merle had plenty of friends in the music world, Willie Nelson being one of the closest. The two recorded and released a collaborative album together just last year; Nelson and Haggard cover each other's classics, rib each other about the girls they've loved before, and wrap it all up with the gentle mutual-admiration fest "The Only Man Wilder Than Me."

Django and Jimmie

From first to last on the tracks—whether singing together, as on that one, or individually, interpreting excellent but less-covered songs by each other (Merle Haggard on Nelson’s “Family Bible,” Willie Nelson on Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”)—there is a profound sense of the men’s ease with each other and each other’s creations. Yet there’s equally impressive evidence that both singers have stepped up their vocal game in the presence of the other. Django and Jimmie was one of the strongest, most engaging country albums of 2015. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Beyond Jane Austen: Period British Mini-Series & Movies

For fans of period British movies or mini-series, here's some titles beyond the Jane Austen fare. Hopefully some will be new to you. These are my title/version preferences; please share your favorites in the comments below! 

Jane Eyre
– 2007 version staring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. In high school I read Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) and wasn't enamored. Once I watched this version I finally understood the hype. Mark my words, Ruth Wilson will win many, many awards in her career.

North & South
– starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage. Based on the book by Elizabeth Gaskell, this is a bit of a cult-classic (no, this is not the Civil War TV mini-series from the 80s...). The north and south in the title refers to the lifestyle of the more gentile south and the industrial north, which is of course, a metaphor for our main characters. The chemistry between the two is perfection.

The Buccaneers – starring Carla Gugino and Mira Sorvino. New-money American young ladies are brought to England to make matches with the cash-strapped ton. Carla Gugino shines in this early role where her character turns from a naive young lady to a morose married woman.

Little Dorritt – starring Claire Foy and Mathew Macfayden. Based on Charles Dickens' novel, Amy Dorritt (Foy) is one of the more sympathetic female characters in  Dickens' oeuvre. She braves the challenges of living in debtor's prison with her father, who is a bit of a high-maintenance diva really. Great ensemble work here. 

Wives and Daughters – starring Justine Waddell and Anthony Howell. Another story by Elizabeth Gaskell about the rocky relationship between a step-daughter and step-mother. The romance aspect is well-played.

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will - starring Imogen Stubbs and Toby Stephens. This is probably my favorite piece by Shakespeare (what can I say, I like farces). Also, Toby Stephens is really dreamy in this.