Monday, October 05, 2009

Best Thing I Heard Today: Merle Haggard doing "Cherokee Maiden"

In lieu of the un-Youtubable Merle version, may I direct your attention to this also really-good version by George Strait, live in '99? Thank you.

"Cherokee Maiden," written by the freakishly prolific Cindy Walker, was a hit for Bob Wills and his Playboys in '41, and Merle took it to the top of the country charts 35 years later. (So what would that be like today on the pop charts? A disco or glam revival? Both are easily imaginable, and in fact may have already happened.) The words are cute, nostalgic, and not-at-all racist; the music's straight-up jazz, with a Bo-Diddley-beat for an intro, no doubt meant to recreate in exacting detail a native Cherokee tribal ceremony. No word on whether the maiden's parents approve of this courtship, or why the lovers had to part in the first place, but Merle seems nothing but respectful.

Merle's had a long and varied career, hitting #1 with songs from all sorts of country subgenres: electrified Bakersfield outlaw songs, slow honky-tonk waltzes, even some synthy pop-country things in the '80s. He's got one of my favorite voices, so rich and smooth I sometimes think he'd sound more natural doing the Great American Songbook in supper clubs than songs about prisons and outlaws. But whatever, he's created his own Great American Songbook with all the songs he's written and appropriated, and to my mind his golden voice sounds best singing Western Swing, as popularized by his idol, Bob Wills.

Here's the pinnacle of Merle's slavish Wills obsession, from 1970:

That album makes me as happy as anything. It does NOT, however, contain "Cherokee Maiden," which hit in '76, from this album:

What else can I link you to? Here's Asleep at the Wheel--the New Jack Western Swing revivalists?--doing "Cherokee Maiden" for their second Wills tribute in '99. This unembeddable song got 'em a Grammy for Best Country Song by a Duo or Group. Also pretty good--I think it's impossible to ruin this song--but it doesn't have Merle's voice. Here you go; here's the second best thing I heard today:

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