Strangling Music With Labels

Merle Haggard failed to receive a Grammy nomination for his gorgeous new album, "The Bluegrass Sessions," because the panel overseeing the nominations in that category said it wasn't bluegrass. Strictly speaking—that is to say, what would Bill Monroe say?—they're right. You can't call this bluegrass. It's got the right instrumental combination—acoustic guitars and bass, banjo, dobro, fiddle and mandolin. It features one of the greatest lead singers ever. Two songs, "Jimmie Rodgers Blues Medley" and "Blues Stay Away From Me," come straight from musical scenes that produced bluegrass: blues and early country. But what it lacks weighs heavy in the balance: nothing close to those warp-speed tempos—220 beats to the minute in the cruising lane—that supply the very DNA of bluegrass. There are no hard, high lonesome harmonies, no fiddle tune melodies, no up-hollow modal spookiness. The one thing that pushes this recording closest to bluegrass territory is the manner in which it was made, with the musicians sitting in a tight circle around a couple of microphones and recording live.

Still, if he wants to call his record a bluegrass album, who's to stop him? It's no more or less bluegrass than most of what you'll hear on those bluegrass channels on satellite radio. The Grammy folks did say that Merle's record was a candidate in the Best Country Album category, but I suspect he'll have just as much trouble there. This does sound like a country album—one recorded around 1948. It sounds almost nothing like what's marketed as country music today. I mean that as a compliment.

This is a wonderful album. Haggard sings as well as ever, if not better (if that is possible). The songs are good to great, and the band is a collective model of taste and restraint. So maybe I should just be happy that someone has recorded an album this good, call it what you may (and calling it bluegrass is surely not the most contrarian thing Haggard has ever done). I should be content that talented musicians these days are making music without much regard for category. Steve Earle recorded with the McCoury band. Allison Krauss has a new duet album with Robert Plant, of all people. You don't have to be a big fan of such projects to applaud the willingness of artists to try something different, to stretch not only their own talents but also the limits of the sorts of music they play and sing. Instead, I find myself quarreling with how an album is labeled. So just shoot me now, even as I offer up the pathetic excuse that I dwell in a time that's obsessed with musical ID tags. Restricting the list merely to the kind of music I've been describing, we now have alt-country, Americana, roots and, before that, folk-rock, country-rock, newgrass, progressive this and that and on and on. This works fine if you're a radio programmer or label executive intent on isolating and appealing to a certain audience. I don't see that it does the rest of us any favor.

Growing up in the '60s, I never thought I would one day mourn the passing of top 40 radio. But in retrospect—and through the comfortable haze of nostalgia that allows me to filter out those ugly memories of banging on the dashboard while the 1910 Fruitgum Co. and Strawberry Alarm Clock burbled through the speaker—I see it as something like a musical melting pot. There you had pop, rock and soul and even a little country competing for your ear, and all on the same wavelength. You learned to like things you might never have thought to try on your own. Yes, there were also country stations, and soul stations and jazz, classical and easy-listening, but even those categories seem impossibly embracing by current standards. And the musicians benefited from this free-for-all more than anyone else. Forty years ago the Beatles didn't just have the Stones to worry about. They were also looking over their shoulders at James Brown, Aretha and the Byrds, while Brian Wilson was blending Chuck Berry shuffles with Four Freshmen harmonies and then pushing it all through Phil Spector production techniques.

Maybe I should blame Gram Parsons. Until he came along, no one in rock thought too hard about country music except the Beatles, who incorporated some Buck Owens into their repertoire. Parsons proselytized for country right to the end of his short lifetime, selling first the Byrds, then his bandmates in the Flying Burrito Brothers and finally his new best friend Keith Richards on the benefits of Haggard, George Jones and the Louvin Brothers. He pretty much created "alt-country" all by his lonesome.

Reading the liner notes to a just released double-CD of Parsons fronting the Burritos at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom in 1969, I see that he wanted to call what they did Cosmic American Music. Well, better that than alt-country, but better no label at all. The Burritos' set list for the Avalon included, besides their own genre-busting songs, everything from "Dark End of the Street" to "She Once Lived Here" to "Lucille." With Parson's wing-and-a-prayer vocals floating over a to-die-for rhythm section, they covered Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and Aretha, all on the same night. Hats off to arch-Parsons fan Dave Prinz, who busted these tapes out of the Grateful Dead's vault after they'd languished there for almost four decades, and bless his determination.

Parsons wanted to tear down fences, not create a lot of little new corrals, but I don't think it worked out quite the way he planned. The optimist in me insists on believing that format be damned when genuine originals hit the scene. But that's me on a good day. Musically speaking, I'm usually convinced that the melting pot ideal that held sway in the '60s is just a pleasant memory.

And full disclosure: I'm as guilty as the next fellow when it comes to slotting music into categories. The first time I played Levon Helm's new album, "Dirt Farmer," I thought, "Oh, he's done a roots record of old songs." It wasn't until I played it couple of times that I noticed that while some of the songs ("The Miner's Child" and "Single Girl, Married Girl," for example) were indeed very old songs that have been around for the better part of a century, he'd also included contemporary material from Paul Kennerly and Buddy and Julie Miller. Coming from Helm, who as the former drummer for the Band knows all about genre-busting, it's all singular and timeless. Everything about it sounded urgent but also relaxed, like a man with nothing left to prove but still willing to lay everything on the line. Maybe it was because he made this album with his daughter and a few friends after coming back from throat cancer that almost killed him. Whatever the reason, with these songs and that voice—part parchment, part iron—it sounds as compelling as anything I've heard in a while. And I'm at a loss for what to call it. Roots, Americana—yeah, I guess, but that's just marketing code. Isn't James Brown Americana too? Or Bob Wills? Or Billie Holiday? The more I listened to this album the more I wondered why it matters at all what we call it. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad. Does it have to be more complicated than that?