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Opening Arguments

Genius at work

Merle Haggard, on the inspiration for "Big City," one of his best songs:

Getting back in Los Angeles in '81, when I headed out to check on Dean, he wasn't happy. Buses then didn't have much air conditioning, and ours had been sitting in the heat for hours with the engine off. Dean was sitting there minding the bus when I asked how he was doing, Dean said, "I hate this place. I'm tired of this dirty old city."

As a songwriter, I instinctively listen and watch for interesting ways people put things at bars diners and on billboards. "This dirty old city" sort of caught me. I said, "Mr. Holloway"—that's what I always called him—"I can see you're upset but why don't we take that anger out on a piece of paper." I climbed on board, and Dean handed me a pad and pen that he had with all the other things he kept near his seat.

Whenever I work on lyrics, I hear the music as I write the words. The two go together for me. On the bus, the lyrics came real good and their feel sort of dictated the melody. I took Dean's "dirty old city" line and began to build a story. The feeling resonated because it was a time in America when things were breaking down, especially in cities. I thought about Detroit and the problems the car industry faced after the gas shortage of '79. I imagined a family leaving Detroit and happy to be getting out.

I mixed in some lines about quitting a job so there was a reason to leave the dirty old city. But for the chorus, I needed a place where the person in the song wanted to go. I said to Dean, "You're in the middle of Los Angeles now. Where would you rather be?" Dean said, "If it were up to me, it'd be somewhere in the middle of damn Montana." Well, with Dean on a roll, we had that song done in about 10 minutes.

When we finished, I moved a bunch of lines around so they'd sing right, tore the sheet out of the pad and told Dean, "I'm gonna run inside and record this thing before I forget the melody." Inside, the band was packing up. I said, "Hold on, let's do one more. I just wrote something and want to get it down." The band shrugged and said, "All right, if that's what you want to do." I ran down the song's melody and words for the band and told them the feel I wanted. I gave them the chords and told them where I wanted the others to join me on the vocal.

Man, oh, man. 10 minutes from inspiration to finished song. That's probably an exaggeration, but still . . .  That's not just talent, that's genius.

He's going to perform at the Grammy Awards show Sunday. If I knew exactly when, I'd watch. But I don't think I want to endure the crap of the rest of the show. But then, that's what youtube is for, huh?

Posted in: Music, Television