Down On The Farm

Marty Stuart and Merle Haggard team up for a modern-day lament

This appeared in Country Weekly - November 25, 2003

One day, Merle Haggard's phone rang. It was Marty Stuart on the other end of the line, asking if Merle would sing a song with him.

"What's the name of it?" asked Merle.

" 'Farmer's Blues,' " Marty replied.

"The first thing I thought was that the condition of the American farmer is deserving of that," recalls Merle. "That's certainly truthful about what's going on right now - most of them have got the blues. So I said, " 'The title's right.' "

Not too much later, the twosome recorded the song for Marty's new album, Country Music. Performing alongside on of his idols - both in the studio and on the road with this summer's Electric Barnyard Tour - was an experience Marty likens to "singing with Abraham Lincoln."

"He's as real as the dirt on a country road," says Marty. "There's a hundred Merle Haggard wannabes out there, but the minute he starts singing, all those people just disappear."

The collaboration proved so special, in fact, that the idea of making a video was a natural. And when it was time for the cameras to roll, Marty had a few specific ideas.

"I told the director, 'I want to see me and Merle in black and white, I want to see a little of the band, and I want to see some real people - I don't want actors pretending they're farmers.' So we found a young couple who owns a farm, who really do get out there and bust their asses every day."

Appropriate - since the song is a hard-edged look at the plight of American family farmers being squeezed out of their livelihood by corporate farms and modernization, written by Marty and wife Connie Smith.

"It just fell out of the sky," he says. "It was one of those invisible, unexplainable gifts that God just hands you every now and then. In three minutes, it tells the story of life for anybody that's still trying to make a living doing that in this land."

Marty was determined to make that story authentic on video, which required one element his director wasn't entirely prepared for. "I said, 'I want a mule,' " he laughs. "She said, 'What?' I said, 'A mule. M-U-L-E!' "

Not something you see on CMT or GAC every day - but, jokes Marty, "It's kind of a rock 'n' roll mule. Its demographics are good. I think it's the kind of mule that would appeal to an 18-year-old!"

Marty himself wasn't much older that that when he first met Merle, over 20 years ago. "It was like watching James Dean walk down the hall," he remembers. "I thought he was one of the coolest cats I'd ever seen come through a pair of doors. He had a swagger about him - and on top of that, he was Merle Haggard with a capital 'H.' "

"We hit it off," recalls Merle. "We're coming from the same place. We're both historians, we both know a lot about our craft and enjoy sharing information with each other, and things of that nature."

And while making video's wasn't' part of either man's job description when they met - around 1979 - they've both adapted to it well.

"It's really a new craft that came along late in my career, but I've made a few," says Merle. "It's an enjoyable thing to do, depending on the concept and everything. If it goes good, it's good, and if it goes bad …" he pauses and chuckles. "Well, there's a lot of people on the set and a lot of money being spent, and you really don't have time to joke around much - you've gotta get it done."

But in this case, both agree that the result was well worth it.

"It couldn't have been more perfect," marvels Marty. Merle chimes in: "I think it's a winner!"

By Chris Neal

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