Trout Fishing in America

And Merle Haggard death-watching in Irvine

WALTER TROUT has heretofore been known as That OC Blues Guy Who Is Big in Japan and/or Europe. But now that his name and his rep seem to be catching fire on these shores, it's time for an examination.

[Snapping on rubber gloves.]

I've never trusted Trout. His style leans more toward 1970s date-stamped blooze rock than actual blues, and after a listen to his new Live Trout album (a double-live, to bolster his '70s-guy image, no doubt), I have to say my worst fears about Trout fishing have been confirmed. It's an album scarred by the Alvin Lee/Rick Derringer school of shameless, hyperspeed shreddage; he sounds like a man trying to show off for a roomful of junior high school boys. His playing is a lot more about banging your head than testifying from your heart.

That's not to say Troutmusic can't be pleasurable to those predisposed to such crass gas. I'm sure this stuff sounds particularly fine when driving your Z28 real, real fast after a bout of snortin' whiskey/ drinkin' cocaine and a lusty round of bitch-slappin'. Trout seems to take great pains to appeal to the mullet-and-bandanna segment of the blues community in all their Bud-swillin,' spaz-dancin' glory. He pushes all their buttons, and they quiver with delight. And everything has its place.

What's disappointing about the live set is that Trout's studio album from last year, Livin' Every Day, wasn't nearly as vulgar—in fact, I almost liked it. Livin' Every Day sounded like an effective morph between Albert King and Jimi Hendrix and didn't stoop to boorish overplaying. He generally fitted his fills between vocal verses rather than atop them—there's an unyielding tradition to this approach in the blues, going all the way back to Blind Lemon Jefferson—and his notes fit into all the right places. He flashed a splendid vibrato and parching tonal attack while soloing, as his "Jimi Lives!" chord voicings held your interest in even the most mundane setting. When the mood strikes him, Trout can play tastefully like a sumbitch.

That's the good news, and it's old news as well, unfortunately. Trout's songs are well-crafted but extremely derivative—a couple of Jimi cops hither, an Allman Brothers rip yon and a Mountain burglary over there—but he never quite pulls off the tribute bag and so winds up sounding merely imitative. Worse yet is Trout's voice, which may be among the most offensive in all of blues or rock: boyishly high-pitched, completely devoid of anything resembling soul and at times so overwrought that it elicits actual belly laughs.

In short, as OC Blues Guitar Gods go, I remain a confirmed Kid Ramos man—but if your predilections run the other way, by all means straddle your Harley and catch Trout spout Friday at the Blue Cafe and Saturday at the Coach House.

Walnut-faced and cheesecloth-voiced, MERLE is HAGGARD in more than name alone. And on his upcoming album, If I Could Only Fly (slated for release Oct. 10 on punk label Epitaph, of all places), the age-63-going-on-80 hell-raisin' hillbilly god seems to be reflective bordering on morbid. The mostly acoustic fare herein features some jaunty western swing, Tin Pan Alley-ish old-timey pop and unabashed honky-tonk, but the governing theme is introspective balladry contemplating a life spent making many mistakes—a man trying desperately to kick himself in the ass on his deathbed. Haggard's voice has gone completely tubercular, with the ringing, macho tone of his early hits replaced by the mournful gasp of a regretful old coot. He's contrite toward those he's wronged—particularly his traumatized children—but apparently he feels even sorrier for himself. Haggard makes getting old sound like no damn fun at all: "Watching while some old friends do a line/Holding back the 'want to' in my own addicted mind/ Wishing it was still a thing that even I could do/Wishing all these old things were new." That's the first stanza of lyrics you hear on the album, and it only gets more depressing from there.

If I Could Only Fly, for all its inherent melancholy, is also completely brilliant. "He's mellowed and yet he's harder . . . he's grown," observes no less a figure than Johnny Cash, and that emotional growth manifests itself here as a self-realization therapy session set to music. The fighting side of Merle has been tempered with the belated revelation that ugly scars are the natural result of a life spent in battle with yourself. In that regard, If I Could Only Fly is like a country cousin to John Lennon's legendary Plastic Ono Band album, even though Merle would doubtless retch at the comparison.

Yet for all the horrors of Haggard's life—boxcar-born, prison-raised, drug- 'n' booze-tempered—there have been great triumphs. He has entertained both at the White House and at San Quentin (to prisoners in solitary confinement). He has had 39 No. 1 country hits and is the only California-born artist in the Country Music Hall of Fame. His musical cred is so far-reaching that he's also been the only country artist ever featured on the cover of Downbeat magazine, a bible of sorts in the jazz world.

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