It might seem odd to be discussing country legend Merle Haggard in a rock & roll blog, but the singer-songwriter was unquestionably a rocker in spirit—at least the outlaw kind. This was a man who, in Bob Dylan’s words, “transcends the country genre.”
Anyone can call himself a rebel but this dude started out as a bona fide desperado. He spent much of his impoverished youth in juvenile detention centers and state prisons before turning his life around after joining a country band in San Quentin, inspired by a 1958 Johnny Cash gig at the prison.
Within two years Merle was paroled and quickly got his first record contact. By 1965 he had his first Top 10 country hit, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” and his career was off and running.
By the time he passed away last week on his 79th birthday, he had amassed an astonishing 38 #1 country hits and 71 Top 10 country hits, including “Mama Tried,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “”Workin’ Man Blues.” All the more impressive given where he started.
One obvious lesson to learn from Merle Haggard is the importance of doing it your way and, in the process, separating yourself from the pack. Merle did it first by making Bakersfield, California his musical home in the 1960s—not Nashville, which was home to the more polished sound of country—and playing a grittier, twangier style than was heard on country radio at the time.
We hear a lot these days about the importance of social intelligence—loosely defined as "the ability to act wisely in human relations." In business this includes working smartly with team members and customers.
It's a world apart from academic acumen or conventional IQ which, studies show, are poor predictors of success—professional or personal.
I'm sure you know some very bright folks—maybe off-the-charts brilliant—who are dumb as rocks when it comes to dealing with people. Perhaps they have trouble tolerating contrary viewpoints. Or they're ineffective in the persuasive arts. Or they can't communicate without insulting someone. Needless to say, they can be problematic team members. Like young kids who have trouble playing with others.
In my rock & roll days I observed—and sometimes performed with—uber-talented musicians who were clueless about "playing with others." Some individuals managed to survive because of their technical (musical) genius. But bands had a tough time staying together when one or more members were socially obtuse.
I've been reflecting on the importance of having a passion for your work. Yes, it's a tall order for some kinds of jobs. But if you're able to do what you love doing, it has plenty of benefits. This reminds me of a band I played in many moons ago, which I wrote up in one of my first blog posts...
Of the dozen musical ensembles I performed with in my twenties—the "artistic period" of my life—the most interesting one was a street-singing band, Uncle Crusty and the Venice Canaligators.
The group was named after the scenic canals of Venice, California and the scenic Uncle Crusty. His real name was Hook McGuire, a lovable, grizzly, one-armed harmonica player (he lost his hook in prison) who sang like Howlin' Wolf.
After 11 years of blogging on rock & roll and business—and nine years hosting this site—it's come to this. A cat video.
I'd like to think there's a business lesson here. The value of collaboration? Of following our animal spirits? Of looking for innovative partners in unusual places?
But now that I have your attention...
Following up on my post last week in which I mentioned that much of pop music is the product of computer-generated vamps and beats, I should give some props to John Seabrook and his recent book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. Seabrook exposes the secrets of the electronic "robopop" that a small group of "songwriters" use to create melodic hooks on top of. All of this is then fed to famous singers (like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Katy Perry, or Nicki Minaj) to customize and call their own. The result is "highly processed," "industrial strength" pop, composed by a handful of specialists. And a new business model for cranking out popular music.
What the hell do I know? Years ago I dismissed Justin Bieber as a contrivance—a white pretty-boy of limited talent, with the emotional depth of a birdbath, in desperate search of hip-hop cred. (I pride myself in being non-judgmental.)
And yet…his last two hit singles (co-written by him) are more than decent songs, artfully performed, superbly produced. And the two accompanying music videos are exceptional.
If there’s a business lesson here it’s a simple one: surround your talent with greater talent.
A long-lost Beatles interview was discovered a few years ago from a Scottish TV taping session in April 1964.
This was initially touted as the earliest surviving Beatles interview—which of course it is not—but it may be the earliest surviving interview in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney discuss their songwriting partnership.
But more importantly it offers a critical lesson in team collaboration: it works to share the credit.
John and Paul agreed from the beginning that no matter how much or how little each contributed to a finished song, it was to be credited equally. (Even if a song was written only by Lennon or only by McCartney it was labeled a "Lennon-McCartney" composition and the royalties from the song were shared fifty-fifty.)
This was a smart way to manage competition cooperatively.