sir paul and mr. merle go to washington

the 2011 kennedy center honors recipients. from left: merle haggard,

the 2011 kennedy center honors recipients. from left: merle haggard, jerry herman, bill t. jones, oprah winfrey and paul mccartney. photograph by jacquelyn martin/ap.

Just a reminder that tonight marks the broadcast of the 33rd annual Kennedy Center Honors. Though traditionally held in Washington on the first Sunday of December (in this year’s case, Dec. 5), the ceremony marking the country’s highest honor for artistic achievement has long been one of the few television highlights aired during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Tonight’s honorees include a pair of favorites here at The Musical Box: Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard. Oprah Winfrey, Broadway composer/lyricist Jerry Herman and dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones round out the recipients. But McCartney and Haggard will be the ones we have our eyes and ears on.

McCartney has been especially visible over the last year through a series of international stadium concerts and a whirlwind set of New York appearances throughout the fall that culminated with his first ever date at the famed Apollo Theatre and a return appearance on Saturday Night Live.

The Kennedy Center award comes on the heels of two releases that should insure continued fascination with McCartney’s music during the years to come – the debut issue of the Beatles catalog through iTunes and the fall re-release on CD of what remains his finest post-Beatles work, 1973’s Band on the Run.

Over the weekend, I listened to the landmark 1965 Beatles album Rubber Soul back-to-back with Band on the Run. While there is no denying that McCartney’s music was never stronger than when challenged and supported by John Lennon’s equally towering pop sensibilities, both recordings possess a melodic depth rich with lyrical grace, emotional accessibility and compositional simplicity.

Similarly, I also listened to Haggard’s 1968 album Mama Tried alongside 2010’s I Am What I Am over Christmas weekend. While there is a considerable stylistic contrast between the two, the experience was akin to listening to one of Johnny Cash’s vintage Columbia albums from the ‘60s together with an entry from his outstanding Rick Rubin-produced recordings that served as epic coda to a career that, at its conclusion, was ignored completely by country radio.

In other words, the earlier work defines a powerfully original voice while the latter offers a sage-like update that upholds country’s blue collar conviction with poetic ease. In either instance, Haggard is a stylistic innovator and straight-shooting storyteller whose music is, thankfully, light years removed from the pandering, half-baked pop that passes for country music today.

The Kennedy Center Honors airs tonight at 9 on CBS.

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