Merle Hazard: Invested in country music

Americana Music News – Nashville is full of talented artists, but you wouldn’t trust many of them  to manage your portfolio.

Enter Merle Hazard, a singer, songwriter and economics expert. (Hey, we all need something to fall back on.) If Weird Al had a doctorate in economics, he would be Merle Hazard.

Sans hat, Merle’s secret identity is Jon Shayne, a man of significant fiscal responsibility. We asked Merle about the melding of music and money management. His account:

Ever since the first rumblings of the financial crisis, in 2007, I have been putting out the occasional country song about the economy. I grew up mostly in Nashville, and I’m a money manager. Maybe it is a way of reconciling parts of myself that otherwise wouldn’t fit together. I have lately been putting out about one per year.

Musically, I love the old country records produced by Billy Sherrill and Owen Bradley. My latest number is styled more in the tradition of Flatt and Scruggs, however. I still remember hearing “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” as a young boy. (Ironically, that was in an apartment in Manhattan, where my family lived until I was six.)

I also love Tom Lehrer and Cole Porter. In some ways, they are my natural musical home, more than country. I listened to a lot of Tom Lehrer and Top 40 pop, growing up.

The name “Merle Hazard” is first and foremost a pun on the economic concept of “moral hazard.” It is also a tip of the cowboy hat to the Merles who preceded, particularly Merle Travis and the late,  great Merle Haggard.

My songs live mainly on YouTube. Sometimes the PBS NewsHour and the BBC World Service use them in reports, and professors use them in the classroom. The song that gets quoted the most is “Inflation or Deflation?” That one showed up in a German economics journal and in a couple of books on economics.

For my first few songs, I was timid about approaching Nashville session pros, fearing that they would laugh. And I mean laugh “at,” not “with.” With help from one session musician I got to know, I finally began to realize that they might not mind, and might even find the project amusing, at least if I paid them what they normally make for sessions. I started to use a group of Opry sidemen out in Hendersonville for some tracks and they did wonderful work.

For my latest song, “How Long (Will Interest Rates Stay Low)?,” the idea was for a Flatt-and-Scruggs-style number. I asked Alison Brown, Nashville’s queen of the banjo, for help. We have some mutual friends from college days, and connected that way. She has a great sense of humor and has been generous beyond measure. She appeared in the video, as does her daughter. Alison assembled a dream band consisting of herself, Tammy Rogers King, Trey Hensley, and Garry West, who is her husband, for that one. I was totally blown away by their playing and hope to do more with Alison and her musicians in the future.

My songs read mainly as humor. But they are all about things that bug me, as a money manager or as a citizen. “How Long (Will Interest Rates Stay Low)?” is a a joke, of course. But it is also a kind of lament, if you take the perspective of a retiree trying to earn income on bank CDs, or a money manager like me who is trying to help clients. 

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