“(Gimme some of that) Ol’ Atonal Music,” by the singer Merle Hazard, details in sunny and endearing tones a love of atonality, while explaining to newbies what that is (music that isn’t in one clear key), and includes the best atonal banjo solo you’ve ever heard (probably the only atonal banjo solo you’ve ever heard). That the solo, and the production values, are so good, is no surprise: The soloist and the recording’s producer is Alison Brown, one of the leading five-string banjo players in the country. Combine that with a crack backup band, Hazard’s sweetly earnest delivery and a John Cage spoof that’s actually funny, and you have a lot of people laughing at their desks.
Hazard is the nom de guerre of Jon Shayne, a financial manager in Nashville, who, as Hazard, has pioneered a form of comic bluegrass economics on selected videos and Paul Solman’s economics segments on the PBS NewsHour.
Shayne’s career as Merle Hazard began in 2007 when he was talking with a friend about the looming economic crisis. “Hedge funds crumbled because their real estate assets were crumbling,” Shayne said in an interview. “We said, ‘This is awful. This is going to be a slow-motion train wreck. This is going to be a festival of moral hazard’ ” — an economic term meaning that when one party, like an insurance company, takes on risk for another, like a car owner, the insured person has less incentive to be careful.
“One of us said, ‘That sounds like a country singer, Merle Hazard,’ ” Shayne said. “I thought, Merle Hazard needs to exist.”
Within three days, he had written “H-E-D-G-E,” to the tune of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” by Tammy Wynette. He recorded and uploaded the song that weekend. “By Wednesday or Thursday of the next week, the New York Times had covered it, and it took off,” Shayne said. “Fun beginner’s luck.”
In the years since, Hazard has become a veritable persona, issuing a track every year or so, including such YouTube hits as “Inflation or Deflation?” and “How Long (will interest rates stay low)?” “H-E-D-G-E” is no longer available online; having scrupulously licensed rights to the tune, Shayne eventually got tired of paying the licensing fee every year. His subsequent songs, he says, have been either original material, tunes in the public domain, or legal parody. PBS, however, did license the familiar “Never on Sunday,” which is the basis for Shayne’s “The Greek Debt Song,” recorded with bouzouki and videotaped in and around, where else, Nashville’s scale model of the Parthenon.
Clearly, from the modest but decided success of “Ol’ Atonal Music,” Shayne/Hazard is ready to branch out. Diversification wasn’t a calculated decision: Shayne actually wrote the song a few years ago for a reunion of his college band, “The Young Nashvillians,” but it didn’t make the cut. Finally, he showed it to Alison Brown, who has worked with him on his last few songs. Although they both live in Nashville, it took years to meet. But the meeting seemed foreordained: Brown also worked in finance for a couple of years before turning to music full time. Shayne gleefully observes that Compass Records, the label Brown runs with her husband, Garry West, is in the building that once housed the Glaser Sound Studios, where Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were regulars — as well as the children’s book author Shel Silverstein, who for a period wrote country songs, including the hits “A Boy Named Sue” (for Johnny Cash) and “One’s on the Way” (for Loretta Lynn).
Shayne revels in the connections to quirky forbears, as well as to artists who had full-time jobs and produced meaningful work on the side, such as the poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Shayne loved music enough to take a year off from Harvard as an undergraduate to immerse himself in extension-division courses at the Mannes School of Music in New York, but he never envisioned a real musical career. He opened his investment firm in 1995; married his home town sweetheart, Ann, a writer; and raised two sons. Yet his genuine love of music is reflected in a seriousness of approach, and in songs like “Ol’ Atonal Music,” that’s part of the reason for their success.
Shayne doesn’t have a backstory to Merle Hazard: There is no fictitious life, no imagined biography. The singer’s sweetly sincere persona coupled with the caliber of musicians with whom he works leaves some people uncertain about how far the parody extends.
“The Greek Debt Song,” Shayne says, incited some right-wing Greek nationalists to deface his website, having missed the humor altogether in translation. In the case of “Ol’ Atonal Music,” commenters, perhaps ignorant of country music’s good ol’ days trope, have asked about his father’s compositions, believing the music “Daddy used to play” is actually real.
Shayne’s father, in fact, was a New York ad man-turned-businessman, and never wrote a note of music. He did, however, sing with Tom Lehrer, the legendary comic singer, informally, during graduate school. Music like Daddy used to play? Shayne may be closer than his father, or he, ever imagined.