The Federal Reserve recently announced that it will soon begin to curtail its support of financial markets by cutting back on purchases of bonds and mortgage-backed securities. The news didn’t come as a surprise to Merle Hazard, the country singer who released a song in August called “The Great Unwind” that foretold the Fed’s announcement. Also known as Nashville’s Jon Shayne, Hazard has been comedically educating the masses about our country’s financial woes since 2007, when he first decided to relay his knowledge of the economy via a guitar, cowboy hat and lyrics that anyone can understand. This is his story.
Legendary Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard famously described country music, a genre filled with songs about heartache, despair and loss, as “three chords and the truth.”
Using that time-tested formula, a Nashville investment advisor’s songwriting alter ego has become a cult hero among desk traders and financial reporters alike. He’s achieved this status for his occasional crooning about another form of loss: the financial calamity and woe stemming from tanking economies and the flawed federal policies intended to fix them.
Meet Merle Hazard. The emergence of this fiscal country crooner dates back to the summer of 2007, when a now infamous pair of Bear Sterns hedge funds that held mortgage-backed CDOs (collateralized debt obligation) started to crack. Jon Shayne, CEO of Nashville-based Shayne & Company, a boutique investment company, says he knew then he was watching the beginning of a “big, slow-motion train wreck in real estate.”
Friend and fellow Nashvillian Josh May, who worked for a New York firm tracking central bank policy, agreed that they should expect a “festival for moral hazard” relating to a federal bank bailout. (For the financially uninclined, “moral hazard” is a term that describes the propensity for investors who get bailed out on their bad bets to participate in even more reckless financial activity in the future.)
“We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we knew there was going to be a lot of government intervention,” Shayne explains. “One of us said, ‘Well, that sounds like the name of a country singer, Merle Hazard” (a play on Merle Haggard, in case you’re not familiar).
Inspired, Shayne penned his soon-to-be alter ego’s first song, “H-E-D-G-E,” set to the music of Tammy Wynette’s country classic “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”
“I just thought to myself that I would love for there to actually be a country singer named Merle Hazard and that I would listen to this guy,” Shayne says. “And then I thought, well, actually, I could do that.”
Stop! Hazard Time!
Beyond inspiration, Shayne possessed the chops—musically and comedically—to pull it off. As a student at Harvard in the ‘80s, Shayne wrote songs and played keyboard for a pop band called The Young Nashvillians, whose music still gets occasional airplay. He also had experience writing humorous bits for his college magazine, the Conan O’Brien-led The Harvard Lampoon.
That weekend, on his kid’s computer in his basement, Shayne recorded “H.E.D.G.E.,” including a video of himself dressed as the fictional Hazard in a cowboy hat. The whole creation was innocently posted to YouTube.
The next week, The New York Times took notice, and penned an article about Hazard. The crooner and his song caught fire in the heady realm of financial bloggers, journalists and market analysts (and, so he heard, even with people working within the Federal Reserve Bank).
Since then, Hazard has popped up on the financial world’s radar from time to time as hot financial topics arise. “Bailout” depicted the inevitable federal bailout of banks and automakers. “”In the Hamptons chronicled the repercussions of the recession on the rich and famous. “”The Great Unwind explored the dilemmas facing the Fed since the crash of 2008.
For Shayne, the marrying of global finance and country music make perfect sense.
“Country music is about love and loss,” he explains. “Those are the great themes of country music. And the financial markets are about the love of money and the loss of money, for good or ill. So you can often map the scenes of a country music song fairly well to financial topics.”
The shtick also succeeds with listeners by marrying the simplicity of the country music medium with digestible explanations of complex financial scenarios.
“Part of the fun and challenge of it is trying to present the topics of economics absolutely as precisely as I possibly can, and not say anything incorrect,” Shayne says, “Just making it shorter and more direct to fit within the number of syllables I have.”
Open Mouth, Insert Crete
Not unlike many of country music’s great voices, Hazard doesn’t shy away from tackling sticky topics. In the case of the Greek debt crisis, however, the artist learned that satire sometimes bites in places that even the satirist doesn’t expect. The mild-mannered, fake Nashville songwriter learned that lesson when he nearly set off an international incident in 2010.
It started when PBS reached out to the songwriter and commissioned a song on the financial situation in Greece, one of several European debt crises brought on by the global economic recession.
“I was a little concerned that it might be offensive, but I had no experience doing public broadcasting, and they did, and they thought it would be pretty funny,” Shayne says. “I figured they know a lot more than I do,’ so I put my sense of probity to the side, wrote a song and tried to make it as funny as I could.”
The replica of the Parthenon of Athens, which is located in a Nashville park not far from Shayne’s offices, provided the perfect backdrop for the commissioned project. The song got its promised airplay on the award-winning PBS NewsHour. It then got picked up in Greece by a handful of right-wing blogs.
“I didn’t even know there were right-wing blogs in Greece,” Shayne explains. “They treated it like an attack on their national sovereignty and their national character, which it was not. It was merely a lampooning of policy.”
Complicating the issue was Hazard’s final verse, in which he sings that someday Greece “may drop the Euro, Euro, Euro … so their product may compete, and if that still is not enough, not enough, not enough, maybe they can sell off Crete.”
“What I didn’t realize is, first of all, Cretans are famous for not having a sense of humor and being quick to anger,” Shayne says. “A Greek friend of mine basically said they are like Texans.”
Shayne also didn’t realize that Crete is, historically speaking, the most insecure part of Greece because it was the last territory to join Greece. “There’s history there about worrying whether it would remain part of Greece,” Shayne says. “So when you talk about selling it off, that is actually not a joke to them at all.”
Dozens of angry emails and YouTube comments from Greek viewers—in broken English mostly, though some were in Greek—chock full of curse words he didn’t understand and threats to his person that he did, soon bombarded the fictional Hazard, whose Facebook page was also defaced. The song even garnered two episodes of coverage from a mainstream national news program in Greece (think MSNBC) which, at least the second time around, seemed to acknowledge that Hazard’s song was done in jest.
The situation finally dissipated when Shayne used Google Translate to post a (somewhat) conciliatory message to the fictional character’s website: “You guys gave us Aristophanes and I’m just giving you some satire back,” Shayne explained. “This is not quite what it appears to be.”
Evidence of growth in Hazard’s brand as an artist is best evidenced in the ever-increasing quality of his video and sound productions. It is in no small part because Nashville’s experienced musical community has been increasingly drawn to Hazard’s special brand of country music.
That’s particularly true in the Greek debt song. According to Shayne, when PBS asked him to produce the song, they just asked for one thing: “Can you find a bazookie player?”
In a twist of fate that is quintessentially Nashville, an epicenter of world-class musicians, Shayne hooked up with Frances Cunningham, a superb bazookie player and, according to Shayne, “one of the two bazookie players that came up in my Google search.” Cunningham currently plays on the Grand Ole Opry in humorist and Opry member Mike Snider’s band. She has since put Shayne in touch with other professional musicians around Nashville.
Such growth in the Hazard brand raises the question: What do clients of Shayne’s investment firm, which boasts over $200 million in client accounts (and has maintained good annual returns), think about his the Hazard persona?
“I think that if clients thought this was my real job, they might be concerned,” Shayne says. “But I think if it is done very occasionally they are not going to have a problem with it. I also think myself that good money management has to be unconventional. If you do what everybody else is doing, you will get the same returns as everybody else. I am pretty clear when people are evaluating me and thinking about becoming clients—what I do is quite different from everybody else, so they’ve already been prescreened in a way to have some case for originality.”
But Merle Hazard isn’t for Shayne’s clients; it’s for people who are understandably confused when it comes to the economy and don’t have enough of a grasp of the situation to be able to sift through the spin of cable news to make sense of it all. Hazard’s songs are fun, enjoyable and, most importantly, informative and easy to understand. In the case of “The Great Unwind” they’re even prescient. So don’t let the slow drawl and floral button-downs fool you; Hazard knows the score just as well as any talking head on TV. Fortunately for us his only agenda is making sure his lyrics rhyme.