No Lag in the Hag

Merle Haggard makes a triumphant return. Wait -- he never went away.

Merle Haggard is contemplating quitting country music, and it's your fault.

The 63-year-old Haggard isn't ready to walk away just yet. In fact, he's about to embark on a two-month national tour to promote his biggest recording in more than a decade. Yet Haggard, if anything, is a realist. A life spent in labor camps, juvenile halls and penitentiaries has taught him that much. And, he tells New Times, if the response to his new album isn't a "home run," he just may say goodbye to recording and performing country music and take up the Lord's cause, gospel music.

One could hardly blame the Hag for wanting to pack up the pedal steel. He seems to have become a forgotten giant of the business. Like the other two larger-than-life legends of country music, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Haggard's star was always bigger than the genre itself. But unlike Cash, who was rediscovered and adopted by Gen Xers in the early '90s, and Nelson, who seems to be rediscovered every decade, Haggard has been overlooked by younger audiences.

Haggard: "Looking back, my life's been laid out like it was meant to be exactly the way it is."
Piper Ferguson
Haggard: "Looking back, my life's been laid out like it was meant to be exactly the way it is."

Though the attention and hits may have dried up, Haggard has quietly continued to release solid albums of new material, amassing one of the greatest catalogues in American song.

It's hard to reconcile why he's been dealt such a hand. The numbers certainly bear him out: 39 No. 1 records, a mantle full of Grammys and industry awards, gold and platinum albums, and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. And those with a grasp of history will note that Haggard was a star 10 years before Nelson broke big, and continued to score hits into the 1980s, a decade after Cash disappeared from the charts.

But then again, Haggard was always hard to peg, personally and artistically. His music -- often dark portraits of daily life -- ran the gamut, merging hard-core honky-tonk with elements of jazz, blues, swing and pop, in an era when country music was still stuck in the syrupy "Nashville sound." His eclecticism has always been his calling card; not coincidentally, he remains the only country artist ever to grace the cover of jazz bible Downbeat.

Perhaps his reputation among later generations of fans has been tainted by a false image of him as a flag-waving relic. In truth, his famous anti-hippie/anti-marijuana anthem "Okie From Muskogee" was a put-on. "Son," Haggard told an interviewer in 1974, "Muskogee is the only place I don'tsmoke it."

Haggard was and is an unusually compelling chronicler of bleak Americana, a writer with an unmatched social conscience. Whether detailing the plight of Dust Bowl refugees, the working class or tackling the subject of interracial romance, he's remained true to his nickname, "The Poet of the Common Man."

Such sympathies are easy to understand given his own life story: Born in California, the son of Depression-era Okie émigrés, his father died when he was 9. Haggard took to music early on, but spent most of his youth bouncing in and out of correctional facilities before winding up in state prison on federal robbery charges in 1957.

Upon his release in 1960, he began pursuing music in earnest, eventually signing a record deal with Capitol Records. He kicked off the most critically and commercially successful reign in country history, an annual and uninterrupted appearance on the charts from 1962 to 1991.

No example better illustrates his paradoxes or the great distance of his journey than the fact -- as his bio gleefully notes -- that he is the only man to serve time in San Quentin's solitary hole andbe asked to perform at the White House.

The '90s were an especially difficult time for Haggard. He left his longtime label, Columbia Records, and signed an ill-fated pact with Curb Records, which released a pair of Haggard platters with nary a trace of promotion. He declared bankruptcy in 1993, and was forced to sell off a chunk of his publishing as a bailout.

After being released by Curb, Haggard retreated into the solace of his California ranch/studio. He engaged in a series of one-off deals including a redux of his greatest hits (which found him dueting with the likes of Brooks & Dunn and -- yikes -- Jewel). He set up his own label, recording and selling gospel albums directly through Wal-Mart. Then he began recording new country songs. Hundreds of them.

Eventually, Haggard's plight, detailed in a cover story in the L.A. Weekly, drew the attention of California punk label Epitaph, home to Rancid and the Circle Jerks, as well as fellow aging lions Tom Waits and Joe Strummer. The label signed Haggard in April, and is set to release a 12-song collection of his material titled If Only I Could Flyon October 10.

Many observers will, no doubt, draw parallels between Johnny Cash's 1994 comeback, American Recordings -- also released by a "rock" imprint -- and Haggard's latest effort. But unlike Cash -- who reached an artistic nadir in the late '80s during his brief tenure with Mercury -- the quality of Haggard's work has remained strong. Even overlooked efforts like his last two new sets, Haggard '94and Haggard '96, are full of the kind of signature songcraft and storytelling for which he has been revered.

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