By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
I guess when you get old, you start thinking about death. When you're 21 years old, you think you're bulletproof. As you get older and your teeth start to fall out, and your hair falls out or whatever, you realize that's not the case. You start to look for alternatives; possibilities of another life. It brings about the thoughts of inspiration that lean in that direction, and I decided I wanted to record them and put them out.
NT: On a musical level, that's something that you've done historically. That is, to get heavily into different styles and genres of music. Specifically, I'm thinking of the concept albums you did in the late '60s [1969's Jimmie Rodgers tribute Same Train, Different Time and 1970's Bob Wills-inspired The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World] that took you into Western swing, jazz and blues.
MH: That's true, I've always liked the challenge of doing that. But you've got to remember when I did the Jimmie Rodgers album, I'd just had nine No. 1 records in a row. So it was like, "I'm gonna do something I wanna do. I want to pay tribute to someone who gave me the inspiration to go into music and get them nine No. 1 records."
It was the same thing with Bob Wills. Without Bob Wills there would be no Merle Haggard. I grew up listening to that music and I felt an obligation to pass it along. Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel [a band that's been the modern torchbearers for Western swing and which released its own Grammy-winning Wills tribute last year, Ride With Bob] gives me credit for doing that. He said he'd never heard of Bob Wills before that. His life would not have been the same if not for The Best Damn Fiddle Player. And look what he's done for Western swing. So I really think we accomplished something there. I wanted to pass that music on, I wanted it to live forever. 'Cause a lot of people didn't realize it even existed. Those things were a real labor of love.
NT: You're generally recognized, along with Hank Williams Sr., as the consummate country singer/songwriter. Has the fact that your music's been so closely tied to your own life -- so much of it being autobiographical -- affected how you approach writing songs?
MH: It's been therapeutic. It's something similar to going to a psychiatrist and emptying your soul or going to confession if you're a Catholic. It's a great relief and feeling of accomplishment to put something on paper that makes sense and actually expresses what's in your heart.
A double whammy is to have someone else -- somebody you don't even know -- say, "Hey, I feel that way, too!" I've never gotten tired of that, of making that connection. It's the most exciting feeling in the world, it's almost something like an addiction.
NT: You've continued to keep a pretty healthy touring schedule [an average of 150 dates a year]. Do you still enjoy the road?
MH: Yeah, but there again, if this project does not connect, if we don't hit a home run with this thing, I may wrap it up at the end of this year. There's been a couple promotional gimmicks in the past about people being on farewell tours, but I've never admitted to that. People always ask me, "Is this your last tour?" And I say, "No, I hope not." You're the first person I've said anything to, but I talked with my wife last night, and it's a new intention of mine that if things don't work out -- if they don't go back to being top-drawer -- I may wrap it up this year.
NT: Well, the new record is definitely deserving of that kind of attention.
MH: Thanks. The bottom line is it's the best I can do. And if it's not good enough, then I'm just beating my head against the wall (laughs).
NT: Having been on the road for so many years, you must have a lot of fond memories.
MH: We've been at it so long I probably put a new roof on every honky-tonk in America at one time or another (laughs). In Phoenix, I played JD's several times. I actually played a place on East Washington called the Diamond Bar in 1953 for two dollars and all the beer I could drink. Actually, Phoenix was one of the first places that I ever got on stage to make a living.
NT: You were playing music then, in the early '50s, but all that was cut short by the middle of the decade and you ended up in jail. But prison didn't really rehabilitate you at first; you were caught trying to escape several times, you gambled and even brewed beer in your cell. Eventually you wound up in solitary. What was the one thing that turned you around?
MH: One day I just realized I couldn't express my opinion to the degree I was expressing it. Just because I hated insurance companies, I couldn't go out and rob 'em. And honestly, I realized I wasn't a thief. I wasn't the kind of guy that was meant to be a criminal. I was a young and incorrigible delinquent -- I was without a father is what I was. My dad died when I was a little kid. I didn't have anyone to whip me into shape. I believe if I'd had a couple good ass-kickings when I was 12 years old that I'd never have gone to prison. None of that would've ever happened.