No Lag in the Hag
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.
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't smoke 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 and be 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 Fly on 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 '94 and Haggard '96, are full of the kind of signature songcraft and storytelling for which he has been revered.
This new album, then, is less a comeback than an extension of his unmatched artistic integrity. It finds Haggard doing what he does best, being himself and mixing honky-tonk with hillbilly jazz, Western swing with Tin Pan Alley. Thematically, it is at once a grand statement and a singularly intimate collection.
As former Blaster Dave Alvin (who organized a 1994 Haggard tribute album, Tulare Dust) puts it, "The old barroom cliché that the singer on the jukebox is singing directly to you is true in Merle's case. Between his simple, direct songwriting and his laid-back yet emotional vocals, it really feels that Merle is singing just to you. His heartache is our heartache."
And as Haggard makes his return to the Valley, he talks with uncompromising candor about his past, his future and how the twists of fate helped shape the life of an American music icon.
New Times: A lot of people are pointing to If Only I Could Fly as a "comeback." How do you view the new record?
Merle Haggard: I think you could call it a comeback. It's an attempt to go top-drawer and be played on the radio. It's also an attempt to let people see the real Merle Haggard. I've kind of been typecast as a country artist -- and I don't think that's quite correct.
When Elvis was big, I played rock 'n' roll. I spent years in a rock 'n' roll band. We played country, rockabilly, whatever anybody wanted to hear. Growing up, I listened to country music, sure, but I listened to all the pop artists as well -- guys like Sinatra and Crosby. I'm a big fan of Clyde McPhatter, Fats Domino, all the rock 'n' roll biggies. Chuck Berry had a lot of influence on me and everybody else.
And I think it's especially appropriate, because right now my music has a better chance to be played in the company of Bonnie Raitt or the Rolling Stones than it does in the company of what they're calling country music.
NT: What prompted the decision to sign with Epitaph?
MH: They offered a lot of money for the record and also offered a lot of money in promotion -- and they put it in writing. Those things are unique. More important, the guys from Epitaph came up here to my studio and listened to the music. One of them said, "We're not here to change a single hair on your head." I said, "In that case, I'll listen to what you have to say." 'Cause at my age I'm not interested in making cookie-cutter-type records for somebody that wants to take me to Nashville and put me with what they call a "hot band." I'm not gonna do that.
NT: You've been one of the most successful artists in country music history. Do you still have certain goals in mind for your career at this point?
MH: I have a label of my own which records gospel music and distributes it directly through Wal-Mart. I intend to keep doing that, but if this record with Epitaph doesn't show promising sales figures -- as we expect it to do -- then I probably won't record anything else commercially.
NT: You mean that you might quit making country music?
MH: I may just become a songwriter that cuts demos, and try to get them to somebody who can get on the air with them. The playlists on country radio these days are so tight and so narrow-minded that a guy like me can't get played. They're afraid I might actually say something (laughs).
NT: You've always been outspoken about your relationship with the music industry. A few years ago you and Johnny Cash both audited Columbia Records, claiming that they shortchanged you on royalties.
MH: I've recorded for more than one label, and I've had a similar experience with almost all of them. I recorded for Capitol for 13 years and we found a lot of money they owed us. And now they're coming to me and saying, "Why don't you take this amount, rather than what we owe you?" They're trying to dicker with me on my own royalties. And it isn't even that much money to begin with!
I'll tell you, them big record companies have treated people wrong since the days of Gene Autry. And they don't intend to do it any differently. That's one of the reasons I went with Epitaph. As far as them others -- Capitol, Columbia, MCA -- they're all under surveillance, and I'm coming after their well-known asses (laughs).
NT: You mentioned the gospel album you've recorded for your own label. It's a style of music that you've really taken to heart recently. Your mother was a member of the Church of Christ, and you did Land of Many Churches [a 1971 album of religious standards], so I guess it's been with you for a long time. But what brought about this renewed interest in spiritual music?
MH: I'm a songwriter by nature, I guess. Ever since I was very young. It's very important that I write songs and continue writing them -- more important than to continue music as a performing thing. And for some reason, all of a sudden, I started writing those kinds of songs.
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.
NT: Your father's passing had a huge impact on your life, and really determined its direction in a way, didn't it?
MH: There's a scripture that says, "A good man's steps are ordered by the Lord." I believe in predestination. Looking back on it now, my life's been laid out like it was meant to be exactly the way it is. Those things happened so that I would have the experience and knowledge to see firsthand the things that I ended up writing about and maybe bring to the public a sort of news. In some ways, I'm a news broadcaster, a news man. There's things going on in this world that they're not gonna tell you on CNN. They're not going to say anything that's gonna offend one of the sponsors. So there's talk radio at night, and maybe a few old poets that get played on obscure radio stations -- those are the only ways that you might hear what's really occurring in the world.
NT: It must have been impossible to imagine at the time, though, that all those things -- your father's death, jail, everything -- would shape your life the way it has.
MH: I grew up in this business not having any foresight. I'm just a guy who went into a little bar and got a job playing guitar -- I wasn't even hired as a singer -- in order to make a few extra bucks a week. I had no earthly idea that the thing would evolve into what it has.
I always liked the word "evolve." Man, I evolved -- with no idea that the Lord had all this in mind for me.
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