Merle Haggard – Stay a Little Longer
In a 1996 feature in The Austin Chronicle, Merle Haggard told interviewer Tim Stegall, “I’ll play the game now. I’ll do everything I’m supposed to do, and see if that’s what it is.” He was speaking of Nashville, and his was the voice of an aging artist frustrated with the drop in attention paid to his records in recent years. Not exactly fighting words, especially from a guy who knew a thing or two about rebellion — one who’d risen from a life of petty crime to become one of country music’s finest singer-songwriters.
Stegall and Haggard were standing in a nondescript hotel meeting room, Merle the guest of honor at a catered meet-and-greet reception, nursing a sore throat, squirming in his shoes, attempting to douse his discomfort with a tumbler of George Dickel.
Four years later, the picture that is Merle Haggard’s career has transformed itself yet again. Whatever “game” he was intent on playing back then is long forgotten, and now he speaks confidently of attracting new audiences and making music he’s damn proud of. He’s newly signed to Anti, a division of the independent punk rock label Epitaph, and he’s just released If I Could Only Fly, his first studio album of new material in four years. From the relaxed and downright friendly tone of his voice, it’s clear he’s at ease with himself — content — both in a personal and a professional sense. Merle Haggard is, it appears by all accounts, happy.
“That’s a fair assessment, probably so,” he conceded during an interview this past August from his ranch home near Palo Cedro, California, a small community in the Sierra foothills nestled between the town of Redding and the snow-capped peaks of Lassen National Park. He still has family down south in Bakersfield, but this 200-acre ranch, which includes a recording studio, several fishing ponds and loads of wildlife, has been his home base for the past ten years.
“I’ve always had sort of a rebellious nature,” says Haggard. “Just didn’t do the things I should have done years ago.” Which, if you’ve read any of his 1999 autobiography Merle Haggard’s My House Of Memories, is certainly an understatement. Now, he says, “I’m trying to return my phone calls.”
Then he laughs, the first of many loud, chunky guffaws that ripple over the phone lines during our casual, 90-minute chat. This guy may have had his share of troubles during the past decade — declaring bankruptcy; getting chased by the IRS; suing his former label, Curb; enduring a drop in popularity on country radio — but he sure likes to laugh.
The Fighting Side
Rebellion has been a part of Haggard’s life since childhood. Born April 6, 1937, Merle Ronald Haggard was raised by his Okie-migrant parents in a converted refrigerator car in the Bakersfield suburb of Oildale. His father died when he was 9, leaving his mother with a heavy burden and Merle with a restless soul — he spent much of his adolescence hopping trains, stealing cars, and generally wreaking havoc with local law enforcement.
He wound up in juvenile hall more than once, and eventually landed in San Quentin, where he “turned 21 in prison,” just like he sang in one of his most famous compositions, “Mama Tried”. The San Quentin experience turned him around, however, and when he was released, he settled back in Bakersfield and focused seriously on making music. Within a few years he was well on his way to country music stardom — running his career (as was his friend and colleague Buck Owens) from a West Coast home base, which in itself was another mark of rebellion, as it directly challenged Nashville’s stranglehold on the country music business.
“The essence of rock ‘n’ roll is a cry for freedom and rebellion,” remarked producer Don Was in a 1996 Newsweek article on Haggard. “And I don’t know anyone who embodies it better. Every aspect of his life is a refusal to submit.”
“He’s the type of person that got the feeling that while he was climbing the mountain of success…he liked the climb better than sittin’ on top,” said Bonnie Owens — Haggard’s second wife and still to this day a member of his road band — in Gerald Haslam’s recent book Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music In California.
All climbing tales aside, Haggard has good reason these days for feeling upbeat and content: He’s basking in a happy home life — which he shares with his fifth wife, Theresa, and their two young kids, Jenessa and Ben — and he appears genuinely pleased with If I Could Only Fly. He should be: It’s been years since Haggard released an album that feels this personal, strong-willed, and emotionally and aesthetically confident.
When he sings about “watching while some old friends do a line” on the album’s opening track, “Wishing All These Old Things Were New” — and “holding back the want to” in his own mind — he brings you right into the moment, a sliver of experience muddled with the wisdom in his head and a still unquenched desire to cut loose in his soul. It’s a stark, unvarnished moment — no Nashville arrangements, no “games” — yet at the same time, Merle slowly allows the warmth of understanding to creep in, implying that such desire is part of being human.
The album also marks a new turning point in Haggard’s career path. Beginning in the mid-1960s and running for more than two solid decades, Merle was one of country music’s most reliable hitmakers, racking up a career total of 38 #1 singles on the Billboard country charts — a figure second only to Conway Twitty’s 40. Haggard’s last chart-topper, however, the gentle and pleasant “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”, came in 1987, and his most recent appearance in the Billboard country Top 40 was in 1990 with “If You Want To Be My Woman”. Ever since, country radio has almost entirely ignored him.
To paraphrase the title of his gut-wrenching 1978 hit song, Merle was certainly standing on a mountain of a career when, in the early 1990s, he fell into a serious financial hole. He ultimately declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was forced to sell the rights to hundreds of his songs to pay off his debts. To add insult to injury, Haggard’s label throughout the 1990s, Curb, failed to give his records any promotion, and he’s been mired ever since in a lawsuit with label head Mike Curb.
All this means that now, at age 63, Haggard — a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a legend in the eyes of fans and colleagues all over the world — has to stop, look around, and reassess which way to point his career.
“I had four #1 records a year for 24 years, something like that,” Haggard says. Well, not quite, but you get the idea. Anyway, he continues: “You start thinking you know something other people don’t. About the time you think that, they say, ‘Hey, the 24 years is over!’ And you’re suddenly confronted with reality and realize that [while] you did have a nice run, it’s over. And the lifestyle changes, and you suck in your gut, get thin, and try to figure out how to make it again.”
A Legend In His Time
Merle Haggard didn’t invent a style of music the way Bill Monroe did bluegrass, and he isn’t the “Father of Country Music,” a moniker belonging to one of his all-time heroes, Jimmie Rodgers. He didn’t even pioneer the so-called Bakersfield Sound, a hard-edged honky-tonk style associated with West Coast artists such as Haggard, Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart and Tommy Collins. But Merle is without question one of the most innovative, versatile, influential, and vital artists in the music’s 80-year history.
For starters, he has an awesome voice, a warm, rich baritone that he carefully and lovingly wraps around his lyrics, giving the words a depth of emotion they could never attain just sitting there on the page. In fact, few would argue that Haggard’s voice is among the finest to grace country music since the heyday of his childhood hero, Lefty Frizzell (who influenced Haggard early on and with whom, as a vocalist, he’s long been compared to).
What really sets Merle apart, however, are his songs. Since he laid down his first tracks for independent Tally Records in the early 1960s, he’s created one of the strongest and most diverse catalogs in 20th-century American music, country or otherwise. He’s written and sung hard-shell honky-tonkers (“Swinging Doors”, “The Bottle Let Me Down”), tender-hearted love ballads (“Silver Wings”), and tearful cries of pain (“Going Where The Lonely Go”).
His subject matter has been all over the place, though one attitude that binds much of his recorded material, whether he wrote the song or not, is his sympathy toward the underdogs of this world — be they ex-cons (“Branded Man”), the workaday blue-collar crowd (“Workin’ Man Blues”), California cotton pickers (“Tulare Dust”), barroom losers (“Misery And Gin”), or aging farmers (“In My Next Life”). Each of these character sketches he addressed with curiosity and fervor, as if trying to figure out what makes people of all shapes, sizes and walks of life tick.
These are not just songs-of-the-moment, the kind that fade with the changing times; they’re well-engineered nuggets that have, if anything, grown stronger and sturdier with age. The emotions are universal — sorrow, anger, hope, joy — and the subjects are virtually timeless. Gems such as “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am”, “Footlights”, “Someday We’ll Look Back”, and “If We Make It Through December” speak across lines of genre, class, and generation. These are songs that will last.
It’s no secret, too, that elements of Haggard’s own life experiences frequently show up in his songs. “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” were both inspired by his prison experience, for example, while in his autobiography he explains how “Today I Started Loving You Again” came when he offhandedly spouted that very phrase to his wife at the time, Bonnie Owens, during a break in a grueling tour.
And his 1978 recording “Footlights”, which was never a hit but is a staple in Merle’s live show, is, as he says, “more descriptive of my existence than maybe anything else I’ve written.” The song tells of a middle-aged singer who’s trying to kick out a killer show night after night, but who deep inside is battling an existential crisis.
“That’s me,” says Merle. “I’m out there every night trying to ring the bell. People don’t realize the energy you’ve got to conjure up in order to go out there and face this fanship that’s paid X amount of dollars — you walk out there with all that in mind, and people expect you to make their spine tingle the way you did on the record, and at the same time give them something they didn’t expect. So there’s a lot of energy goes into that. It’s sort of like walking on a tightrope. And ‘Footlights’ is really descriptive; I think it’s my best work describing that existence.”
Elements of Merle’s personal life continue to show up, too, in songs on If I Could Only Fly. He pleads for understanding from his kids on “I’m Still Your Daddy” (“I knew someday you’d find out about San Quentin”) and tells his wife how much she means to him on the upbeat and swinging “Proud To Be Your Old Man” (“you make it fun to get old”). And with all his banter about the joys of kicking back on his ranch, it’s no wonder that “staying home hangs heavy on my mind,” as he admits on “Leaving’s Getting Harder”.
We Don’t Take Our Trips On LSD
Of course, this vast and still-growing repertoire notwithstanding, the reality is that, in the eyes of the general public, Merle Haggard is still to this day defined by one single song, “Okie From Muskogee”, a colorful slab of pinko bait. “Okie” professed respect for the college dean and a disdain for recreational drugs (“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” goes the famous opening line), became a smash hit after its release in 1969, and pushed Haggard’s career over the edge into the realm of superstardom. Riding high on that song’s success, Haggard swept the CMA and ACM awards in 1970 — even winning the coveted Entertainer of the Year from both of those industry organizations.
A huge part of the appeal of “Muskogee” was timing: It arrived smack in the midst of the Vietnam era. It’s never been entirely clear whether Haggard meant the song as a joke or not, but the fact is that he hit a nerve. This was more than mere novelty, and many listeners on both sides of the political fence took the song — and especially its even more vitriolic follow-up, “The Fightin’ Side Of Me” — seriously. So while Merle’s friend Johnny Cash was being applauded by the counterculture and buddying up to Bob Dylan, Haggard had turned into a figurehead for the right-wing Heartland values of the so-called “Silent Majority”.
Considering Cash’s crossover appeal, it’s always been puzzling that Haggard was never similarly embraced by the rock ‘n’ roll generation. His work includes numerous pleas for tolerance, open-minded attitudes, and understanding — just look at “They’re Tearing The Labor Camps Down” (a song that would’ve made Woody Guthrie proud), “Irma Jackson” (about an interracial love affair), and even the cutesy “Big Time Annie’s Square” (a tale of romance between a California hippie girl and an Oklahoma farm boy).
“I think it had to do with the political songs I got involved with at the time,” Haggard says. “In those days, music was very much politically influenced.” So when it came to “Muskogee,” “they didn’t know whether I was serious or stupid.”
Nowadays, however, attitudes have changed, and Haggard is finding new audiences outside the traditional “country” confines. He’s not turning his back on his longtime fans — far from it, a fact illustrated by the time he still spends on the road every year — but he’s realizing there’s a new generation of fans out there who are only now discovering his music, and who are quite excited about what they’ve found.
Many new eyes were opened to Haggard’s songs by Tulare Dust, a tribute album released in 1994 by West Coast indie label HighTone. Assembled by singer-songwriters Tom Russell and Dave Alvin, it featured such left-of-center heroes as Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, John Doe, Joe Ely and Peter Case performing Haggard gems such as “Kern River” and “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today”. A celebration of that album’s release — during which Haggard shared the stage with several of these artists — even took place in San Francisco at that bastion of 1960s hippie culture, the Fillmore.
With country radio virtually ignoring Haggard these days — despite the endless praises he receives from just about every young buck rising out of Nashville — the alt-country landscape, peppered as it is with punks, Deadheads, and reformed MTV junkies hungry for something new, hard, “real” to chew on, is looking like mighty fertile territory.
“I think it’s just slow coming about,” Haggard says of his appeal to rock ‘n’ rollers over the years. “That’s the market we’re hoping to stimulate, and turn around, on this next record.”
Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room
In these last few years, the record bins haven’t been entirely void of new Haggard product. He released an album of remakes (For The Record: 43 Legendary Hits, which, produced by Haggard in his Palo Cedro studio, is no simple toss-off but actually quite enjoyable) as well as the concert album Live At Billy Bob’s Texas. And collections such as the excellent box set Down Every Road (which covers his classic Capitol years as well as later gems on MCA, Epic, and even Curb) have kept some of his vital back catalog in print.
If you look hard enough, you still might come across 1996, Haggard’s last proper studio project, a come-and-gone collection with a curiously uncreative title (ditto for his album two years previous to that, 1994). Both contained some decent songs, but on looks alone they serve almost as courtroom documents of Merle’s mistreatment in the hands of Curb. The CDs sport not only the bland titles but have next to no cover design — just a pictureless black-and-silver backdrop with words reading “Merle Haggard” and “1996” (or “1994”).
“It’s almost like sabotage,” Merle remarked in a ’96 interview. When his longtime fans and other curious listeners first saw these CDs in stores, they must have wondered what the hell they were.
There’ll be no such quandary regarding If I Could Only Fly. Not only does it feature an actual cover photo — Merle with hat and guitar casually posed against a backdrop of cattails, trees, and a small pond — but the songs and arrangements have a presence that’s understated yet immediate. The aforementioned lead track, for instance, “Wishing All These Old Things Were New”, is based around just a gently rolling acoustic guitar riff and Haggard’s expressive voice — aging around the edges, yes, but still delicate in its inflections and resonating with the wisdom and strength of a singer who knows the power that a single syllable, if touched on just right, can carry.
“We sing it and people listen,” Haggard says of the song, which he’s already unveiled to concert audiences. “It’s sort of an assessment of the times in which we live. People are coming off of dope, and let’s be honest, there were a couple decades that everybody had their head in the sack.”
But this is no simple anti-drug plug. It’s much more honest than that.
“I think everybody’d like to go back and party like they did in the ’70s and ’80s. Once you’ve had that degree of excitement, I mean how in the hell can you forget it if you’ve got any memory? So it’s gotta cross your mind when you see somebody over there partying, doing what you used to do and you thought were the best times of your life.”
The title track is another knockout, a delicate song of longing, loneliness, and self-reflection written by the late Blaze Foley [D.M. Fuller], an Austin singer-songwriter who earned an unshakable reputation for his hard-drinking lifestyle as much as his powerful songs — few of which ever made it onto record, though both Townes Van Zandt (“Blaze’s Blue”) and Lucinda Williams (“Drunken Angel”) wrote songs about him. Foley was shot and killed during an argument in 1989, but his music is slowly gaining more recognition.
Haggard was turned onto “If I Could Only Fly” by Willie Nelson; the pair first cut it as a duet back in 1987 for Nelson’s album Island In The Sea. “He’s knocking me out,” Haggard says of Foley’s music. “He’s got a whole mail pouch full of [great songs]. I’m fixing to maybe record some.”
20 Kinds Of Chickens
Though a quiet mood prevails through much of the material, this isn’t an album that stays in one place. “Crazy Moon” feels like a pop standard; “Honky Tonk Mama” bops like an old hillbilly swing tune; and on “Bareback”, Haggard turns up the jazz vibe and gives a lots of room to saxophonist Don Markham, who has shared the bandstand with Haggard since 1960, when they both worked for bandleader Bill Woods at the Blackboard, a Bakersfield club.
Diversity, in fact, has always been important to Haggard. He recognized early on that it was vital to keeping his creativity fresh, his music exciting, and his career prosperous. Country has been his home base from the beginning, but along the way he’s sung the blues, played stripped-down folk songs, and toyed with jazz. He also took the time to cut tribute albums to his musical heroes, including Bob Wills (A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World) and Jimmie Rodgers (Same Train, A Different Time).
“I’ve always had a saxophone in the band, I’ve always played what you’d call somewhere between Fats Domino and Bob Wills,” he says. “Which is not your normal Nashville music, it has more of a West Coast ring. [We’re] a nightclub/beer-joint band with capability of playing blues and country and rock ‘n’ roll. So that’s where I’m at. And then there’s the jazz influence. All the players in my band [the Strangers] are capable of improvising, and we do that onstage. We go right off the shoulder for an hour and a half. We don’t have any set rule as to what we’re going to play; things roll according to what the audience latches onto.”
Even nowadays, Haggard can’t sit still. On top of his new Epitaph project, he has two brand-new gospel collections, Cabin In The Hills and Two Old Friends (an album of duets with Al Brumley Jr.). Both are available via his website (merlehaggard.com), and Hills is also being marketed by Wal-Mart.
“I love diversity, that’s my way of life. I went to Australia a while back, and I noticed they had 18 different kind of cows in the field, and 20 different kind of chickens. And here in the U.S. you got a Rhode Island Red and a White Legger chicken, and a Hereford cow and a Black Angus cow. And that’s it. Maybe one of two of them over-steroided deals, but there’s no diversity like there used to be.”
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to the talk of music. Epitaph, explains Haggard, “being a punk rock label, I was interested in their exploitation of areas that maybe had not been stimulated in the past.” In other words, he wasn’t looking to just hang with the Herefords. (Tom Waits must have felt a similar urge, as his 1999 album, Mule Variations, was released by Anti/Epitaph and became one of the label’s top-selling CDs; trip-hop star Tricky is also a recent signing.)
It’s likely, too, that Haggard was inspired by the attention Johnny Cash received for his two mid-’90s albums released on Rick Rubin’s label American Recordings. So as strange as it may seem for Haggard to be on the same roster as Rancid and NOFX — Epitaph was founded by Brett Gurewitz, onetime guitarist with Bad Religion, and remains a stronghold of hard-edged, no-sellout punk — considering all his talk of diversity, such a pairing actually makes quite a bit of sense. “You can understand the expansion that I’m looking to grab by association with these people,” he says.
Besides, says Haggard, when it came time to find a home for his new record, “they spoke up first. There were a couple other offers, but not anything I was interested in…. [Epitaph] said all the right things, and they have a history of doing what they say they’ll do. Everybody I’ve met at Epitaph has been straight up real good people. I’m proud to be aboard.”
As for the rest of the roster, “I don’t care what other kind of music they make on this label. That would have the least effect of anything. I’m a musician, I try to understand and have appreciation for all kinds of music. Even punk rock. I don’t listen to much of it, but I get a kick out of watching it on the videos. I switch across it on the TV once in a while, stop and watch them act silly. It’s fine. They’re young and energetic and getting the job done. There’s something there that even an old man like me can understand.”
Out Of The Past
Though he regularly makes cracks about being an “old man,” age isn’t something Merle’s giving into just yet.
“People are only handicapped by age if they allow it to occur,” he advises sagely. “Tomorrow is the most important thing in your life. Today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Yesterday, unless you did something you’re going to have to pay for tomorrow, will fade into the past.
“I’ll tell you, what I’ve done is a lot and I’m proud of it, but what I’m doing and what I’m going to do are more important and fun to think about and talk about.
“If there’s one thing we could communicate with the younger people, it doesn’t make no difference if you’re 75 years old, you still want to live longer. Life is so precious, and no matter how long you been here you’ll never be here long enough.”
He may be creeping up in years, but age isn’t slowing down Merle’s touring schedule just yet. He says in the coming year he’s got about 150 dates planned — no wonder he’s precious about his time at home. But while performing still can be fun, he claims it’s songwriting that’s become his chief focus.
“I write all the time. Very seldom am I not thinking about songs, it’s an ongoing semi-conscious state of mind. Once you’ve written a song, it’s like knowing you have this talent — well then you cultivate it, and you never sleep on the matter, it’s always in the back of your mind. Everything that’s said, everything that goes by, you try to put some sort of a gestalt on it and see if there’s a melody to it.”
Is writing a process that has to sometimes be forced? “If [a song idea] don’t inspire me to the point of carrying the weight of a pencil, then I don’t have anything.” On the other hand, he says, “Things that are any good usually don’t even have to be written down. [They’re] things you can remember, that you’re capable of latching onto easily. That’s one of the most necessary attributes of a successful song. It’s like ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine’, those are songs that everybody knows. To write something difficult, and deep, and shadowed by darkness or whatever, it’s debatable as to whether or not you’re writing songs.”
Maybe that’s stretching things a bit too far. Backtracking a little bit, Haggard admits that there are “different kinds of successes. There are the songs that nobody can sing except one artist, which become great international hits. More cases than not, you’ll find people who say, ‘Is that the man who sings that song?’ I’ve heard that comment walking out of my bus. [A man] was standing there with a child in his arms, and the little girl said, ‘Daddy is that the man who sings “Big City”‘? Well, boy, that shined a light on the whole subject for me. She found my name and who I was secondary to the song that she liked. That’s where it starts.”
Eventually, the topic of Nashville comes up. In the past, Merle’s been plenty outspoken about his distaste for the kind of music that dominates mainstream country radio these days. Today the fire might be turned down a bit, but the opinions are basically unchanged.
“There’s a bunch of words that describe the situation. Bland is one of them. Refined, homogenized, strained, carefully inspected.” Mainstream country music, he feels, has reached the point where “there’s no humanity involved, and there’s no chance for the subject matter to change, we’ve narrowed it down to a very thin category. This song out, ‘Murder On Music Row’, I was really surprised to see any sort of success on that because it lashed out against the very thing that was…it’s sort of like shooting your foot off to get attention. I was really amazed to see they got that much airplay.” The song was nominated for two CMA awards, including Song of the Year for its writer, Larry Cordle.
So who’s turning Merle on these days? “In my pickup I’ve been listening a lot to Natalie Cole. Everybody knows she’s great, but go back and listen to Unforgettable, that album that she won all the shit on in ’91.” Considering the classic, laid-back feel of some of his own ballads, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine the Hag in the driver’s seat crooning along to the likes of “Paper Moon” and “Mona Lisa.”
And then there’s Jewel, with whom he sang a pair of duets (“Silver Wings” and the Lefty Frizzell weeper “That’s The Way Love Goes”) on For The Record.
“Jewel was phenomenal,” Haggard says with genuine enthusiasm. “Her charisma onstage is renowned. She’s got a bit of an attitude, which I like. She don’t take no shit off nobody walking through a crowd. We confront a barrage of people who want us for different reasons to do different things, and the way she handled them was about as good as has ever been done. I been doing this shit for years, I’ve seen a lot of people leave the stage, and she knows how to leave the stage.” He busts out laughing at that thought.
As is increasingly clear during our conversation, Merle Haggard might have grown older and wiser — and given up much of his wild-child lifestyle in favor of a quieter, more settled existence — but his life still has plenty of “little ups and downs,” as Charlie Rich once sang. Haggard underwent huge financial difficulties, but he found happiness in marriage; he was stuck in an unproductive record deal, but now he’s back in the world and more in charge of his own work and songs than ever before.
And really, says Haggard, “the bottom line is the music. If the music’s good, then all the different scenarios that had to take place to come by it are worth it. Everything that you and I have done here in the last few minutes means something if the music’s good. If the music ain’t good [laughs], this little conversation won’t be worth the paper it’s written on!”
So…is it good?
“I think the music don’t suck.” He pauses, then a short burst of laughter comes one more time out of his throat. “I really think it’s all right.”
San Francisco based writer Kurt Wolff is the author of The Rough Guide To Country Music and Country: 100 Essential CDs. Merle Haggard passed away on April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday.