On The Line With… Merle Haggard
Keith Richards has got nothing on the Hag. At 73, and recently beating lung cancer, Merle just keeps doing what he’s always done, making great records. And as the title of this latest effort suggests, he isn’t about to change the formula that’s maintained his status as a country music icon for over four decades.
Musically, his longtime band the Strangers is as solid as ever, with the addition of his 17-year-old son Ben on guitar adding just enough new energy. Lyrically, all of his classic themes are present too, from childhood reminiscences (“Oil Tanker Train”) to biting social commentary (“I’ve Seen It Go Away”). The predominant theme of I Am What I Am, though, is love, and Haggard approaches it from several different angles.
Perhaps the best song on the album is “Bad Actor,” a prescient observation of the public roles we are all forced to play. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of emotionally complex song that the country music industry doesn’t have any use for anymore. But for those who recognize that Haggard has never belonged in that world, it will resonate, along with the rest of I Am What I Am, long after the first listen.
You were just in western Canada in March. Was that your first time out there in a while?
It had been a while. The turnout was wonderful. We had suitable conditions, although we had to watch for ice and were travelling 700 miles between jobs in some cases. But the people really surprised me with how nice they were towards us.
Well, it is always special when you guys come to any town. I noticed that your son Ben plays on the new album. Is he a full-time member of the band now?
He’s doing everything but leading the band, I’ll tell you. He’s just everybody’s favourite kid. He’s been doing his schoolwork and is going to graduate from high school this year. He’s 17 years old and is playing guitar like Grady Martin and Roy Nichols rolled into one. Then sometimes he’ll sound just like Reggie Young or James Burton. James Burton even made a comment in an interview saying Ben reminds me of myself at that age. I think that’s about as high a compliment as you can get. What’s amazing is that he’s doing it off the cuff; he sounds like a different guy every day. He’s knockin’ his old daddy plum out.
How are you feeling right now? Your health is good?
Well, I had that bout with cancer. It was isolated to a place in my right lung that was taken out. It wasn’t anywhere else in my body, so the recuperation was all that was necessary. It’s been about 14 months since the surgery and I was told it would take 18 months to heal. I think I’m healed right now. I feel good anyway. I’m not going to test anything else; I’m 73 years old, and they say you’re only supposed to live until you’re 72, so I’m a year up on them now.
Was I Am What I Am the first bunch of songs you got together after your surgery?
Yeah. What this is is songs that had compatibility, done over the past two years. Even though we started it that long ago, there are a lot of different stages you have to go through to record nowadays. It’s hard sometimes to get everybody together in the same place. And even though you’d like to stick with the old recording methods, you have to live in 2010. So what you start out with is not necessarily what you wind up with, as much as you might try. I can say that all of the vocals were done after the surgery. Making a record nowadays is like building a house – you have to know how it will look finished when you start.
Does working with [producer] Lou Bradley make that process a lot easier for you?
Well, we’re old friends and we’ve worked a lot together since the ‘70s. We’ve got a lot of new, young ears listening too. But he and I have developed our own production style. We don’t just do Merle Haggard projects. For example, we have a new record by the Malpass Brothers who are a couple of kids out of North Carolina. They did their album here at the house, which Lou and I produced, and I think it’s wonderful.
There seems to be a lot of romance on your new album. Is it fair to say that you were thinking of that as a common thread to the songs?
You know, until I look in the mirror every day, I don’t feel old. I’m still writing songs about love and young romance as if I was still a participant, and maybe we are. I have a wife who I’ve been with for 24 years now. They talk about that as an anomaly on television, but it seems like we’ve only been married for about four years.
The song “Bad Actor” really stood out for me. Can you tell me a bit about that one?
Well, in today’s active world, there’s a lot of confusion about what’s real and what’s drama. Reality has become hard to identify, and it’s the same way with life. In that song, we’re comparing life to the bandstand. Life, I think, is harder to deal with now than it was a hundred years ago, and the song is about those conditions of life when you can’t decide how you should act. Then you find out you’re a bad actor, so the question becomes what do you do with the show?
I like how the album is bookended by the title track and “I’ve Seen It Go Away.” To me, those other great examples of what you just saying in terms of music not reflecting reality perhaps in a way it used to.
It doesn’t seem to go in depth, no. A lot of music today is well-written, it’s well-recorded, it’s always in tune, but a program director who had a lot of influence in America once told me that he didn’t want to play anything that causes people to look up from their computer. That’s a pretty small intention. You’re never going to hear a song like “Teddy Bear” about a truck driver anymore, or songs about America. Lee Greenwood couldn’t get played now. Is that a loss, or is that a gain?
I think it’s encouraging that your audience still seems to comprise a wide age range. Do you still notice a lot of young folk coming to see you?
It’s hard to believe, but I think you’re right. Our audience is derived from something which has occurred in the last ten years, and they’re buying me for what I am today rather than expecting something from the past. That really makes me shout hooray and bow before all the people who are interested. That’s a blessing, to have your work recognized.
I was curious about the Mexican influence on the album too. Did that perhaps stem directly from the song “Mexican Bands?”
Well, I was born in California and grew up working alongside Mexican people in the fields, I was in jail with Mexican people, I’ve got Mexican people who work for me, so I have a long attachment to them. I know their history, I know that California once belonged to them – we took it away in a poker game or some damn thing. It’s like the America Indians; they were here first. We came into their society and you can see that in every town out here. This was their land before it was ours and I’ve got a lot of respect for that. I enjoy Mexican music in the morning; you can turn on the radio and find nothing but Mexican music from Texas to Oregon. It’s real strong in the southwestern part of the United States, and it’s got a real bright, good morning feel about it. That’s what that song’s about.
I’m sure someone has pointed out that Willie’s new album is being released the same day yours is. Have you spoken with him about that and maybe have a friendly rivalry going?
No, but I’m sure that he’ll provide me with some sort of an answer. What’s the name of his record?
It’s just called Country Music. It was produced by T-Bone Burnett and it’s coming out on Rounder.
I understand that Willie has a son playing with him on stage too. You know, he and I have had a lot of the same things happen to us in our lives. We’ve both been married to the same woman we’re with now for the same period of time, and we’ve both been in this country music thing for about the same amount of time. We both started out as bass players for famous country artists, and we both were songwriters before we were singers. Our lives have been parallel in a lot of ways. No one else might have a clue as to what I’m talking about, but he and I do.
You’ve collaborated together so many times in the past. Any chance that it might happen again?
There’s a good chance of it. Willie and I are talking about it now. We’re just trying to figure out how to do it and when to get together. Anytime you do something like this, you have to consider filming it and all of this other stuff. So when you say, ‘Let’s record something together,’ that immediately goes off in all kinds of other directions. We’re in the process of trying to corral it all and do another project. We’ve done two before and made a lot of mistakes with them – not necessarily with the music, but with how we let other people take ownership of it. So we need to be the wise old birds in the tree with whatever we do next.
This piece can also be read at Heartbreak Trail. Please visit often.