Merle Haggard's Still Swinging

Life, death, punk rock and fiashing — with Merle Haggard

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Merle Haggard was a punk rocker before the term was even coined. Not that he ever churned out feedback-drenched, three-chord anthems of angst, but he was, and is, the very embodiment of the spirit.

While other country stars sang their fantastical ditties about doing hard time, Haggard was doing it. After being put behind bars for armed robbery and after the California correctional system found it difficult to find a facility to hold him, Merle wound up in the maximum security San Quentin. The experience scared him straight, and from then on Merle's most lethal weapons would be his guitar and his smooth croon, which he's used to tell some of the most enduring tales in country music.

And Haggard, now sixty-three, has never let those basic elements be obscured. He is the only member of the Country Music Hall of Fame who was born in California, and he always refused to let his honky-tonk raveups or his homegrown ballads be sanitized by Nashvillian arrangements.

Not surprisingly, for Merle Haggard's new album, the intensely personal If I Could Only Fly, it was punk rock label Epitaph Records who came a-knockin'. Always willing to break the rules, Merle signed a deal and the album was just released on the Epitaph subsidiary Anti. "I love to be associated with the cutting edge of the youngsters," he says from his Northern California home, where he and his wife Theresa are hosting a barbecue to celebrate their seventh anniversary. Life may be slower for country music's biggest cain-raiser, but he certainly knows a thing or two about the cutting edge.

How did you come to hook up with Epitaph?
They kind of sought me out. They contacted my attorney, and he called me and said, "I know you're not interested in labels right now..." -- 'cause I have my own label, and [I've recently released] a couple gospel records, Cabin in the Hills and Two Old Friends with Al Brumley, which are doing quite well. We haven't had any advertisement and I haven't even mentioned them during my shows, but the dogs are hunting pretty good. So I really wasn't knocking any doors down to be on anybody's label. I'd had ten years of incarceration on the Mike Curb thing [Curb Records], and I was really kind of irritated with record companies as a whole. He said, "But this company is a punk rock label, and they want one country act. And they don't want nobody else; they want you." And I said, "Well, I'm not gonna go down there and record with no other bands or none of that stuff." And he said, "No, they don't want to change nothing about you. They're interested in listening to the music that you have made." Their energy level is high and I've never been treated quite this way by any record label. I'm proud to be here, and the punk rock thing is just fine with me.

You sound re-energized on If I Could Only Fly.
Yeah, there is a good energy level. You can't stand alongside these punk rockers unless you've got some energy in your music. And I believe we've got energy. And it's real. We're not using any of those tuners -- you know, those $490 deals that make everybody sing in key [laughs]. We can actually reproduce the music at the shows. I've got the best band I've ever had in my life.

Because the album is so "real," will it be tough to get played on mainstream country outlets?
They're talking about doing a video of "(Think About a) Lullaby" or "Leavin's Getting Harder" 'cause that's the most generic thought on there, with the intention of trying to grab airplay on CNT and all that shit -- you know how that goes [laughs]. Which is good thinking and everything, but I hate to say that we have to give it that much thought. Why can't we do a video on the most obvious and best song? We gotta do it on what we believe someone will accept.

That's a bit ironic, because this is your most personal, and least generic, album to date. Fair to say?
Well it is, but I didn't mean to put the song "Leavin's Getting Harder" down. It's a real thought, a real feeling. I have family that I hate to pull away from, but my life's like a yo-yo. The subject matter is probably the most beaten to death compared to the rest of the album -- the subject of leaving and going away. Dying, leaving and going away has always been the hillbilly country subject from the soil [laughs].

Talk about "Wishing All These Old Things Were New." You open up about your substance using life, and it has the same power as when you sang first sang about a criminal past in songs like "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried."
Well, see, my family was a gift that was meant to redeem me from a party life that would have taken me directly to the grave. I was coming off a couple bad marriages and a period of life where things just didn't work right, in the mid-Eighties. Financially, everything was bad, and the hit records quit coming around '89. "Wishing These Old Things Were New" is meant to imply that if they were new, it would be a period back in the Eighties when I was partying, having fun, and looking back with some bit of emotion, and then jarring back to reality with the things we see on TV, what it's come to be. And the same thing with the last verse with kids dictating who can smoke ["The kids don't want my cigarettes around/The say it's time that Dad should lay tobacco down/But if I could start all over, guess I'd still do what I do"]. Not that it's wrong, they're absolutely right, we shouldn't be smoking. But, then again, nostalgia makes you say, "Man, I wish it was like it used to be. I wish we could still be party, and other people besides the judges and the attorneys could get away with it." I wish prohibition was over. I wish that we had a choice, and that they'd level with us about this drug war. It's stupid. This drug war is a drug industry. They've turned it into an industry that runs all the way to big prisons, and big sanitariums, and rehabilitation centers, and social workers. I could go on and on and bore you, but I'm trying to capture all of that in that song.

As far as the emotional father/child songs, "I'm Still Your Daddy" and "Proud to Be Your Old Man," is it easier to sing those messages in song than to tell them to your kids?
Well, you can't perform them correctly without climbing into the situation, and you risk the embarrassment of becoming emotional -- you can't really predict it. I haven't done "Daddy" on stage. I haven't done "(Think About a) Lullaby." That song comes from the loss of a child. Theresa lost a child recently and that's the subject matter is very tender. She had to go to a rehabilitation center in Arizona to keep from going insane. She's thirty-nine years old, in the midway crisis that women go through when the child was lost. It's something hard to talk to about. We were on the phone and I said something to her, but I tried to keep thinking about something else, rather than what had happened to us. We already had the child name, Emmett Haggard; we named him after Emmett Miller. So anyway, she said, "Think about something else. You should write a song, or think about a lullaby. " So, that's what that's about.

There seems to be a heavy Bob Wills influence on this record, and you sound to be having the most fun when you're doing that upbeat Western Swing stuff.
I've taken the position of being the guy that continues that music. If I had my way, the next album I do will be a swing album. It incorporates jazz and blues, and it's my favorite music. It's diversity. I don't mean to mimic Bob anymore but to carry on the tradition of the music. A lot of people don't know this but "Rock Around the Clock" -- by Bill Haley [and His Comets], for years the biggest rock & roll record - well, they were in San Francisco, and they were simply trying to sound like Bob Wills' band from Sacramento. That's how they got that big hit, trying to sound like Bob Wills. There's something about Wills' music. It's so much fun. It puts a vibration in the room. I defy you to keep a negative attitude if you put on a Bob Wills album [laughs].

Speaking of California, instead of writing about Hollywood, or the lights on Broadway or whatever, you've made use of your surrounding and have written a lot of songs about the decidedly less glamorous San Joaquin Valley. Was that a conscious decision?
I simply looked around and I saw songs like "Kansas City" in the charts, and thought, "There are other places in the world, and people identify with places and things." So I started writing from that framework, and it was a pretty good way to go because I knew what I was talking about and there other people that knew what I was talking about.

But nobody had written about those places. Now, people drive down Highway 99 and see signs for Tulare and Kern River and think, "That's from a Merle Haggard song."
Yeah, I wanted to write something that covered the Steinbeck period -- you know, the South San Joaquin Valley locality down there with cotton fields and grape vineyards and potato fields and oil. And here's this beautiful river coming off the top off of Mount Whitney, running into the ground south of Bakersfield to a place called Old River. I'd been on the road for twenty years, and I was sleeping in a truck stop in Bakersfield -- I had no longer lived there. I woke up in the bunk in the bus and I realized that I was in Bakersfield. It was just breaking day, and I thought, "Man, how many times have I sat out here and waited for daylight so I could run up Kern River and fish?" It's a very dangerous river. There have been a lot of people have been killed. There's a sign in Kern Canyon there where it warns you that many deaths have occurred in that river. It's the fasting running river in the United States. It drops from about 14,000 feet all the way to 500 feet in a period of about forty miles. And the only road that you can get to it is a two-mile walk down a steep canyon down to where the river is. It's almost like a miniature Grand Canyon. I thought, "I might never get to fish that river again." And I love to fish for small-mouthed bass in rivers -- that's my hobby. And Kern River had swift, clean water. I used to drink it, but it was dangerous. There was an eerie feeling about it. The water would run over them big old rocks, big as a house, and run into a pool. There were rattlesnakes and tarantulas. It's its own deal, not like any place else in the world. I use to go up there everyday after I'd get off work at night, playing some club 'til daylight. I'd fish 'til about nine or ten o'clock, come home, go to bed, get up and do it again. There had never been a song about that river. It was strange. That's where "Kern River" came from. I thought, "Well, you can't say, 'I'll never gonna fish Kern River again. It's got to be something more glamorous. Oh, it's about some guy who lost his woman up there.'" So, [the song "Kern River"] is totally prefabricated, but you see where I'm coming from.

You've lost two good friends this year in Tommy Collins and Bill Woods. Please talk about what they meant to you and country music.
Well, let me tell you, I lost three good friends. Jimmy Belkin, my fiddle player, also passed away this year. Every few days it seems like we get a call that someone's not doing well. I went to see Tommy and told him goodbye. I knew he was gonna die. Tommy was the guy who pronounced my wife and me man and wife. He was an ordained Baptist minister, and he was one of my closest friends. Bill Woods was a guy who actually took off work, stayed home and watched TV so I could work in his place at [the old Bakersfield honky tonk] the Blackboard and make $16.50, so I could feed my family. We've lost a couple of people that were dear, dear friends of mine. It's like [legendary fiddler] Johnny Gimble said to me on the phone the other day. He said, "We used to talk about people that are in that age bracket in which you lose them." And he said, "You know, Hag, me and you are now in that same bracket" [laughs].