Merle Haggard will take the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville tonight for a Valentine’s Day show in a city with which he has had a step-sibling-like past. But with the release of Roots Vol. 1 late last year, his second album in as many years, Haggard has placed himself in the twenty-first century with the same prolific vigorousness that marked his heyday in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Further, it’s an album that honors three songwriters who, like Haggard, had eccentric, trying relationships with Music City: Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Hank Thompson.
Last year, Hag released If I Could Only Fly through Epitaph Records, an unlikely pairing that worked wonders for both. The collection of songs was his best in years, and the label reveled in marketing a fellow California original. The album moved more than 200,000 copies, surpassing the cumulative tally for Haggard’s decade spent at Curb Records, a stay that he likens to “imprisonment.” At the heart of Roots is a quintet of songs popularized nearly a half-century ago by Frizzell, one of Hag’s heroes and primary influences. The album came together in an unorthodox manner, as serendipity revealed that Frizzell’s former guitarist Norman Stephenson was offering to give swing guitar lessons in a neighboring California county. A phone call later, and the two were channeling Lefty’s spirit. The result is the third tribute that Haggard has recorded to his predecessors, picking up after 1969’s Same Train, Different Time (a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers) and 1970’s A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (a nod to Bob Wills).
Most exciting is that Haggard’s Roots looks to be the first of a series, touching upon the myriad musical styles that shaped him as a performer four-plus decades ago. Like jazz and blues performers, age has seasoned, rather than hindered his craft.
After tributes to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell seemed a natural choice for your next one.
Well, I always enjoy paying homage to my heroes. And it was getting late in life [laughs], so I thought I better do that before I forgot how it was done.
Was it like riding a bike?
Not really, I almost waited too late. Lefty was only twenty-one/twenty-two years old when he had all those hits. And he did it at a time when studios weren’t really much more than microphones. So we tried to do it with the same technique. We actually didn’t even go into the studio; we did that record in the corner of my house so that we could capture some of that non-electronic sound that was available around 1950.
Considering Lefty’s long list of hits, was song selection tough?
Well we did twenty-three sides before we quit and we did three or four more of Lefty’s. You’ll notice “Volume One” is there, and that’s for a reason. We did quite a few and wanted people to know there was more to come on that subject.
Will “Volume Two” have a different focus?
There’s some more Lefty in there and we have to edge into other artists. The project really is trying to show what music I used before I had music of my own. And it includes a lot of people ranging into rock & roll, because that’s where I was at when I was in the middle of trying to become an artist myself, when Elvis and Lefty and people like that came on the scene. There’s some early rock & roll that I intend to touch on and we’re also gonna go back in the other direction and touch on some of the influential artists of the early years and there will probably be a Volume Two, Three maybe Four before we’re done.
Can you give us a hint as to some of the people you’ll cover?
We’re gonna do some things like touch on Chuck Berry and the early Marty Robbins. Things of that nature that really influenced us. I was a guitar player before I was a singer, at least I wanted to be a guitar player. I have to be honest and let everybody know, when I was a kid I liked Lefty Frizzell, but I also loved Fats Domino and Chuck Berry.
Lefty’s career started to fade about the time yours began to take off. Can you talk a little about your introduction to his work?
First time I saw him was 1951, and I was like fourteen-years-old. A few years went by and I saw him again when I was sixteen. When I was sixteen is when he got me on stage and sort of ruined my life [laughs]. It was something to have your idol come to town. Not only did I get to meet him, but he handed me his guitar and said go out there and sing a couple with my band. Naturally I was hooked.
What did you do to get called on stage?
There was a friend of mine who wouldn’t have it unless I went back there and let Lefty know that I sang his songs and Jimmie Rodgers songs. I was literally drug back there to meet Lefty. And he was such a cordial and courteous human being. He immediately liked me and I liked him. We became friends and we remained friends all the way through until he died. Over the years he helped me and influenced me and showed me the right direction a lot of times — he still does, even though he’s gone.
His musician friends seemed to be there for him when the industry turned its back.
The people on the other side of the mike — the ones that don’t do anything but count the money — they always managed to take half of his songs. You’ll notice on those songs that he wrote that Jim Beck appeared on a lot of ’em, and Jim Beck didn’t do anything — he turned the tape machine on. Lefty was really beat down with that kind of treatment. Had he been lucky enough to find himself a Colonel Parker that would at least give him fifty cents on the dollar he probably wouldn’t have died broke. But it didn’t happen.
He had a different way around a song, infusing country with blues and jazz. It was a rich style.
He loved the blues and he loved Jimmie Rodgers and he loved what you’re talking about. He understood that there was a difference, and his music wasn’t white as some of the other people who were recording calling themselves country artists back there. They were very bland compared to Lefty.
What are your favorite tunes of his?
“If You’ve Got the Money” is kind of like “Stardust” in pop music. It was a big song. It was the song that Lefty first hit with. There was also a strange thing that happened in my life: I was unaware that a guitar player that played on Lefty’s stuff was still alive. I didn’t know he was still in the world, and it turns out he was living near us, here in Reading, California. Anyway, we called him and he had sort of given up on music. He was sixty-nine-years-old, a retired civil engineer, who quit music in 1954 and moved to Northern California and put his guitar under the bed. I called him and he got his guitar out and he came over. He’s the guy playing guitar on those Lefty Frizzell songs like he did in the 1950s. It was such a wonderful thing for both of us. It brought him back. His wife says it saved his life. I was at a point in my life where I didn’t really care about going back in the studio and doing the same thing again. When I ran into Norman Stephens, he gave me that desire to pay tribute to Lefty, because he was so prevalent in both of our lives.
Ray Charles said there’s no difference between singing a song you wrote and interpreting someone else’s tune. Do you find that holds?
Yeah, you really have to climb into it. You have to think, “What was this man thinking about? Who was he in love with? What was the situation here? Who was it he wanted to be with always?” For Lefty, it was Alice. He was a young man, he got himself into a little trouble in New Mexico — I think he did a year for statutory rape and he was displaced from his family — and he went to New Mexico to work. Alice already had a young child, and the incident almost cost him the love of his life. So that’s where those songs came from, so young in his life.
Your last album was beautiful, but it seemed tinged with melancholy. Roots feels much more vibrant.
Yeah, there’s a lot of fun in this album. And the thought is upbeat, the melodies, even “I’ll Sign My Heart Away,” it’s not a tearjerker, it’s a sad subject, but it’s taken with a lightheartedness. That’s an ingredient that country music needs to go back to nowadays. They’ve overlooked a great part of it.
The two Hanks, Thompson and Williams, fit nicely. Did you ever catch them live as a youngster?
I’ve seen Hank Thompson many times, but I never did see Hank Sr. I missed his performance when he came through Bakersfield. It was during a time when I was having trouble with the law. I was a little juvenile turd that should’ve been locked up, and I was. My father died when I was nine, and I didn’t have any supervision, and I got in a lot of trouble. I got out by the time I was a young man and haven’t had any since. I don’t know whether you know or not, but Ronald Reagan, when he was governor, gave me a full and unconditional pardon. I’m very proud of that.