Wednesday, April 6, 2011


I'm in more of a Buck Owens mood today, but today is the birthday of Buck's fellow Bakersfield honky tonk maverick (and my favorite country singer, period), Merle Haggard. I was raised on the man's vintage recordings, which bordered on a hard, twangy variant of folk rock, for all their poetic wonder. Haggard has written lines I would have killed to have written: "The only things I can count on are my fingers" immediately comes to mind.

I was fortunate enough, as an Austin Chronicle staffer in 1996, to have interviewed Merle during a tour stop, in the middle of a string of profiles I did for the paper on classic country artists. So well did I capture the horrendous disrespect the man was experiencing at that point in his career, my piece was reprinted in a number of other alt-weeklies across the nation! I reprint the version which ran in Philadelphia City Paper; like many of the numerous pieces I wrote for the Chronicle, this is nowhere to be found in its online archives.  

Happy birthday, Merle.

Legendhood and 50 Cents Will Get You a Cup of Coffee

Merle Haggard ruled country music despite his contrariness. He now wonders if that same contrariness may be costing him.
By Tim Stegall

"You don't look like a Merle Haggard fan."

I suppose I don't, considering I'm standing before this dressed-for-success reporter from Austin's daily newspaper while wearing hair that could've been styled by Sid's of London and a dilapidated antique vest held together with safety pins, punk rock badges and a prayer. Still, my reply is the only sane and rational one such an observation merits:

"Lady, what the hell does a Merle Haggard fan look like?"

As has seemingly been the norm for maybe the last ten years, Merle Ronald Haggard of Oildale, California, youngest son of James Francis and Flossie Harp Haggard, is getting less than he deserves. At 58-going-on-59, the youngest man to be voted into the Country Hall of Fame, Haggard has produced one of the most consistently, artistically rich bodies of work to emerge from country music (if not American music, in general). He has earned the praises of the form's pioneers, his own contemporaries and its reigning current stars. The man's even revered and admired by rock 'n' rollers ranging from the late Gram Parsons and almost-late Keith Richards to Wayne Kramer and members of D-Generation.

So, what does such a lifetime batting average get Merle Haggard, at least of late? How about two — count 'em —two tribute albums that have received more attention and airplay than contemporary Haggard recordings that may well be every bit the equal of his vintage Capitol tracks. And can someone please explain why Haggard was forced a few years back into the insulting position of having to OPEN FOR CLINT BLACK! Now, who should be opening for whom?

Ergo, it's hardly surprising that when the Austin office of Sun Records throws a press reception for Haggard, he has to face reporters as supercilious and disinterested as Ms. Dress-For-Success. Later, she'll show how much of a Haggard fan she is by asking her colleagues if he was an "outlaw."

No, Merle Haggard was never an "outlaw." Merle is certainly friends with Willie Nelson, but Hag's never been one to hang with cliques or join clubs — he was even outside that batch of outsiders. Hag's always boogied to his own internal beat. He refused to record in Nashville, forging his own hardcore honky tonk vision at the height of the strings-and-choir-laden "Nashville Sound." Even when he got pegged as The Voice of the Silent Majority via the ironic "Okie From Muskogee," Haggard turned around and penned "Irma Jackson," an unflinching account of an interracial love affair Capitol managed to bury.

For over 20 years, Merle Haggard ruled country music despite his contrariness. He now wonders if that same contrariness may be costing him.

"I've been one that didn't really play the game," reflects Haggard, before adding wearily, "I'll play the game, now. I'll do everything I'm supposed to do, and see if that's what it is."

Haggard's discomfort with that decision is as obvious as the furrows and creases which have overpowered his once-handsome features. Of course, it's hard to get comfortable at any anonymously catered function in an anonymous hotel reception room, with its Swedish meatball buffet and grin-for-pay bartender. Or maybe it's the sore throat he contracted in Australia that's making him visibly squirm? Whatever the case, as Haggard switches from black coffee to a tumbler of George Dickle, he's hardly grinning and bearing the situation.

Still, for a man that's resigned himself to Playing the Game, Merle Haggard's doing an awfully good job of playing it by his rules: "It's almost like someone's censoring music, nowadays," he grouses. "I don't think the public is really getting a fair listen to what's really happening. I don't think they get a listen of the stuff that's great anymore. A lot of things that they hear are there for reasons other than music."

In Haggard's opinion, music video's intrusion into country music has made the music part damn near incidental. "They're writing songs about videos. The song has become secondary. And I think a song should be good enough to where you don't have to draw no pictures. I think that's why we're losing such a great amount of quality. Music's so thin. It's so refined — so perfect. And it's unenjoyable to me. I just can't even listen to it."

Lately, many of Haggard's contemporaries are turning towards the rock 'n' roll market to find respect. Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, anyone?

"Hey, I'm fixin' to do the same thing!" snaps Haggard. "I'd rather listen to rock 'n' roll stations myself. But there's a lack of diversity on radio these days. There should be a full scope, a full picture. But there's not a full scope. There's just these 'models' you're talking about, these video people... I don't know what to do about that, but the American public's the ones that are getting screwed."

Well, there still has to be a good-sized audience for Merle Haggard and his music. It's no mean feat, selling out two consecutive houses at Austin's Palmer Auditorium without the benefit of any advertising, strictly on the strength of phone sales. Haggard shrugs it off, chalking it up to salesmanship of the Austin Fire Fighters Association, who the shows benefitted.

"But they do the same thing for other people," he adds, "and have had nobody there. People buy the tickets and they just don't show up. But they're showing up at our shows. We're really proud of that. It proves that there's still an audience out there, and I think program directors around America are foolish not to see that. But they've got to sell automobiles, and they've got to cater to the people they sell their time to, and if they don't do that, they're gonna lose themselves as radio people. Radio's gonna be turned off for good."

Refusing to let go of his anti-radio tirade, Haggard foresees a pendulum swing in the near future.

"I predict there's a lotta stations that are gonna make some serious programming changes in America. There's a station in San Francisco that's been programming traditional country music. They've been playing me and Willie, I think they've played Cash, even a Lefty Frizell tune or something like that. [Listeners] called that station, and the [programming director]'s name is Frank Terry. Frank said, 'Merle, the kids are calling in, saying "Who is that?"' And he said, 'I'm tellin' 'em, Ask your daddy!'" he laughs.

Or just go down to the local record shop. Up until a year ago, Haggard's back catalog was in a shameful state of disrepair. But in the past year alone, Razor & Tie has issued a superlative two-CD collection of his Capitol singles, while Koch International has given five of his vintage '60s LPs (including his legendary tributes to Jimmy Rogers and Bob Wills) the reissue treatment. Sun Records has also issued two budget line CDs of fine remakes of Haggard classics, the reason for the meet-n-greet Haggard's enduring. Meantime, there are two Haggard box sets now out. Haggard personally prefers the more comprehensive (and pricey!) box set offered by German reissue house Bear Family, The Untamed Hawk. ("In German, I guess my name means 'The Hawk' or something like that.") The Capitol box set, Down Every Road: 1962-1994, represents the meat of every Haggard era with a tilt toward his creative peak in the '60s.

Not that Haggard's living in the past, or totally eschewing more contemporary music or musicians. Dwight Yoakam, his hat, and his spray-on jeans make an appearance on a track on Hag's latest Curb LP, 1996. The track, "Beer Can Hill," is a tribute to the Bakersfield honky tonk scene which spawned Haggard and inspired Yoakam, and also features Merle's friend and fellow Bakersfield legend Buck Owens. Haggard has also taken up Iris DeMent as a bit of a cause celebre, cutting her "No Time To Cry" after hearing a version of his "Big City" on the Tulare Dust tribute album. Of the latter, Haggard has remarked that DeMent "took the conviction and sincerity to a depth that I, the writer, had not been able to reach."

Listening to 1996, it's easy to see the source of Haggard's resentment of latter-day programming. The LP stacks up nicely against his vintage output, and some of his most mature and full-blooded music of his career is getting dissed in favor of the latest line-dancing novelty. Haggard has certainly never sung better, has gotten more resonant and rounded with age, and has improved his long-standing ability to find the emotional core of a lyric and bring it to the fore. Still, even Haggard's shaking his head at Curb's packaging in Spartan graphics virtually identical to his 1994 LP.

"They're gonna put a cover on this new album," he says. "They're not going to get away with that. The ones you're talking about are going to be collector's items 'cuz they are gonna put a cover on it. I just don't understand it. It's almost like sabotage. Why they would want this album to look like the last one is beyond me. I don't understand it, but I've always been confused."

Maybe, Merle, but nowhere near as confused as the audience you greeted at your evening performance at Palmer Auditorium. Nor are you as lacking in manners: Austin was treated to maybe one of the last of the old-style country & western revues, complete with brief showcase opening sets by the Strangers and Haggard's ex-wife/longtime partner Bonnie Owens. Ignorant of the treat they were receiving, the boors and drunks, at least in my immediate vicinity, were loudly expressing their impatience. "Who's this bitch? Get her off! Where the fuck is Merle?!!"

This must've been exactly what triggered Haggard's bittersweet tune, "Footlights": "Putting on that Instamatic grin" and "kicking out the footlights again" when the heart and soul just might not be able to back the gestures up. Indeed, the croak illness had reduced his voice to a shadow of its expressive singing style, yet Haggard gave all he could. In this case, it meant the Strangers' backing may've had to be a little more restrained than usual, and Haggard could only offer a close approximation of his rich, sub-Lefty Frizell croon.

None of this seemed to penetrate the thick and loud skulls seated around me. "Aw, Hay-ull! He's drunk and drugged and fucked 'til he's all fucked-up! This is bullshit!"

Yes, "friend," you're right. The stench of bullshit was thick in the Palmer Auditorium air that night. But that stench wasn't coming from Merle Haggard's side of the stage. Many apologies, Merle. As usual, you deserve a lot better.

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