Merle Haggard - Branded man
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am huge, I contain multitudes.) -- Walt Whitman ("Song Of Myself") It says here that Merle Haggard is our greatest living singer and songwriter. Country singer and songwriter, if you must limit him. Just do not argue the point. We are not in the mood. Johnny Cash is newly buried, George Jones doesn't write his own material, Willie Nelson and Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver and Bob Dylan are astonishing, towering figures. Dolly Parton comes darn close, there's that. But if you can listen to "Sing Me Back Home", "If We Make It Through December", and, say, "I Hate To See It Go" (from Haggard's new album) without being moved to the core of your soul...well, you're beyond our repair. Depending upon where you took your meals during the winter of 1969, that may prove a difficult pill to swallow. Those not yet born may have a hard time understanding what all the fuss was (and is) about: A generation later we're still arguing about "Okie From Muskogee", either the most or least important of Haggard's 38 #1 country hits, and the most famous song he will ever write. "Okie" made Merle Haggard the darling of Spiro T. Agnew's silent majority and a lightning rod for the new left. It suggested a southern strategy to the Republican party that dramatically changed the political landscape. And it cemented the chasm separating country from rock, made that divide seem as impenetrable as the Berlin Wall. (It wasn't, not even that permanent; Waylon, Willie, and a five-leafed weed eased tensions only a few years later.) Already a major country star, Haggard became a household name, and, like Uncle Tom's Cabin more than a century earlier, "Okie" clove that house in two. So politically charged were the times that even chitchat around the dinner table, ordinarily useful to keep family values on track, could erupt into screaming matches. Nightly. America was, then as now, in the midst of a bitter cultural war, and everything got serious when names like Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King and Abbie Hoffman came up in conversation. Haggard's song inserted him into the middle of that discussion. By the winter of 1969 there was no middle ground, and where you stood on "Okie" firmly established which side you were on, whether you wore sandals or boots, whether you thought hippies deserved to be beaten or honored for their opposition to the Vietnam War. Haggard's next single, the patriotically charged "Fightin' Side Of Me", made clear where he stood. No, it didn't, actually. The reaction to his latest single, "That's The News", smartly selected from his latest record, Like Never Before (on his own Hag Records imprint), suggests just how complex and mercurial a figure Merle Haggard has always been. And what a gifted artist he remains. Sad truth to tell, Haggard has been old news for a while, at least in the pop culture wars. His last #1 country hit, "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star", charted in 1987. As with many of his peers, he was consigned to greatest hits packages and casino tours. And, like a gratifying number of his contemporaries, he rose from the slumber of premature retirement and proved to have rather more to offer, if to a smaller and more discerning audience. Haggard's 2000 release If I Could Only Fly, the first of his two albums for Epitaph...wait. Think about that: 31 years after "Okie", Haggard was finally, unexpectedly embraced not simply by the rock world, but by one of its foremost punk labels. The first record he gave Epitaph revealed a newly self-aware, mature, still brutally honest singer, a man still willing to write songs that cut precisely to the marrow of his own bones, an artist easy with his own legacy. If I Could Only Fly record managed little of the commercial impact of Johnny Cash's four American albums. Nor did Roots (its 2001 follow-up), nor did The Peer Sessions, a sparkling homage (his latest among many) to his musical ancestors (released in 2002 on Audium). The work, however, was first-rate, and suddenly Haggard was back among us as a functioning artist. And yet so potent is the memory of his celebrity, so deeply rooted is Haggard's place on the right wing of our cultural imagination, that the fairly mild anti-administration protest of "That's The News" landed him on the national news. Which only amplified the point of his song, though the talking heads ignored the obvious irony. "Politicians do all the talking, soldiers pay the dues," Haggard sings in his calm, resonant, world-worn voice. "Suddenly the war's over, that's the news." That, combined with an editorial he posted on his website defending the Dixie Chicks (while simultaneously praising Toby Keith), led to great concern among certain of his longtime fans. The first post on CMT's message board reads: "I just saw Merle Haggard on Fox News discussing his new song...which is anti-Iraq war and will give great aid and comfort to the Sadamites who are killing our troops every day." And so it began. Controversy sells. Or at least secures airtime. "I'm totally happy with what's gone down so far," Haggard says, over the phone from his office in Northern California. "I've had twelve television major news anchor kind of people ask me to come on: Letterman, Leno, every show that matters wants me, and television is powerful." Why should the political views of a 67-year-old country singer be newsworthy? It was more than a little disconcerting to see Hag displayed in the same context with images of dead Americans in Iraq, shots of bombed buses in Israel, Scott Peterson and his attorneys looking like emotionless droids, and hourly reports on the status of Ben and J-Lo's wedding plans. "Maybe I'm a media critic," Haggard suggests mildly. "With music. But I'm in the business of information myself, and I'm a poet and a singer and I have a platform to sing from. I think sometimes it's necessary to write certain songs. I think that song ['That's The News'] was necessary, and I'm really glad that it's causing the controversy it's caused." Haggard's new single is a fairly mild rebuke, even by today's standards. In conversation, his criticisms become substantially more pointed. "I'm trying to say, 'This is me now,'" he says. "I think we are living in a terrible, paranoid condition. We have troops that we should be proud of, but are we getting the straight story, do we have all the facts, or are we short of information like the President?" He is less kind a few moments later. "You know, George Sr. calls me and wishes me a happy birthday," he says. "Hell, I want to see George W. Bush do good. I just think he's been disingenuous. I think if he would step up now and say, 'OK, we're gonna cut the crap. This is what the deal is: We want to build this pipeline from somewhere to somewhere else and there's two assholes over there that need to be taken out anyway, and we need to be the ones to remove them, nobody else in the world can.' I just believe that's the honest truth and if he'd done that, all the people would rally around him and jump up and he'd be more popular than Abe Lincoln." (Forgetting, for the moment, that Lincoln was assassinated.) Anyway, Haggard's critique of President Bush seems to have as much to do with California environmental issues as with the endlessly convoluted politics of the Middle East. "The right that the President has given to cut down these big trees out here on the West Coast needs to be brought up," he says. "He's also given the right to drill for oil off the coast of California. Well, it's obvious that he doesn't give a shit about California. That happens to be where I live. "I don't understand how we can be so stupid to [not] realize that we have to have the lungs of the earth, the earth has to breathe. And if we do away with the trees...We have to quit burning things. We have the mentality of a firecracker, you know? We're still in the woods lighting fires." In his own way, Haggard's still lighting fires. Just when it seems safe to suggest he's revealed himself as an evolved liberal, conversation turns to the recent flap over a granite monument to the Ten Commandments placed in the Alabama Supreme Court. "I called my booking agent and asked if we could go down there and set up and play on the steps of that Alabama courthouse," he says. "Or do something in defense of the Ten Commandments. It didn't work out where we could do anything; they moved them back and hid them someplace before we could get it together. But that's a terrible infringement on American rights, I believe." But it's the song "Yellow Ribbons" on his new album that properly sets the pot boiling. Ostensibly an ode to a longstanding tradition ("There used to be a time when soldiers went to war and folks at home would tie yellow ribbons everywhere," he states matter-of-factly in the liner notes), it's hard not to wonder whether Haggard has another meaning in mind when he sings, "Go tie a yellow ribbon in your hair/So folks around the world will know you really care." His explanation doesn't settle the matter. "It's just part of my intention to let people know for sure that I haven't changed my views about the red, white, and blue," he says. "There again, were we being given all the information? But while we wait and wonder, we have a patriotic duty to the soldiers, and to the people engaged in war." Ah, but aren't you being a little cynical, a little sarcastic in that song? "I can't, with all honesty, say that you might be a little bit right," he acknowledges. "You know, 'God bless America for doing what we dare' is [the line] you're talking about. I'm holding my breath, as I think every conscious American should be, on what is our next move, what do we do in the global community, how do we regain our stature? How do we get 150 countries to quit hating us?" Let's dispense with "Okie", shall we? Everybody now knows that Haggard became, at least in part, one of the figures the song seems to mock. Most now realize that the hippies and outlaws of that era had more in common with Haggard's restless spirit than did the flag-waving hard-hats who made up much of his audience back then. Today, crowds at his shows, regardless of persuasion, whoop it up when he sings that first line: "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee..." Haggard seems at peace with all that. "I had different views in the '70s," he says, selecting his words slowly. "As a human being, I've learned [more]. I have more culture now. I was dumb as a rock when I wrote 'Okie From Muskogee'. That's being honest with you at the moment, and a lot of things that I said [then] I sing with a different intention now. "My views on marijuana have totally changed. I think we were brainwashed and I think anybody that doesn't know that needs to get up and read and look around, get their own information. It's a cooperative government project to make us think marijuana should be outlawed." But note it's only that first line with which he takes issue. He swept the CMA awards in 1970, played the Nixon White House in 1973, was pardoned by California Governor Ronald Reagan, and never got a real shot at rock or pop radio. All largely on the strength of what he said, and who he said it to, in that one song. Times have changed. "What was one side years ago is not the same deal now," he muses. "I mean, what was a Democrat in 1960 doesn't apply now." As has often been pointed out -- particularly by Haggard's liberal apologists -- his career might have played out far differently had Capitol Records exec Ken Nelson granted Haggard's wish to follow "Okie" with "Irma Jackson", a song about an interracial romance. Instead, the next single was "Fightin' Side Of Me". "It wasn't exactly what they had in mind," he says, a faint chuckle at the edge of his voice. "They figured it might be a problem. They had been awful good to me and allowed me to have my own head and everything on sessions. That was the only time they ever squelched anything I wanted to do, so I didn't really argue with them. I just...'OK, can we put on an album?' And they said, 'Well, yeah.' But they said, 'I don't think it'd be best for you to do that at this time, put it on a single.' Whatever you say, Mr. Nelson. So I didn't think no more about it." Ken Nelson had brought Haggard to Capitol -- and had produced his records with a clean, sympathetic sound -- along with Hank Thompson, Merle Travis, Jean Shepard, and Buck Owens. That is, he'd earned Haggard's trust. "Over the years it became an issue, because people found out they wouldn't let me do that," Haggard continues. "So, hindsight being 20/20, it probably did more good them not wanting it out and people finally finding out about it, than me putting it out anyway." But, no, he hardly repudiates "Fightin' Side Of Me". "I was a redneck to some degree, because I had just got out of the joint and I really had been somewhere where the mat was jerked out from underneath your feet," Haggard says. (So powerful is his memory of prison that, though he wrote "Fightin' Side" almost a decade after his release, the memory of San Quentin still haunts his thoughts.) "It destroyed my career in a certain way because people just said, 'Ah, bullshit, if he feels that way then the hell with him.' It destroyed a pop career for me for a period of time. But -- the force works in mysterious ways and it may come back. It's working in my favor now." And for a little cultural context, remember that Haggard showed up during that winter of 1969 to play "Okie" on the proudly left-leaning "Smothers Brothers Show", lip-syncing while a field of waving flags was projected behind him, with the nearest thing to a hound dog slumped to his left. Haggard always seemed to thrive on the idea that this simple song could get so many people so worked up. It's also worth noting that Haggard sandwiched the flurry of releases capitalizing on "Okie" and "Fightin' Side" with 1969's Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers and 1970's A Tribute to The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World (Or My Salute To Bob Wills). In the end, that will do for summation of Haggard, for his songs are deeply personal, and deeply felt. Notice his connection to the soldier in Iraq his latest single seeks to refocus our attention upon. "The only people that realize what's really going on is the soldier," he says. "He's the only guy out there that's catching the human torment from it." Human torment, that's something Merle Haggard understands. Toss that handful of political songs aside, and a very different -- a richer, more eloquent, more enduring -- Merle Haggard emerges. As a child of the late depression (born April 6, 1937), his instincts, like those of one of his mentors, Johnny Cash, have always been to sing for and about those in the margins: the working poor, the imprisoned, the love-torn. The roots of his raising have made for easy cliche. His family joined the migration from Oklahoma to California, where his father found work near Bakersfield as a carpenter for the railroad. Company housing was a converted boxcar, a fact that shows up in even the shortest biographical essay because it explains his fascination with Jimmie Rodgers and several albums of train songs. By the standards of the late 1930s, that boxcar may not have been such a bad place -- probably a good bit nicer than the migrant housing down the road, and no less primitive than the simple homes small farmers had built across the San Joaquin Valley. Still, listen to him sing that opening line from the mostly autobiographical "Mama Tried": "The first thing I remember knowin' was a lonesome whistle blowin'." His father died when Merle was nine, and his mother took work as a bookkeeper. Merle shortly went wild, beginning a long run to and from government custody (seven escapes, all told), and pursuing a career in petty crime legendary for its ineptitude. An older brother and a younger sister made other choices. Like many gifted songwriters, Haggard soon found he was suited to no other career, not even a life of crime. As the story goes, he and a friend were drunk and broke (and presumably operating without a watch) when they decided to break into a club and take the night's receipts. They were discovered trying to pry open the back door at an hour patrons were still walking through the front. Haggard slipped away from jail and returned to the hotel room where his first wife was waiting. It proved an expensive visit, for the escape was what caused him to be sentenced to San Quentin. And so it was that Johnny Cash, on January 1, 1958 -- nearly a decade before he would record "A Boy Named Sue" there -- headlined an eight-hour variety show at San Quentin, giving Merle Haggard a glimpse of a different future. Not that Haggard hadn't previously considered music as a career. "I got onstage when I was 14," Haggard says. "I guess I had my sights already set then, I just didn't realize that I was adamant about it. When I saw Johnny Cash, I'd already formed an opinion about the whole scene of music, and wasn't really a terrifically big Johnny Cash fan, wasn't really a fan of Johnny Cash at all. "I just knew who he was, and I played lead guitar, so I played Luther's licks because they were nice licks. A lot of people kinda laughed at us country boys that they figured liked him. Well, when he came, he didn't have a voice. He'd sung his voice off the night before in San Francisco. And he just stood up there and totally waxed that audience, without much more than a whisper." Haggard was paroled from San Quentin in 1960. He dug ditches for his brother's electrical contracting business, then found a better job playing bass for Wynn Stewart. Two years later, following an introduction from Buck and Bonnie Owens, he cut his first singles for Fuzzy Owens' Talley Records. The fifth single, "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers", went top-10 in 1965, Ken Nelson came calling from Capitol, and a star was born. Johnny Cash knew who Merle Haggard was the next time they were in the same room. "It was 1964, or '63, maybe," as Haggard remembers things. "I went to do a show in Chicago with multiple artists on it, a gang of people. He was on it, I was on it, and we met in the restroom, down below the Chicago studios where we were doing a television show. He offered me a double dot, a little old green Dexedrine pill, and a drink of wine. He had this flask underneath his big black coat. "That was back in the days where everybody was taking those little pills, everybody from the church lady to the truck driver. So there wasn't nothin' thought about it, but that was the first time I met him. We went on to be extremely close friends. I think he would have knocked somebody down had they badmouthed me, and vice versa." Enough of politics, of lurid legends and oft-told stories, for they only serve to obscure the real work. Haggard's greatest gift is a knack for vividly exploring the forces that can bring people together, and dramatizing what tears them apart. Consider the simple, eloquent dignity of "If We Make It Through December". Haggard is the poet laureate of the broken-hearted, able to articulate feelings of total hopelessness with an honestly and crippling regret in his voice that not even Hank Williams could conjure from his pathetic, lonely life. This side of Hag is not for the fragile. Listen well, but if you aren't careful you may catch a glimpse of something within your own soul that you imagined long forgotten and well-buried. No matter how dark your darkest night was, Hag's was darker. Heart broken? No contest. Just hear the man sing, "What Am I Going To Do (With The Rest Of My Life)?" "I'm a man that goes through...I have terrible mood swings," he says, picking through his words before he speaks. "I'm like other people that I have read about that are...gifted in some way and have the capability or mentality to be crazy, to be deeply depressed. I have all those problems to deal with." Haggard has met those problems with frightening honesty throughout his best songs. "Some of it is dramatized in order to make the songs work, of course," he says, "But it's like 'Mama Tried', I wasn't doing life but I was in prison and I did turn 21 there. For the most part it's 98 percent fact, and the rest of it's to shape the song right. I get my enjoyment or appreciation out of all music if I'm totally honest about it. 'Footlights' is probably my honest attempt at my own self-descriptions.'" Then something in his voice changes; one can almost hear his spine straighten. "Life is a tiger, and it's no easier for any of us," he says. "I think Willie said it in 'Nobody Slides' -- life is going to deal its misery to all of us." And its good as well. Haggard's fifth marriage has produced a second batch of children; they figure prominently in the emotional underpinning of Like Never Before, and throughout his conversation. "To have children late in life is, in some ways, the greatest gift God could offer one man," he says. "I would have thought the direct opposite. In fact, I was fixing to retire an old single country music star, partying my way out, on a houseboat. But these children were given and it just changed my life, changed my values, made a different person out of me." That houseboat is now for sale on his website, the kids are almost teenagers, and his first batch of children has produced 13 grandchildren. Not so fast. He is asked the old campfire question, if a UFO lands tonight and offers you a one-way ride, do you climb on? "Yessir," he answers quickly. "I'll jump off this island if I get a chance." He chuckles. This is a man who does not like to fly. In the winter of his years, Johnny Cash found another layer of fame, his ears ever open to the work of songwriters with whom most folks would've figured he had nothing in common. Merle Haggard, too, has found his pen again, wielding it as casually and as topically as Woody Guthrie once did. They are -- Merle and Cash, Dolly and Dylan -- the rarest of beings, entertainers who are simultaneously artists. Singers whose songs are inextricably linked to the lore of their private lives. Songwriters of subtlety and great substance. "All I'm trying to do is entertain, be unpredictable and maintain honesty," Haggard demurs, and then stops talking for a long moment. His future is not to resemble Cash's immediate past. The new album appears on his own Hag label, an enterprise with which he seems to hope to take control of his own legacy. "I just sorta figured my big record-selling days were over," he says, without rancor, "and I think a lot of other people agreed with me, because I couldn't get a lot of money for a record deal. I just thought, hell, I'll start my little ol' company and do my own stuff. It's sorta took on legs of its own and it's jumping up here and acting like it might really be something. I know as much about the music business as most of those young kids who are trying to run the big companies." His new label is also bolstered by the recent reversion of his MCA masters from the late-'70s and '80s to his control. "That immediately makes my little Hag Records worth a lot more money," he says with evident satisfaction. "Little by little I'm going to get control, if I can, of all the music. Somebody said, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." He laughs. Complementing the ten new original tunes on Like Never Before is a glorious duet with Willie Nelson of Woody Guthrie's "Philadelphia Lawyer". It's a cowboy song, not a political number, but still a revealing choice. "It's hard to find songs for two men to sing together," he begins. "And it was a Woody Guthrie tune, and it was written the year I was born, and it was given to Rose Maddox, who recorded it, I think, first (or next after Woody, at least). And it had a long history of being a song that had been around me that I'd never cut, and Willie has never cut it, and that's sorta odd because between the two of us we've cut the Bible, you know?" (Bonnie Owens sang the song on Haggard's 1970 live album, The Fighting Side Of Me; Nelson cut a version on the 1988 Folkways tribute, A Vision Shared, but no matter.) Haggard's rationale gives a hint of the deep, passionate, probing nature of his musical curiosity. A question about the relative obscurity of western swing pioneer Milton Brown brings a cackle of delight. "I'm glad [Brown's music isn't often recorded] because I'm fixin' to record a bunch of it. I've got a tape in my truck as we speak of Milton's stuff, and I just told a couple of people in my staff to find everything they could find on him. I'm going to do a study like I've never done before, and it's just the most enjoyable study I've ever got into." There it is. Far more than "Okie" and even fame, it's the music that still speaks to Haggard. Just watch him close his eyes onstage when the band hits it right. "Some artists -- I won't mention any names -- wouldn't tell you who they admired, if their life depended on it," he says. "There's something arrogant about that I don't like; I like people that are not too big to talk about who they like." Another question, suggesting he phrased a bit like Maurice Chevalier on "I Hate To See It Go", elicits a more revealing correction. "You know, I have a problem with that," he says. "I have a habit, and we are characters of habit. I've always enjoyed impersonations, and when I tell stories, I fall in and out of characters. When I sing songs, sometimes certain characters will just jump and appear at the moment. That's my attempt at Satch. It just sounded like Louis Armstrong ought to be [singing] 'He's just like you.' I don't know if we ever meant that to be the final vocal, but it came off good. That's probably a little bit of Louis Armstrong trying to come out there. He was probably sitting there in the studio and tickled me on the neck or something." Though he is not writing songs at the clip he once did, Haggard seems to have entered into a newly fertile stage, and to be moving forward with fresh urgency. He has become a man with abundant plans for his future. "We have a swing album we're keeping as a release if we don't have a new Merle Haggard record, which we may have," he says. "I write sporadically, and it'll probably be something that I haven't cut yet. I kept a couple songs back that was maybe current-event related to September 11. For example, I have a song called 'Flight 93' that's going to be on the next album. And I have a song, it's about feelings on Iraq and where we're at -- why don't we take a look around and recognize some of the problems in California and Oregon?" But his response to news of the death of his old friend, Johnny Cash, which arrived in the midst of a battery of interviews for his new album, is most telling. "I think when the next Bible's written he'll be something like Moses," Haggard says. "I didn't want to face it anymore than anybody else did. I did around twenty interviews that morning, and when I got loose I just went out in the studio and I didn't want to sing anything except Johnny Cash songs. And I thought, you know, I don't want to forget something here, so me and my wife recorded a really good track on 'Jackson'. I don't know, I might do a really extensive album to Johnny Cash." Andy McLenon is a Nashville-based record executive, music collector, and pop-culture connoisseur. Grant Alden is co-editor of No Depression. They don't much agree on politics, but do agree on Merle Haggard's genius.