Country Music Icon
by David Ensminger
A walking, singing contradiction, Merle Haggard is both working-class hero and ragged, redneck son. He has been honored at the White House and served time at San Quentin. He's taunted hippies and liberals in songs like "The Fightin' Side Of Me" and "Okie From Muskogee" and smoked prodigious amounts of pot. A juvenile delinquent-cum-legend, country music's most scraggly icon has weathered five marriages, bounced back from million-dollar losses, and fought a vengeful son. On his latest release, If I Could Only Fly (Anti, 2000), he reflects on that hard road. Thirsty Ear recently caught up with Haggard to talk about his life, his songs, and how Bill Clinton killed country music.
What's the difference between when you got started and the present?
Under the Clinton presidency, hundreds of military bases [were] shut down, and for every base, there were five bars which closed too. Now multiply that out. That's what killed country music, because there's no place for a young guy to play with his band anymore.
How did the '30s and the Depression shape your vision of America?
Well, I feel lucky that I even survived. But those were also the times when there were small businesses, ma and pa joints, and free industry. There hasn't been anything like it since, and there probably never will be again, so I feel sorry for people like you.
People say your conservatism is a longing for an idealized past.
I'm not a conservative; I'm a liberal! I used to open my shows with, "Welcome, friends, neighbors, and conservatives." If a man in his 40s wants to walk over and do a line of coke, then I believe he should have that right. I once saw a man at a show get pulled over by the police, and they took this poor guy and roughed him over and found a joint on him, and started waving it at his little kid saying things like, "Look what your daddy has done." No one should get between a man and his child and do a thing like that, it's crazy. I tell you, that put me in a fighting mood.
Do your youngest children know that Dad is, I hate to use the word, a country superstar?
Well, hold on. [He turns to his children.] Ben, do you know Dad's a country icon? [pause] He just did a little slumped shoulder thing that kids do, and went back to reading his magazine. And my daughter…. Hey, do you realize how big a star your dad is? You're sure. Yeah, I think she does. They're very, very smart. They know more than I did when I was 36 years old!
Is raising them easier than raising your first children?
I didn't get much of a chance to do much of that, and I missed a great deal, and I'm going to get off the road for at least a couple years because of the desire to be with this boy and little girl. Man, I only got a couple years left…
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You have longer than that!
No, I'm talking about she'll be out of the house. She'll be gone with some guy, and he'll be off with some girl, and that'll be the last we'll ever see of them.
Chaos, you once said, got you going, then you'd go to a quiet place, and the songs would come to you in a half-psychic way. Is that almost like a trance?
It's not like Edgar Cayce. I don't go into a trance and come out with a hit. I wish…. I love to write. I'm continually trying to analyze and put things into some sort of analogy. Then if you can also put it to music, you've got a song. I play guitar; that's my first love. I play fiddle, and I love a certain kind of music. I love the kind of music that is straightforward and has no pretense to it…things that happen from pure gut feelings during a recording, things that occur that, in my judgment, are treasures, whereas someone else might call them mistakes.
What I try to do is bring reality and the pendulum of reality back into play again and make a song take notice of what we've allowed ourselves to become used to. Let's clean out our ears. I'd like to hear some real talent; I'd like to hear all the talent that is available without all the interference of the so-called producers and electronic bullshit. I want to hear a story about a guy they sign to a contract and they [bring] him into the studio and let him do what he wants to, and, boy, he's really good (laughs).
Charlie Parker played until the very end. His last gig was at the Hotel Astoria. His doctors told him not to perform, but he did anyway because he felt it was important for the music and his fans. Will that be you someday?
I've fought with that question every day of my life. You know, I sound like I'm going to cave in every once in a while, but it's just because my body's getting old. I could easily just sink back in the chair and become a hermit like some other people in the entertainment business. But I really think that life goes away when I do that, the minute I quit what I'm supposed to do. I got to play somewhere on a regular basis, and to do that I guess you're going to have to drive to some of them. I'm doing seven to 10 days a month, and I have a young family that I want to be with, so I don't want to be on the road much. But I'm not financially independent, you know; freedom comes with a lot of money. Freedom is a funny word…it's only free if you've got money. I have an expensive lifestyle. I probably go through $100,000 a month, just to do what other people do. It seems like they get by on far less. I don't quite understand it.
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Do you still collect classic cars?
I'm just living like a normal American. I live in a little old house, and I got about 180 acres up here [in Northern California]. I got a nice place and everything, but just maintaining it, just paying the bills is astronomical, man. I'll tell you what, chili's gone to $40 a bowl-it really has. You could buy a 15-cent bowl of chili back when I was a boy. Back then, there were different kinds of cows in everybody's yard. Hell, you guys don't even know what chickens look like. There used to be 500 different kinds of chickens, and 15 different kinds of cows. You'd go through America and you'd see all these different kinds of animals everywhere, all kinds of this and all kinds of that. Now you guys have one of that, one of these, one of those, and now everything comes from Sunkist…it's all bullshit.
But there are some constants, like Kern River near Bakersfield, where you grew up. It will outlive us, and probably everything we build.
There is some consistency with Kern River, because it has not been, to my knowledge, damaged very much. And it's one of the few places on this planet…I think it's probably still all right, and I'm proud to say that. But it's going away quick…
You were the first artist from California in the Country Hall of Fame and its youngest member, and you've had too many hit songs to list. But would any of that matter if tomorrow you couldn't write a song?
You know, there's an old saying that the man who just passed away a few minutes ago, he's as dead as Julius Caesar. Once things slip into the past, they're of no good to you. I don't live in the past. I don't sit around thinking about what I've done. I've always got a project, always working on something. And if I'm not, I'm a very depressed, miserable individual. So I have to keep doing something. And I'm more excited about this project [recording the songs of Lefty Frizzell live to two-track in his living room] than anything I've ever done, because it's done without any electronic manipulation. We're using basic microphones, no echo of any kind…we're doing it all at the same time, so the spirit rises at once. It's incredible. I can't imagine how far off the damn center we've come with this electronic bombardment of manipulation and making everybody a good singer, when they couldn't sing one song…couldn't sing "Mary Had A Little Lamb" without the help of a tuner of some sort. In 40 years I haven't heard a voice as good as Lefty Frizzell's.
Do you think that "Branded Man" could be a number one song if it was released today?
Oh yeah, right now there are more Americans in prison than ever!
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It's been reported that you have 300 songs already recorded but unreleased.
Oh, I don't know about that. There are probably over 100, maybe 200. But I'm trying to control the flow of Merle product. I write all the time, on the bus, at a restaurant…. Hell, I've estimated that I have maybe 2,000 songs lying around all over the house.
As a person who has recorded several tributes, including ones for Elvis, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills, how did you feel about the Merle tributes?
Well, one was the marketing plan of some guy in Nashville, and I knew about that one. It was meant to sell more of my music.
It had a lot of Nashville stars on it, yet you've called New Country artists "flat bellies."
No, I never said that. Willie [Nelson] said that. Hell, I've got a pretty flat belly.
The new album shows signs of you getting older, and perhaps a bit of resignation?
You see, two sides exist, the brain and the heart. At your age, you mostly listen to the carnal information, and when you get to be my age…I tell you what, the brain has to talk my goddamn old body into doing stuff, because I don't feel like it. But I got a good soul, so I guess that's why I'm still moving around.