Turbulence has always had a way of finding Merle Haggard. From a young boy playing in Bakersfield beer joints, to a stint in San Quentin, to the wrath of a scorned record label owner, the legendary troubadour has had more than his share of trouble. And more than his share of success.
Haggard began his string of 37 top-10 hits in the '60s, setting the modern standard for high-and-lonesome, down-and-out songwriting genius. Only Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash rival him as stubbornly stalwart influences on the Americana-pop canon.
And Haggard is no stranger to redemption. He was once pardoned of his youthful transgressions by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, reportedly because the Gipper so admired his infamous, reactionary anthem “Okie From Muskogee.”
But it's his critically acclaimed, anti-hipster reemergence last year on the ostensibly punk label Anti- (a subsidiary of Epitaph) that Haggard's most proud of these days. His next album, the follow up to last year's Roots Vol. I, promises to build on his progressive traditionalism.
Talking from his home just outside Redding, Calif., he reflected on his ups and downs with shit-kicking, firebrand wisdom and sedulous, down-home manners.
CITYBEAT: Should we call your last two albums a comeback or a never-left?
Merle Haggard: It's a continuation of what I've always tried to do, that's all. Another album. Another pinchin'-off of another little weenie, so to speak. [Laughs].
What happened with Curb Re-cords?
MH: The deal was [the label owner] gave me some money to get me to sign with this little old label. And it wasn't up to par. So for me to go and demote myself by recording for his company, he paid me $200,000, tax-paid.
Well, the word got around to the attorneys, and the attorneys began to make fun of him because he had paid me some cash money outside the contract, don't ya see? Pretty soon he soured on the deal. And he had so much hatred for me because of this he just took my music and he didn't release it anywhere in the world. I mean, what worse could you do to me?
I even offered to give him the $200,000 back. But by then the harassment had already gotten to him.
So how have things been on Epitaph/Anti-?
MH: Just the opposite. They've been just wonderful. And for a little label, they've done just about all they could do. I don't believe they are in some ways capable of doing what a major label could do. They're a pretty new label; they started with punk rock. They're trying to become a wider-known label, known for more than just that one genre. So now they're going to the complete other side of the spectrum.
They're trying to be accepted in America as a regular, household name. That's what they told me they hoped I could do for them. And I was hoping they could give me some honesty in comparison to what I've been used to with that last label.
Why do you think a label started by a bunch of punk rockers wanted to represent Merle Haggard?
MH: Well, they came to me and said, ‘The good things in America are usually illegal, or hard to find or cannot be found in the same places you find everything else.' So they thought I'd be interested in showing up on this label, in the reverse of that well-known area down there where they play footsies under the table.
So I went over to an area that wasn't expecting me. It has to do with trying to show up on the scene from a different direction and get something done before they realize I'm there. The world has a way of categorizing you. You can't pull out of that category because you've got a hundred albums already sitting in that one category.
But that's kind of what I'm wanting to do with my life. I'm not really identifying with the country music of today. I was listening to some stuff that I enjoyed recently and I asked somebody, ‘What kind of music is that?' And they said, ‘Folk rock.' And I said, ‘That's the kind of music I like: folk rock.' Folk me! [Laughs].
Have you seen any changes in the make up of your audience lately?
MH: They are, and always have been, widely varied. They range from 3-year-olds to 93-year-olds. There may be a family of 15 and there may be a little, 3-year-old girl sitting on her daddy's knee who likes me.
And there's no graphics can chart that. You know, my audience is obviously out there, they're just hard to figure out sometimes. A little bit like me.
Musicians and trouble seem to go together. And that certainly seems true in your life.
MH: Oh, absolutely. The turbulence. If you go on a flight to Europe and nothing happens, well, nobody'll talk about it. But if they have a little turbulence, they'll do a news report on it. [Laughs]. Kind of like life.
There's been a resurgence in old-timey music-one that suggests there isn't all that much difference between blues and country.
MH: Well, I think a lot of things are closer together than these categories that divide them. The record stores' and the computer's necessity for categorizing everything needs that. The Internet makes it where everything has to be in its proper place-otherwise you can't find it on there.
So that has spilled over to our artistic attitude. I really believe that's what's happened in the last, uh-how old are you, sir?
MH: OK, well, since you were 18, this has become the commonplace, to keep everything-whether it be music or your tax papers-securely categorized and on a computer, otherwise the IRS or the public won't be able to understand [it] or how to find it.
It used to be, they had two kinds of music: the kind of music they played on the air and the kind that was too dirty to be played in public. One minute you'd hear Elvis Presley and the next you might hear Pavarotti. Then you might hear Bob Wills... But these days, everything is neatly separated and packaged for your protection. [Laughs].
Packaged and compartmentalized pop?
MH: And there don't seem to be anything we can do about it. Unless you're between the ages of 18 and 32 and you're a female, they don't listen to you and I. Everything is demographically directed towards the female within that age group. Because she does the buying.
So, we really don't get what we want. You know, [by] the music industry, we're being force fed. And it doesn't really have anything to with anything-but what that little lady wants. And I love them little ladies of that age! Bless 'em. But I'd hate to have them order my food and my music and everything. [Laughs].
You've promised to touch on some Chuck Berry on Roots Volume II, the new album. Do you hear a country influence in Chuck's music?
MH: Oh, yeah. You know, he grew up listening to the same stuff I did. He's only a little bit older than me. He grew up in Memphis, listening to the same radio stations that my grandpa and daddy listened to. And I'm sure he listened to Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills and stuff like that. Being in Memphis, Tennessee, his music had a lot of leftovers from that ... in it.
I liked everything Chuck did. I was a rock 'n' roll, kid. Just like Elvis. Elvis was two years older than me. I'm still an Elvis fan. And he's having resurgence, too, isn't he?
What are your live sets like these days?
MH: Well, I've been playing a show that hammered on a certain area of my music-the rockabillly, working-man blues stuff. And I've been playing that show for a long time now, so I figured I'd go to the softer, more emotional side of Merle Haggard music. I'm gonna play some places that don't lend itself to the beer-joint side of my music. I just try play what suits me-and I'm hard to please. [Laughs].
I have a wide love for music. I can be appeased by just about any side of the picture. I love Pavarotti. And I think Natalie Cole is probably the greatest voice of our time... she's just too good, man, too good. I like everything, except-and I do have to put an except in there-except the belly button music. [Laughs]. I mean, I love belly buttons, but, uh, I just don't understand that stuff.
I have to ask about “Okie from Muskogee,” because you did say in SPIN last year that you no longer agree with the opinions you expressed in that song.
MH: No, what I think I said was it no longer applies. It no longer applies. Let me tell you, we are living under a regime right now-one that may not have even been elected legally, mind you-that if I told you what I really thought, they'd be coming down the road and arresting me! [Laughs].
We are in serious change in this country. Little by little, since September 11th, we are allowing certain freedoms to be taken away. And after the scare of September 11th dies down, we are going to be missing some rights and there are going to be people coming through our doors without warrants and things of that nature.
I am really afraid for people of your age. If you don't get out there and vote and get back some of these rights that are being taken away from us, then they are going to keep taking America away from us a little bit at a time.