Merle Haggard:
By Neal Shaffer

First posted: 5-29-01

Merle Haggard’s got no use for a radio. There are a couple of reasons for this, not the least of which being that you’re not likely to hear his songs on it, despite the fact that he is one of the last remaining links to the best days of country music. Even more than that he’s got a problem with what radio represents. "It’s so disgusting and so disheartening to know that there’s not any chance that you’re gonna hear some great new artist because, for some reason I’m not able to explain, there seems to be an attempt in this country to treat people like cattle." At sixty-five years old the fire still burns.

The heat has driven him from a converted boxcar (his childhood home) in Bakersfield, California through seventeen stays in correctional institutions, four divorces, five marriages, forty-one number one hits, a slip into obscurity under the weight of debt and mismanagement, and finally to renewed creativity and vitality on Epitaph records, a label that’s also home to Tom Waits and the (International) Noise Conspiracy. His exploits are legend likely to grow someday into myth. These days he raises children instead of Cain, but his heart pumps rebel blood.

"When I went to Nashville, Tennessee it was because they invited me, and I didn’t go down there hoping to have somebody groom me into what they felt was the right person to be."

The audience at Alexandria, Virginia’s Birchmere paid forty-five dollars a seat, and it shows. There’s nary a hellraiser in sight, and odds are good that the two or three motorcycles in the parking lot rarely see the open road. They sit (you don’t stand in the Birchmere) in sharp contrast to the man they’ve come to see as a local DJ introduces him with polite enthusiasm. But they get their money’s worth as Haggard delivers a wide-ranging set that lasts just over an hour, no encore.

Only two songs from last year’s If I Could Only Fly are featured, the title track and "Bareback." It’s understandable given the fact that many in the crowd might not even know he has a new album and would feel cheated if they went home without hearing "Mama Tried" or "Big City." His resume is so extensive it would be impossible to please everybody. Still, there’s something strange about the experience. As he introduces the band Haggard remarks "we’re a honky-tonk band, and there aren’t many like us left." The Birchmere, however, looks more like a converted cafeteria than a barroom. As the night wears on it’s clear that there’s a very good chance that America has never met the real Merle Haggard, and it’s a shame because Haggard has custody of something that we lost and desperately need to get back.

His fan base sits on both sides of the fence. Left-leaning college types and Dylan fans admire him for his songwriting talents and see him as a logical heir to Woody Guthrie’s throne. And indeed Haggard, with perhaps Bruce Springsteen, is one of the only popular songwriters to still write and sing from the soil. Yet this is the same man who became a poster-boy for right-wingers who listened to his hit "Okie From Muskogee" and didn’t quite get it. (For the record, and perhaps this can be the last word, Haggard says, "I was as stupid as the rest of America when I wrote that song.") He considers Ronald Reagan, the man who as governor of California granted him a full pardon, a friend. But nothing about the man or his music is explicitly political. What Haggard represents is something higher than the nuts and bolts of party affiliation and issue-based activism. Haggard is an outlaw.

"We’re being dictated to—told how to live," he remarks during a dissertation on the state of things. "I’ve traced it back to the insurance companies. Stop and think: who tells you when you can go to the hospital? Who tells you whether or not you can drive a truck?" It’s one of many things he sees going awry. He’s also a strong supporter of hemp growing rights, and is aware enough to see the benefits of the plant beyond marijuana smoke—"It’s absolutely an answer to our environmental problems." And his disgust with what he hears on the radio, specifically with the canned drum sound that dominates popular music, has driven him into a small home studio to record no frills, mistakes and all, "like they did it in the fifties."

It’s a logical shift for a man who helped define American country. He grew up voraciously digesting the sounds of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams, and as modern country has moved away from that sound Haggard has become more and more discontent.

"I’m just trying to put honesty back on the market," he says by way of describing his forthcoming album Fresh Milk Vol. 1, which will be his second for Epitaph. It’s the culmination of roughly ten years of climbing back to the top after a messy split from Nashville establishment label Curb records (label president Mike Curb has not, as of yet, accepted Haggard’s challenge to a public boxing match). In Haggard’s music business experience honesty can be a cancer, and he is one of a small number artists who have crafter a career without pulling punches. The brand of storytelling he has perfected descends in a direct line from saloons and sun-baked lunch breaks where working people from the wrong side of the tracks share tales of violence, drink, and regret. When Haggard emerged in the early sixties he was a standout among a group of artists mining that ground. In the intervening years, as radio and record companies waged war on rough edges, Haggard has become a relic.

Which is why his music is more important now than ever. His storytelling is autobiographical without being confessional, and his songs tell a history which would otherwise vanish entirely.

After the show, a small line forms outside Haggard’s bus. Alexandria’s finest keep a close eye on the door. On the bus his band and crew enjoy reminiscing about times old and not so old, and Miller Lite is proffered from a cooler built into the seats. Haggard emerges from a chicken dinner and is gregarious and friendly, dressed in Levi’s and a blue sweatshirt. His words lack the double talk and platitudes that characterize so many "celebrity" conversations. Talking to him is like talking to your grandfather—he seems genuinely interested in telling you his stories, but not interested at all in making you listen.

Bright lights such as Hank Williams III and Wayne Hancock shine on the horizon, but there are no more Merle Haggard’s left. Perhaps recognizing this, he has no intentions of slowing down.

"Well I never know, son." he says when asked if he intends to continue his rather rigorous touring schedule. "Depends on my health. At the present time I don’t ever wanna quit. If I quit it means I’m going under, and I don’t wanna do that any more than you do."

Which is exactly what you would hope he’d say. While he may be the proverbial last of a dying breed, Merle Haggard still has a lot to offer. Barring any sudden health concerns his next album is not likely to be his last, and the radio may just be starting to come around.

"We’ve got about half the stations in America for us, and that wasn’t the case two or three years ago." Even if that figure were to go down, it would likely only strengthen his resolve.

"My time is several times more valuable than it was when I was 22."

To him, and to us.

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