On a Legend's Mind
Part 1: Raised in the Desert / Writing From Anger / Collaborating With Family
When speaking of truly groundbreaking artists who helped define a musical genre, one can't ignore the huge impact Merle Haggard has had on country music. For more than 50 years, the maverick artist has been engaging listeners with soul-baring tunes of loneliness, frustration, hope and transcendence that are as well known for their lyrical depth as they are for the manner in which they're delivered. His knack for phrasing, timing and using his voice as an instrument has remained unparalleled in country music. On top of that, he's a helluva guitar player and band leader.
Haggard was born in a converted boxcar on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California. When he was 14 years old, his father died of a brain tumor. Restless, at 15, he ran away from home, got caught, and wound up in reform school. In the few years that followed, he worked a couple of odd jobs, but had a hard time staying out of trouble, which ultimately led to a number of jail stints. The bottom fell out when a safecracking bust landed the youngster in the infamous San Quentin. Thoughts of solitary confinement and the prison yard death of a friend was all the convincing Haggard needed to clean up his act. He'd always played guitar and sang, and upon his release from prison, he decided to take a stab at a musical career.
He got a job backing up Bakersfield country music star Wynn Stewart, who gave the young musician "Sing a Sad Song" to record as a single. The record hit Number 19 on the country charts in 1963, and by 1965, Haggard had a recording contract with Capitol Records and began scoring a string of hard-boiled hit records, including "Branded Man," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Mama Tried," "White Line Fever," "Working Man Blues" and "Okie from Muskogee."
Thirty-nine #1 country hits and numerous awards (Grammy, CMA, ACM, and BMI have all acknowledged him), the 63-year-old Haggard is still turning heads with his latest release, If I Could Only Fly -- a reflective and exultant collection of sparsely arranged tunes that blend folk, pop, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, blues and even Brazilian rhythms. In the following interview, Hag discusses the new record, his songwriting process, country music and punk-rock.
Musician.com: Your new album, If I Could Only Fly, is very upbeat. I know you've had your ups and downs in the past, but life seems to be going pretty well for you right now.
Merle Haggard: The majority of songs on the album don't express any anger. People who are listening to the album are noticing that everything seems to be sort of up, and that's the way it is right now in my life. We're doing pretty much what we've been doing for a lot of years, but there's not a lot of bad things happening to me right now. I've got a beautiful family. George Jones asked me to sing a song bitchin' about [country music radio] airplay, and I don't wanna sing about it because I'm having a pretty good period right now myself. I'd rather sing than bitch [laughs].
Musician.com: There does seem to be a strong emphasis on the family on the record. In fact, your children are on the record, and your wife Theresa co-wrote "(Think About A) Lullaby" with you.
Merle Haggard: We had a sad thing happen a few months ago. She lost a child, and "(Think About A) Lullaby" was a song that she asked me to write to help her in her rehabilitation. She took it pretty hard -- and so did the rest of the family -- but that's what that song's about.
Musician.com: How does it feel being on the Anti-Epitaph label, which is well known for punk and metal artists such as Rancid, as well as Tom Waits, Tricky and Buju Banton?
Merle Haggard: I enjoy that kind of music more than what's going on in so-called country. I think punk-rock is at least innovative and has youthful attitudes, which is not available on the other side. At least in my opinion it's not.
Part 1 | Part 2