Haggard is hardly the word. Well, it is and it isn’t. At 64, Merle might bear physical wear, but his music—by his own admission, his greatest asset—and his no-shit demeanor are as acute and constant as ever. The Hag is still a rebel, if not totally congruent with his “Okie From Muskogee.”
For the uninitiated, “The Hag” is the Bakersfield shitkicker, a California country boy who parlayed a prison sentence (used to get his mail at San Quentin) into god status. He’s the author of 39 No. 1 country hits, the only California-born country singer in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the recipient of sundry musical accolades (Grammy, CMA, ACM, BMI) and godfather to legions of musicians, be they imitators or influential in their own right. Yet, for all his impact, he’s not one to overlook his own influences.
See Roots Vol. 1 (Anti/Epitaph), Hag’s tribute to a triumvirate of influences; Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Thompson. The disc features covers of each artist’s classic trad-country songs (most notably Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got The Time),” Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’” and Thompson’s “I’ll Sign My Heart Away”) as well as three new Hag originals: “More Than My Old Guitar,” “Runaway Mama” and “I’ve Got A Tender Heart.”
For many artists, a covers album or hits collection is a career bookend. But for Hag, whose discography encompasses a whopping 188 titles (among them tributes to Elvis, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills and 108 of which are retrospectives of some type), it’s proper and relevant. “I looked around and realized that I’d played tribute to everybody in my career except Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams [Sr.], who were really the prototype of what I became,” he says. “So I thought it very necessary in my life that I pay tribute to that music and that body of work and do it in the way they did it back then.”
A key element in the development of the project was legendary guitarist Norman Stephens, who, at one time, was a member of both Frizzell’s and Thompson’s bands. As it happened, Norm lived only miles away from Hag’s Palo Cedro residence. When a fellow musician acquainted the two, it was instant chemistry. “He knew I lived here, but he didn’t want to bother me,” he laughs. “I’d been just as interested in Norman Stephens’ guitar playing as I was Lefty Frizzell’s voice. Finding out he lived down the street and was still alive and able to not only play, but play really good, was like finding out Ted Williams lived down the street and was still hittin’ .350. It was amazing!”
The two men got together in Hag’s living room with his band, the Strangers (guitarists Redd Volkaert, Chester Smith and Bill McGill, steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, drummers Johnnie Barber and Brooks Liggatt, fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Abe Manuel, Jr., bassist Eddie Curtis, pianist Doug Colosio and Mrs. Hag on percussion and vocals), of whom Stephens is now a touring member. They recorded direct to two-track so as to avoid the temptation to tweak. The musicians’ respective talent, mutual admiration and respect for the songs they were charged with recreating would ensure the performances were magical. Hag is rightly proud of the result, and appreciative of Stephens’ contributions.
“I think it’s a very necessary album. It’s necessary for people to listen to [old music]. Not only that, but listen to my records. We need to go back and save some of that old music before it’s too late; remember what it was and how we got it. And to return to a time period and capture something that was first put down by people in their youth is a hard thing to do. Norm is a great guy with a lot of intelligence and a great mentality that was able to recall the way that those records were made. He was just so valuable to the project.”
A total of 23 sides were recorded on that sessionæthe reason for the Vol. 1 appellationæaffirming that there are still musical debts to be paid. He’ll decline to name them at this time, but will say the alluded-to Vol. 2 will include more originals, as he wrote at least six during the same session. “I thought, ‘I need to wrap these things up in the same wrapping and see if they sound as good as some of the songs that were good enough to inspire me to get in this business.’ And the ones that I put [on Roots], I felt sounded like they tumbled out of the same saloon. It was a heavy writing period. I work on about three albums at the same time all the time; the one that I’m fixin’ to put out, the one that I’ve got halfway done and the one that I’m startin’,” he laughs. “So that’s how I work.”
This kicking-mule work ethic and saloon metaphor speak to Hag’s reputation as a rebel, although he’s mellowed. You see, Hag not only feels a duty to his musical influences, but to the world as a citizen. The rebel has grown up; his perspective has been altered. He still has some fire in his belly, however—he feels his strongest position is communication, and says he makes the most of every interview, including this one.
We’ll let Hag take it from here.
Hag on Hag:
“All my life, I’ve grown in music. It’s kind of like a vocabulary. Your understanding and appreciation for it grows with your character. I’ve grown a lot. I don’t agree with a lot of the political songs I used to sing. I don’t agree with “Okie From Muskogee.” I mean, if I meant that, I was dumb as a rock! Sure, I’ll still sing it, but I sing it with a different attitude, man. I mean, I learned something, too. I learned we wasn’t supposed to be in Vietnam. But I didn’t know it at the time. I thought we should be over there fighting the threat of Communism. Just like the propaganda wanted me to think.”
Hag on Drugs:
“I don’t agree with classifying LSD with marijuana. I don’t agree with classifying beer with cocaine. I mean, I don’t agree with the double standards we’ve got going on in this world. I think they’re gonna bite us in the ass.”
Hag on Life:
“I’m very passionate about life. I’m 64 years old. I ain’t got time to be any other way.”
Hag on Freedom:
“I know that our freedom is goin’ away, but I’m goin’ to Canada and I’m gonna go up there and go across that damn line up there and let them pat me down 500 times and look through my bus and up my butt. And I’m not gonna like it. I don’t give a god damn what their excuse is. But I’m gonna do it because I am an American and I’m not afraid of anybody.”
Hag on Guns:
“I’d rather go down in history like one of those brave men on that airplane than to sit back and give in and vote for an M-16 to be surroundin’ my ass in an airport. I’d rather have the right to carry my own gun. If they had a gun, they could have saved that airplane. If there’d been one gun in there with one FBI agent, one police officer to ride that airplane that’s been allowed to carry his own gun, that plane would probably be here and those heroes would be goin’ to the White House. Don’t forget the only victory was won by civilians.”
Merle Haggard, Peery’s Egyptian Theatre, 2415 Washington Blvd, Ogden, 801-395-3227, Monday Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m.