By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
As former Blaster Dave Alvin (who organized a 1994 Haggard tribute album, Tulare Dust) puts it, "The old barroom cliché that the singer on the jukebox is singing directly to you is true in Merle's case. Between his simple, direct songwriting and his laid-back yet emotional vocals, it really feels that Merle is singing just to you. His heartache is our heartache."
Haggard talks with uncompromising candor about his past, his future, and how the twists of fate helped shape the life of an American music icon.
Merle Haggard: I think you could call it a comeback. It's an attempt to go top-drawer and be played on the radio. It's also an attempt to let people see the real Merle Haggard. I've kind of been typecast as a country artist--and I don't think that's quite correct.
When Elvis was big, I played rock and roll. I spent years in a rock-and-roll band. We played country, rockabilly, whatever anybody wanted to hear. Growing up, I listened to country music, sure, but I listened to all the pop artists as well--guys like Sinatra and Crosby. I'm a big fan of Clyde McPhatter, Fats Domino, all the rock-and-roll biggies. Chuck Berry had a lot of influence on me and everybody else.
And I think it's especially appropriate, because right now my music has a better chance to be played in the company of Bonnie Raitt or the Rolling Stones than it does in the company of what they're calling country music.
DO: What prompted the decision to sign with Epitaph?
MH: They offered a lot of money for the record and also offered a lot of money in promotion--and they put it in writing. Those things are unique. More important, the guys from Epitaph came up here to my studio and listened to the music. One of them said, "We're not here to change a single hair on your head." I said, "In that case, I'll listen to what you have to say." 'Cause at my age I'm not interested in making cookie-cutter-type records for somebody that wants to take me to Nashville and put me with what they call a "hot band." I'm not gonna do that.
DO: You've been one of the most successful artists in country-music history. Do you still have certain goals in mind for your career at this point?
MH: I have a label of my own which records gospel music and distributes it directly through Wal-Mart. I intend to keep doing that, but if this record with Epitaph doesn't show promising sales figures--as we expect it to do--then I probably won't record anything else commercially.
DO: You mean that you might quit making country music?
MH: I may just become a songwriter that cuts demos, and try to get them to somebody who can get on the air with them. The playlists on country radio these days are so tight and so narrow-minded that a guy like me can't get played. They're afraid I might actually say something [laughs].
DO: You've always been outspoken about your relationship with the music industry. A few years ago, you and Johnny Cash both audited Columbia Records, claiming that they shortchanged you on royalties.
MH: I've recorded for more than one label, and I've had a similar experience with almost all of them. I recorded for Capitol for 13 years, and we found a lot of money they owed us. And now they're coming to me and saying, "Why don't you take this amount, rather than what we owe you?" They're trying to dicker with me on my own royalties. And it isn't even that much money to begin with!
I'll tell you, them big record companies have treated people wrong since the days of Gene Autry. And they don't intend to do it any differently. That's one of the reasons I went with Epitaph. As far as them others--Capitol, Columbia, MCA--they're all under surveillance, and I'm coming after their well-known asses [laughs].
DO: You mentioned the gospel album you've recorded for your own label. It's a style of music that you've really taken to heart recently. Your mother was a member of the Church of Christ, and you did Land of Many Churches[a 1971 album of religious standards], so I guess it's been with you for a long time. But what brought about this renewed interest in spiritual music?
MH: I'm a songwriter by nature, I guess. Ever since I was very young. It's very important that I write songs and continue writing them--more important than to continue music as a performing thing. And for some reason, all of a sudden, I started writing those kinds of songs.
I guess when you get old, you start thinking about death. When you're 21 years old, you think you're bulletproof. As you get older and your teeth start to fall out, and your hair falls out or whatever, you realize that's not the case. You start to look for alternatives; possibilities of another life. It brings about the thoughts of inspiration that lean in that direction, and I decided I wanted to record them and put them out.