By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
DO: On a musical level, that's something that you've done historically. That is, to get heavily into different styles and genres of music. Specifically, I'm thinking of the concept albums you did in the late '60s [1969's Jimmie Rodgers tribute Same Train, Different Time and 1970's Bob Wills-inspired The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World] that took you into Western swing, jazz, and blues.
MH: That's true, I've always liked the challenge of doing that. But you've got to remember when I did the Jimmie Rodgers album, I'd just had nine No. 1 records in a row. So it was like, "I'm gonna do something I wanna do. I want to pay tribute to someone who gave me the inspiration to go into music and get them nine No. 1 records."
It was the same thing with Bob Wills. Without Bob Wills there would be no Merle Haggard. I grew up listening to that music, and I felt an obligation to pass it along. Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel [a band that's been the modern torchbearer for Western swing and who has released its own Grammy-winning Wills tribute last year, Ride With Bob] gives me credit for doing that. He said he'd never heard of Bob Wills before that. His life would not have been the same if not for The Best Damn Fiddle Player. And look what he's done for Western swing. So I really think we accomplished something there. I wanted to pass that music on, I wanted it to live forever. 'Cause a lot of people didn't realize it even existed. Those things were a real labor of love.
DO: You're generally recognized, along with Hank Williams, as theconsummate country singer-songwriter. Has the fact that your music's been so closely tied to your own life--so much of it being autobiographical--affected how you approach writing songs?
MH: It's been therapeutic. It's something similar to going to a psychiatrist and emptying your soul or going to confession if you're a Catholic. It's a great relief and feeling of accomplishment to put something on paper that makes sense and actually expresses what's in your heart. A double whammy is to have someone else--somebody you don't even know--say, "Hey, I feel that way, too!" I've never gotten tired of that, of making that connection. It's the most exciting feeling in the world, it's almost something like an addiction.
DO: You've continued to keep a pretty healthy touring schedule [an average of 150 dates a year]. Do you still enjoy the road?
MH: Yeah, but there again, if this project does not connect, if we don't hit a home run with this thing, I may wrap it up at the end of this year. There's been a couple promotional gimmicks in the past about people being on farewell tours, but I've never admitted to that. People always ask me, "Is this your last tour?" And I say, "No, I hope not." You're the first person I've said anything to, but I talked with my wife last night, and it's a new intention of mine that if things don't work out--if they don't go back to being top-drawer--I may wrap it up this year.
DO: Well, the new record is definitely deserving of that kind of attention.
MH: Thanks. The bottom line is it's the best I can do. And if it's not good enough, then I'm just beating my head against the wall [laughs].
DO: Having been on the road for so many years, you must have a lot of fond memories.
MH: We've been at it so long, I probably put a new roof on every honky-tonk in America at one time or another [laughs].
DO: You were playing music in the early '50s, but all that was cut short by the middle of the decade, and you ended up in jail. But prison didn't really rehabilitate you at first; you were caught trying to escape several times, you gambled and even brewed beer in your cell. Eventually you wound up in solitary. What was the one thing that turned you around?
MH: One day I just realized I couldn't express my opinion to the degree I was expressing it. Just because I hated insurance companies, I couldn't go out and rob 'em. And honestly, I realized I wasn't a thief. I wasn't the kind of guy that was meant to be a criminal. I was a young and incorrigible delinquent--I was without a father is what I was. My dad died when I was a little kid. I didn't have anyone to whip me into shape. I believe if I'd had a couple good ass-kickings when I was 12 years old that I'd never have gone to prison. None of that would've ever happened.
DO: Your father's passing had a huge impact on your life, and really determined its direction in a way, didn't it?
MH: There's a scripture that says, "A good man's steps are ordered by the Lord." I believe in predestination. Looking back on it now, my life's been laid out like it was meant to be exactly the way it is. Those things happened so that I would have the experience and knowledge to see firsthand the things that I ended up writing about and maybe bring to the public a sort of news. In some ways, I'm a news broadcaster, a newsman. There's things going on in this world that they're not gonna tell you on CNN. They're not going to say anything that's gonna offend one of the sponsors. So there's talk radio at night, and maybe a few old poets that get played on obscure radio stations--those are the only ways that you might hear what's really occurring in the world.