Merle Haggard is a living legend not merely of country music, but of our American culture in general—a fact that will be officially acknowledged at the Kennedy Center Honors later this year. His songs, from ’60s honky-tonk anthems like “Sing Me Back Home” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” to mid-career masterpieces like “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” and continuing with those on his excellent new album, I Am What I Am, form a thick chapter in the canon of popular music.
Haggard was scheduled to play at the Classic Center Sept. 23, but that show has been cancelled “due to illness,” according to the Classic Center. That’s unfortunate, and we can only hope that the show can be rescheduled sooner than later. Before the cancellation, Flagpole conducted an interview with Haggard during which he waxed philosophical on topics ranging from Charlie Christian to Robert Duvall—and demonstrated the seriousness with which he approaches his craft and the depth of his understanding of its history.
MH: [Dog barking in background] This pup doesn’t want to cooperate—someone walks in the door and she goes berserk!
FP: I see. I have that problem at my house as well… So, your new album’s terrific… How does it feel to be back on the charts? I see this record got up higher than you’ve been in awhile.
MH: Well, it’s just wonderful, actually. It makes me wonder what I did wrong during the years I was off, you know?
FP: [Laughs] I would say, “nothing”… that was probably on somebody else’s end.
MH: We did a lot of albums that got held back on Curb Records, and they never did release ’em. I guess they thought I was gonna be like Waylon and die early on!
FP: [Laughs] Geez… Well, I’m glad you didn’t. Actually, the last time you were in Athens, I think, you played the Georgia Theatre on the day Waylon died. That was a very sad day but a pretty amazing show. Do you remember that?
MH: Yeah, I do. You know, Waylon and I, we were a lot alike. We talked about it one time: you know, he was from Phoenix and I was from Bakersfield, and both of us were not from Nashville or anyplace east of the Mississippi. So, we were different in the country music scene when we came aboard.
FP: Yeah. So, that was at the Georgia Theatre—that place burned up last year. They’re trying to put together some money to rebuild it, but right now it’s just a big shell of a building.
MH: You know, it’s like lightnin’ is strikin’ all over. Places that I played last year are burnin’ at my heels!
FP: [Laughs] You think you got anything to do with that?
MH: [Laughs wickedly]
FP: Well, the last time I saw you anywhere was three years ago in Atlanta when you were doin’ the tour with Willie and Ray Price. You had your whole band, maybe Redd Volkaert on guitar, I can’t remember… but you decided to take all the guitar solos that night, which was pretty incredible. Do you do that very often?
MH: Well, you know, I’m a fortunate father of a 17-year-old guitar player that’s workin’ with me onstage now…
FP: Oh, nice!
MH: So, what he doesn’t play, I play, as far as solos go, but he’s playin’ so much better than I am that I like to show him off.
FP: Well, if that’s true, I can’t wait to hear it, ’cause you haven’t lost anything. So, I read or heard you say one time that your biggest influence as a guitar player was Jack Teagarden, the great trombonist. Listening to his stuff, I can hear it, but can you tell us a little about how that works for ya?
MH: Well, Charlie Christian and Jack Teagarden had an approach that dribbled down to Tiny Moore, Grady Martin and Roy Nichols, people like that. But rather than being so overbearing and studying somebody next to me like Tiny and Roy, I studied Jack Teagarden and Charlie Christian, and… I tried to understand their approach, you know?
FP: Is that approach something you can put into words, or is it just something [where] you know it when you hear it?
MH: As little as it may seem possible—country music is based on three chords—but it allows for a great liberty in jazz, and we do that onstage. A lot of people don’t know that; maybe they need to know it, but my band plays for the moment. We do not rehearse the shows, and we play whatever songs we feel at the moment, and we also play ’em the way we want to: individually, at the moment, the way it comes off. That’s the way we approach it.
FP: Well, and a lot of people, I realize, still recognize you by your mid-’60s honky-tonk stuff like “Swingin’ Doors” and “Lonesome Fugitive” and that stuff, which I know you still play, if in a little bit different ways now, but I feel like by the ’70s, you’d invented a sound that hadn’t really been heard before, with stuff like “Carolyn” and “Red Bandana” and “Footlights” and “Everybody’s Had the Blues.” You added a horns section and made it kind of a hybrid between honky tonk and Jimmie Rodgers and Western swing and just jazz. I’ve never thought you got enough credit for that.
MH: Well, you know, the Kennedy Arts Center Award this year is some recognition of all the things they missed…
FP: I guess that does count, doesn’t it!
MH: Yeah, it does, and it came as a big surprise to me, because I was like you—I figured they’d missed all that. But evidently, you and I are both gonna be surprised here, because they’ve given me this great award. It’s kinda like… it’s so different from other awards, because it doesn’t come through the people it normally comes through: this comes from America.
MH: And so, it’s a great award that says, “We didn’t overlook you.” [Laughs loudly]
FP: [Laughs along] Thank heavens they finally said it! Now, has that already been presented, or is this still coming up, Merle?
MH: No, I just got wind of it. You know, it’s Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey and Merle Haggard…
FP: Yeah, wow.
MH: And a fella named Billy Jones, from Hollywood… one of the great people behind the scenes.
MH: And I’m not sure of the other person’s name.
FP: Well, I can look it up. [It’s Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman – ed.] Well, that is really, really exciting and a terrific honor, and I’m glad that’s finally coming your way. I guess we should talk about your lyric writing. You know, there’s always a lot said about that, but I think to me, what I would boil it down to, as far as what’s so great about the way you write, is that it’s got this kinda fearless and unsparing recognition of the truth, or at least how that appears to you, no matter how bad it makes you or anybody else look. Is that something you try to be conscious of, or is it just the way you are?
MH: You know, I was raised to be honest. My father valued honesty above everything, and I valued my father above everything on Earth; he was my… we were about probably closer than most fathers and sons. And he hated a liar. And when I was real little, that just really stuck out in my mind: “Boy, I sure the hell don’t wanna be a liar.” [Laughs]
FP: [Laughs] Well, I think that a lot of people don’t want to be liars, but they still don’t have that gift that you do for identifying these really difficult truths, you know?
MH: Well, that’s what I’ve… struggled, and that’s what I’ve been the recipient of. You know, most of those songs are… I have a talent of maybe shaping ’em up, but the good ones come like teletypes, and you know, it’s someone up above that’s been kind to me, and they’re as big a surprise, and they make as big a’ chill bumps on me as they do the people that I sing ’em to. Because that’s the way they come, and I don’t sit down and try to sweat ’em out. You know, they come in a short message: there they are. And I get the feeling that a mother must have when she gives birth to a child. You know, it’s not as painful, but it surely is rewarding—and they may last longer!
FP: Yeah. [Laughs] In a lot of cases, I’m sure you’re right about that. So, just to talk about your songwriting a little more, you know, Athens… I don’t know how many times you’ve been here over the years—that Georgia Theatre show a few years ago was the only time I can remember you playing in town, and I’ve been here about 20 years, I guess.
MH: Well, I played it a lot during the ’70s.
FP: Did you? Well, as you might know, it’s a pretty serious music town, and there are even a lot of pretty serious country musicians around here who are trying to approach things in a way that’s maybe a lot more like what you do than what they do on the radio. And you know, they’re big admirers of yours, and I think a lot of them would wonder: What’s important to remember when you’re trying to write a song? I mean, I know you just said that the best ones, you don’t really have to try, but sometimes you do, I suppose…
MH: Well, I think a good song nearly writes itself. The main thing about a song is, you’ve got to have a subject. And you’ve got to be thoroughly aware of the subject, and you must not stray from the subject unless it somehow enhances the subject. And I always take… I’ll compare the first line with the last line—if I think I’m off the subject, well, I’ll just compare the lines with the subject matter and see how it goes. And then you got the melodies to contend with. You know, sometimes, you can take a title, and take a beautiful melody and just hum the title, the line, and the rest of it kinda unfolds, follows that insinuation, you know?
FP: Yeah. Yeah, that, uh… hm. Easy for you to say, Merle! [Laughs uncomfortably; stammers:] I hope that somebody can ever do that as well as you have over the years. I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, and again, I just really appreciate your talking to me today. And I can’t wait for your show. Can I put in a request for “I Always Get Lucky with You”?
MH: You know, you can, and in fact, we’re gonna rehearse today, and I think we’ll… I haven’t been doing that song, I… I might as well tell this; it’s true: I wrote most of that song—me and Freddie Powers wrote it. And there were a couple of guys sittin’—a trombone player, and a friend of ours, [inaudible name], and Gary Church was sittin’ in there, and they’d handed us a pistol and a shot glass.
MH: So, I said, you know what, we’ll let them have… you guys take all the writers’ [credits], ’cause I own the publishing company, and I’ll just take the publishing on it!
FP: [More giggling]
MH: Well, over the years, I lost that God-dang publishing company, and now, well, it went on George’s album, and I looked down and my name wasn’t even on it, and I said, “Well, I wrote this damn song!”
FP: [Helpless laughter]
MH: It’s funny, but it’s also irritating. You know…
FP: Yeah, I would have to imagine. Well, you’ve written so many incredible songs over the years, and what you haven’t written has been so well chosen, I think, and you’ve even always had these wonderful collaborators, too. But then, even a song like “Misery and Gin” or… now, I don’t think you wrote “Misery and Gin,” is that…
MH: No, that song was written by a fella in Los Angeles, and his name gets away from me, but he’s a great songwriter, and, uh… dang it, I can’t remember his name.
FP: I’m tryin’ to remember it, too, and I can’t [it was written by John Durrill and Snuff Garrett – ed.].
MH: He wrote a couple of other things that were in the film that we did, uh…
FP: That was Bronco Billy, right?
MH: Well, that one, and the other one that they did right before that, another Eastwood film.
FP: Oh, was it the one with the monkey?
MH: No, it was the one with the music; it had good music in it—Marty Robbins was in it…
MH: You know what I’m talkin’ about!
FP: Yeah, yeah, I do… I’m tryin’ to remember it, uh…
MH: I recorded the damn song out of it…
FP: Honkytonk Man?
MH: Yeah, Honkytonk Man.
FP: Sure, yeah.
MH: Great movie, by the way, I thought.
FP: I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it being great.
MH: Good music in it, you know?
FP: Yeah, sure! This is off the subject, but I just saw Robert Duvall in his new movie, Get Low, and it just… every time I see him, I think of his role in Tender Mercies, where he’s just channeling Lefty Frizzell. And I think he even wrote a couple of the songs he sang in that movie, and that’s right around the same time as that, early ’80s or somethin’… Have you seen that movie?
MH: Yeah. You know, he came out, and he stayed around my camp out [there] for awhile, and he went over to Waylon’s and Willie’s, before making that film. And he told us what he was doin’; said he wanted to know what he was tryin’ to act like!
MH: And so, he studied our characters.
MH: Mine, Waylon’s and Willie’s. And then, he went back and he put what he knew about Lefty Frizzell; he even cut some songs—a couple songs were Lefty’s songs that had never been released.
MH: And he took those songs from the unreleased catalog of Lefty Frizzell, and went and… and he was sittin’ on a bed, singin’ one of ’em, I forget the name of it. But he was singin’ it himself, Robert Duvall. And I think he… he probably come pretty close to the truth, you know, on that. He was whippin’ around the bottom of it, if not!
FP: Yeah, that was an unusually good performance. It’s tough to imagine somebody gettin’ that right, and he pretty much did.
MH: Well, he understood. And a lot of people may not; you probably did, there was an underlying message in that film. I mean, it was like, he had these songs, and they became hits, and he became an artist like Lefty Frizzell, we’ll say. And well, the people that recorded him at Jim Beck Studios took all of his music.
MH: And that’s kinda what Tender Mercies was about. That occurred; remember, he wound up… people barely knew who he was.
FP: Yeah, and he was still making those great records right before he died—those last couple of records, I’m tryin’ to remember what they were called, but I think that’s when “I Never Go Around Mirrors” and “That’s the Way Love Goes” and all that stuff came out, was right in the last few years of his life. I mean…
MH: Oh, man, he wrote—him and Whitey…
FP: Right, Whitey Shafer.
MH: Whitey admired him, and he admired Whitey, and they wrote some wonderful songs. I actually got a song in that thing; it was the title of the album, that last album, it was called “Life’s Like Poetry.” And that was my song.
FP: That’s right, I’d forgotten that, too! Now, did you end up writing with Whitey at some point?
MH: No, we just admired each other’s writing—I hope he admired mine; I admire his—he was just close to Lefty; him and Lefty wrote together. Or else, they finished each other’s songs, I don’t know which. You know what I’m sayin’, sometimes, writers don’t write well in the same room at the same time. You know, two good writers, maybe a guy’ll have something that he can’t finish, and he’ll say, “Hey, man, why don’t you finish this for me?” I think that’s kinda the way Whitey and Lefty were: Whitey’d have an idea; he’d have it half-written, and maybe he’d help him finish it or get the melody for it right. You know, I don’t know how close they were, just as far as their writing, but I can identify different writers. I mean, I know how Lefty wrote, and I knew how Whitey wrote when he came in with that. And it was a great union, I thought.
FP: Yeah, it truly was. Well, again, I feel bad for taking up so much of your time, but is there anything you’d like to tell the folks in Athens to expect at your show?
MH: Well, I’d just say we look forward to seein’ you, we’ll try to do you a good show. We’ll probably do some of the old, and we’ve got a young Merle Haggard guitar player; his name is Benion, and he’s our showpiece, at the moment, of the band…
FP: And he’s 17?
MH: He’s gonna be 18 in December; he’s already graduated from high school, and he’s got his diploma in his hand, and he’s playin’ guitar better than his father…
MH: That little smartass, we’re gonna bring ‘im with us!
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