There is only one Merle Haggard. No one else even comes close.
Since his earliest days as a rough and tumble juvenile delinquent, this disturber of the peace has stood apart from the rest of the pack. A sophisticated man who’s never shied away from being blunt if it suited his purposes, he’s alternately a sensitive, emotional poet, and a plucky, gruff curmudgeon.
As such, he’s come to personify the perfect distillation of the particular brand of genius one might bestow upon the very greatest country and western music stars.
As time moves on, and more and more of the genre’s legendary figures leave this old wicked world, Haggard (an apropos surname if there ever was one) trucks on, one of the last of a dying breed. After being essentially written off by many of the power brokers of the very industry his hits helped create and nurture, in 2003, he received no small amount of critical praise for Unforgettable, an under-promoted disc that found him lending his own inimitable style to a collection of American pop standards.
To those with only a cursory knowledge of his back catalog, this may have seemed a crass attempt at cross-over success. However, those familiar with his mercurial career recognized that CD as another in a long line of Haggard releases (such as those devoted to tunes by Jimmie Rodgers or Bob Wills) meant as love letters to artists whose work helped form Merle’s own unique approach to songwriting.
Whether known as the protégé of (and sideman to) the late guitarist and singer Buck Owens, or as the man who penned such timeless classics as “Working Man Blues,” “I Threw Away The Rose,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and the controversial “Okie From Muskogee,” or as an outspoken critic of the Patriot Act, The Hag is one of a kind.
That’s probably why he was tapped by another one-of-a-kind superstar, Bob Dylan, to share the bill with him on over 20 dates across the U.S.A., including this Sunday’s appearance at the Civic Center.
This is Merle’s second outing with Dylan (the first took place last spring), and by all audience accounts, this pairing of crusty, idiosyncratic songwriters is a match made in heaven.
Merle and I talked trash on the phone for what seemed like an hour, and it was a real hoot. Here’s some of our chat.
Connect Savannah: Where are you at?
Merle Haggard: We’re in St. Louis tonight.
Connect Savannah: That must be a good town for you.
Merle Haggard: Well, it’s the middle of America! (laughs)
Connect Savannah: The posters for this tour read “all new show!” How much of that is just a catchy slogan, and how much is real?
Merle Haggard: Well, I wing it every night. We’ve got no set list. It’s not the same conversation or the same jokes, you know? I think Bob comes up with a couple of different setlists for each tour, and I’m pretty sure the show he’s doing is a little different from the one he did when we were together last year. Basically, I just go out there and have fun, and so far it’s been real, real good. Tickets are selling, and people are standing up on every song.
Connect Savannah: During the first shows with Bob, a lot got made of the tension between your two camps — Dylan being his inscrutable self, and you perhaps rightfully expecting him to be a more gracious host. I got the feeling that was blown out of proportion, and sure enough, you guys are back out together. Has the ice thawed, or is he still unavailable for hang time?
Merle Haggard: Well, Bob’s a mysterious guy. He doesn’t really hang out with anybody! That’s fine with me. I speak to him every once in a while. We actually talked for about 20 or 30 minutes the other day, and that was the first time that’s occurred. He’s very off to himself, you know. His persona is rather serious, and I suppose it always has been. That hasn’t changed just for me. I mean, he’s that way with everybody!
Connect Savannah: Many people see this tour as a celebration of two counterculture icons. Yet if there’s a connection between you and Bob as artists, I would think it has more to do with being your own men and following your hearts. Does that assessment ring true, or do you feel another type of bond with Dylan, or no bond at all?
Merle Haggard: Well, Bob and I are both songwriters. That’s where the bond is. We admire each other’s work. He does a couple of my songs in his show from time to time when I’m on tour with him. He does a rock version of “Mama Tried,” and he does “Sing Me Back Home.” I’ve always found him and his music to be interesting — as much as the public does. On tour he finds it complimentary to have me share the bill with him and vice versa.
Connect Savannah: Both you and Dylan are known for not saying too much in public about your political views, but, when you do take a stand, folks pay attention. I know you haven’t been the most ardent supporter of our current presidential administration in regards to the military action in the Middle East. Do you get any feeling that more people are starting to question authority, or do things still look pretty grim to you as far as free speech is concerned?
Merle Haggard: It looks pretty grim, doesn’t it? I don’t see any chance for the people who disagree to really change anything. I mean, we have chosen to go to war to defend our freedom. Meanwhile, at the exact same time, our freedom is being diminished in our own country by scare tactics that are supposedly caused by terrorists - but we’re the ones running up the “terror alert.” So, what does that makes us? If we’re gonna go all the way across the world and fight for it, we should have the very best brand of it. But we don’t have it anymore.
I really wonder sometimes how long the public will be so stupid as to allow themselves to continue to be shortchanged. I just wish someone - anyone - would take a minute and raise their head and look up to see what’s really going away, what we’ve already lost. This Free Trade Agreement that we’re in — we’re now on a level playing field with over a hundred other countries. After all the scare tactics our government’s used on us since 9/11, we’ve gone straight to hell in this country. We have no say whatsoever in much of the way our government conducts its business, and the way they scapegoat people. Look what they did to the Dixie Chicks, and Linda Ronstadt.
Connect Savannah: Well, that Linda Ronstadt business was so absurd that it almost seemed like a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Merle Haggard: It seemed like something from 1942 Nazi Germany to me. I don’t know why little by little people have allowed our country to change so much over the last five years! What we’re fighting for doesn’t even exist anymore.
Connect Savannah: When you see the crowds on these double-bills, how are they different from the shows where you’re the headliner? Are they younger, more diverse?
Merle Haggard: Well, I’ll tell you what. After touring for 40 years and watching this country go away, the time of day seems to determine whether you have an older crowd. If you want to draw anybody even remotely older, you gotta play at noon! They’re not gonna come out in this country anymore! They’re scared to death to come out after dark. That’s a fact. By and large you just won’t see ladies with grey in their hair walking around after dark in most cities. In this society, it’s the young folks who come out at night. So, if you wanna draw kids, you play after dark. (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Well, these Dylan shows start in the early evening, so I guess it’s the best of both worlds.
Merle Haggard: You’re right. We seem to draw a cross-section of both age groups. For example, I played in Miami, Oklahoma last night. We had a full house by ourselves. But the show started at 7:30 in the evening! Now, some years ago, I’m here to tell you that nobody would have been at a show at 7:30 at night! But now, with the terror alerts and the lack of freedom and the scare tactics they’re using... Then, you’ve got these people who won’t come out on the weekends. They won’t even compete with the young people anymore. It’s like they’ve given in and given up. It’s really become two separate societies as far as the age difference is concerned.
I just celebrated my birthday. It was my 69th, so I didn’t celebrate it that much (laughs), I just stayed at home. I don’t even go to the Quickie Stop after dark. My family and everyone I know is the exact same way. After dark, the streets seem like they belong to the gangs and the police. But, hell, by 9 p.m., the gangs and the police are even shut out! We played in Kansas City, Kansas, the other night, and our hotel was way up high on a hill. You could look out and see the whole town, and there was nothin’ goin’ on! The place was totally shut down. America used to be a 24-hour country, and these days it seems like it doesn’t do anything after 9 o’clock.
Connect Savannah: As an artist who’s crossed the U.S. for decades, you’ve got a unique perspective on this changing climate. Do you feel any sort of sea change in the works? Is there a backlash brewing?
Merle Haggard: I believe you and I will never see any different as long as we live. We’re stuck with it. I feel like certain towns in America are committed to entertainment. You have Myrtle Beach, New York City, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and after that you head toward the center of the U.S., and there’s nothing. Nothing! If it’s happening, it better damn well happen in the middle of the day, or it’ll be a failure.
I don’t know how America can work on only eight hours a day. People shouldn’t forget — this used to be a 24-hour country. It used to be you could go anywhere in Las Vegas and get steak and eggs at four in the morning. ‘Round the clock. Now, you can’t get breakfast after 2 p.m. in Las Vegas! If there’s anybody that doubts what I’m saying, they need to go out, and ride across this country and see what I’m talking about. It’ll break your heart.
Connect Savannah: When you returned to Capitol records, it made for great PR. Did it feel at all like a real homecoming, or was that just a convenient story?
Merle Haggard: Well, you know the Capitol records of ‘65 and the Capitol Records of now have no similarity whatsoever. It’s completely different people with different ideas on how to run a business. I think one of the main reasons they wanted me back was to get the digital rights on some of my old material that they didn’t have. The majority of the music they had on me was on old contracts, and they had no provisions in there for digital rights.
I think they wanted my signature on that and that was the only reason they ever signed me again. I don’t think they had any intention of trying to sell my new stuff at all. They just wanted to get their hands back on the old stuff. They don’t care about Unforgettable or (his latest LP) Chicago Wind. Come to think of it, though, there’s one similarity between the new fellas and the old ones: they both speak with the forked tongue! (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Has any of this turned into an ugly legal matter?
Merle Haggard: There’s not any young attorneys that wanna mess with me. See, I have an attorney, and he’s a real one.
Connect Savannah: Many of your older LPs are getting the deluxe reissue treatment by Capitol, and it’s shining a light on some of your most enduring work — but it’s also adding to that legacy by including a lot of previously unreleased tracks. Did you have any say in what stuff got tacked on to those CDs, and how do you feel about that?
Merle Haggard: Well, you know, it’s entertaining to me and I’m sure it’s entertaining to other people to hear mistakes and conversations that we deemed unreleasable in the early days. But if you’re asking me whether or not I had any say-so on how they put that stuff together? Of course not. They didn’t ask me a damn thing. They just threw it on there. Some of those songs they put out - like “Swinging Doors” - the copy they have out now is not even the correct one! It’s the rehearsal take. We were exactly one take away from the master. Now, I have no idea what happened to the master take of that song, but see, what they’re selling’s not accurate. It’s that kind of treatment that’s not fair to the artist.
Connect Savannah: How is it that someone of your stature in the music business receives so little respect or courtesy from the company that has made a small fortune off your work throughout the years?
Merle Haggard: What you’ve got is a bunch of kids workin’ there now and they have absolutely no idea who Merle Haggard is or what he is, or what he was, and what he stood for. What they do is this: Let’s take a scenario. A new attorney, fresh out of school, barely 34, he’s never heard a single one of my songs in his life. So, they wanna remix it, or whatever. Most of ‘em figure I’m dead! As crazy as that sounds, that’s the first thing they assume.
So they just proceed to do whatever they feel like, until somebody says, oh no! He’s still alive! So they say, well, let’s get him to sign something. Let’s offer him a new deal. Then, once they’ve got your name on there, they put it out regardless. They don’t care at all about your feelings or how it’s gonna look to the fans. They have no intelligence. Kinda like our government.
Connect Savannah: You received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award a few months ago. Does recognition of that sort mean much to you?
Merle Haggard: Well, lemme give you the real scoop on that. There was four people that got that award at the same time: Richard Pryor, Robert Johnson, David Bowie and me. Now, two of the others are dead. And they thought I was dead at first!
So when I said, well, that’s great news, are you gonna let me walk out and say thank you? They said, “Oh, no.” They told me I had to get my award the day before the actual event, and then sit there in the audience while all these rappers I don’t know get up and play, and they said, “then we’ll pan across you one time with the camera.” I said, naw. No you won’t. (laughs)
I told ‘em they could stick it where the sun don’t shine! I really don’t care about such things enough to take part in all that mess. (laughs)
Connect Savannah: So you didn’t even pick up the award your label keeps touting?
Merle Haggard: Naw, man. I didn’t go down there. They had to send it to me in the mail. See, it’s shameful for an organization like that to use my name and the names of Richard Pryor and Robert Johnson and David Bowie. Those are great artists. But if you’re puttin’ the show together, you’re gonna throw all those big names out there to try and get people to watch and get your ratings up, but heaven forbid you let anybody actually see these old fellas! Neither me nor David Bowie went down there, for the exact same reason.
Connect Savannah: Many were upset when Buck Owens recently died. Had the two of you kept in touch?
Merle Haggard: We were such good friends. Since the time he passed I’ve learned he wasn’t even sick. They said he was doin’ pretty well, in fact. Seems he was tired and just went to sleep one morning. He came to see me in Portland on that first tour with Bob and that was the last time I spoke to him in person. It was a big shock. Buck was really influential to my life.
I’ll tell you something that a lot of folks may not agree with, but it’s true. Buck was the epitome of rockabilly. He was half rock and roll and half country. He came out of the bars of Southern California, and in deference to a lot of country acts that came out of the Southern gospel tradition, he came from the Bakersfield barrooms.
Connect Savannah: If there’s someone reading this who’s never considered themselves a country fan, what’s the one album Merle Haggard would encourage them to pick up that would serve as a great example of the very best country that’s ever been recorded?
Merle Haggard: Well, I don’t know. I don’t even consider myself country anymore. I identify more with what’s happening in rock and roll right now, and it’s the rock people who seem to identify with me the most, and treat me with some sort of respect. The country people are out to use my name for different things if they can, and the rock and roll people seem to just like me for who I am.
To hell with country! That’s the way I’m feelin’ about it.
Connect Savannah: Why do you think that is? I remember when Johnny Cash was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Roseanne Cash said it meant much more to him to be accepted as a peer by those folks than it ever did for him to receive praise from the country music business.
Merle Haggard: Well, the rock people are coming from the heart and soul, and country people are always tryin’ to use you.
Connect Savannah: That’s so strange: Rock and roll always gets tagged as the shallow, callous genre, while country made a name for itself as being a more traditional and spiritual form of music that’s linked to the heartland and the whole compassionate conservative movement.
Merle Haggard: I think it went south along with our whole country. See, the whole situation of life has changed. What they’re calling country is about as country as downtown New York! It’s got nothin’ to do with actual country music. Country’s supposed to be about people who find their way from the soil to the microphone — instead of bein’ shaped into some kind of phony perfection with computers like they do nowadays. I mean, who can sing and who can’t? You really can’t tell anymore.
Connect Savannah: Who do you listen to for pleasure or inspiration these days?
Merle Haggard: I wish I could give you a title of something. I don’t really listen to much new music at all. It doesn’t speak to me. XM’s about the only radio I listen to anymore. We listen on the bus to a satellite channel called Hank’s Place. I listen to old pop and country, but I don’t pay any attention to what’s goin’ down today. I don’t find any melodies at all that I can sit down and whistle! I always thought music was lyrics and melody together. Nowadays it’s just lyrics and the same melody over and over again. There’s so little uniqueness, it really doesn’t turn me on.
Connect Savannah: My buddy Webb Wilder is fond of saying that real music is out there and real people are making it. I figure that’s why you and the Strangers have continued to do well on the road.
Merle Haggard: Well, I’ll tell you what - you’ve hit it on the head. That’s the reason we’re drawin’ people. They’re starved to death for real music! They sure can’t hear it on the radio anymore.
Merle Haggard & The Strangers open for Bob Dylan & His Band 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Savannah Civic Center. Seats are still available at the Civic Center Box Office, www.etix.com, or by calling 651-6556.