In a 1996 feature in The Austin Chronicle, Merle Haggard told interviewer Tim Stegall, “I’ll play the game now. I’ll do everything I’m supposed to do, and see if that’s what it is.” He was speaking of Nashville, and his was the voice of an aging artist frustrated with the drop in attention paid to his records in recent years. Not exactly fighting words, especially from a guy who knew a thing or two about rebellion — one who’d risen from a life of petty crime to become one of country music’s finest singer-songwriters.
Stegall and Haggard were standing in a nondescript hotel meeting room, Merle the guest of honor at a catered meet-and-greet reception, nursing a sore throat, squirming in his shoes, attempting to douse his discomfort with a tumbler of George Dickel.
Four years later, the picture that is Merle Haggard’s career has transformed itself yet again. Whatever “game” he was intent on playing back then is long forgotten, and now he speaks confidently of attracting new audiences and making music he’s damn proud of. He’s newly signed to Anti, a division of the independent punk rock label Epitaph, and he’s just released If I Could Only Fly, his first studio album of new material in four years. From the relaxed and downright friendly tone of his voice, it’s clear he’s at ease with himself — content — both in a personal and a professional sense. Merle Haggard is, it appears by all accounts, happy.
“That’s a fair assessment, probably so,” he conceded during an interview this past August from his ranch home near Palo Cedro, California, a small community in the Sierra foothills nestled between the town of Redding and the snow-capped peaks of Lassen National Park. He still has family down south in Bakersfield, but this 200-acre ranch, which includes a recording studio, several fishing ponds and loads of wildlife, has been his home base for the past ten years.
“I’ve always had sort of a rebellious nature,” says Haggard. “Just didn’t do the things I should have done years ago.” Which, if you’ve read any of his 1999 autobiography Merle Haggard’s My House Of Memories, is certainly an understatement. Now, he says, “I’m trying to return my phone calls.”
Then he laughs, the first of many loud, chunky guffaws that ripple over the phone lines during our casual, 90-minute chat. This guy may have had his share of troubles during the past decade — declaring bankruptcy; getting chased by the IRS; suing his former label, Curb; enduring a drop in popularity on country radio — but he sure likes to laugh.
The Fighting Side
Rebellion has been a part of Haggard’s life since childhood. Born April 6, 1937, Merle Ronald Haggard was raised by his Okie-migrant parents in a converted refrigerator car in the Bakersfield suburb of Oildale. His father died when he was 9, leaving his mother with a heavy burden and Merle with a restless soul — he spent much of his adolescence hopping trains, stealing cars, and generally wreaking havoc with local law enforcement.
He wound up in juvenile hall more than once, and eventually landed in San Quentin, where he “turned 21 in prison,” just like he sang in one of his most famous compositions, “Mama Tried”. The San Quentin experience turned him around, however, and when he was released, he settled back in Bakersfield and focused seriously on making music. Within a few years he was well on his way to country music stardom — running his career (as was his friend and colleague Buck Owens) from a West Coast home base, which in itself was another mark of rebellion, as it directly challenged Nashville’s stranglehold on the country music business.
“The essence of rock ‘n’ roll is a cry for freedom and rebellion,” remarked producer Don Was in a 1996 Newsweek article on Haggard. “And I don’t know anyone who embodies it better. Every aspect of his life is a refusal to submit.”
“He’s the type of person that got the feeling that while he was climbing the mountain of success…he liked the climb better than sittin’ on top,” said Bonnie Owens — Haggard’s second wife and still to this day a member of his road band — in Gerald Haslam’s recent book Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music In California.
All climbing tales aside, Haggard has good reason these days for feeling upbeat and content: He’s basking in a happy home life — which he shares with his fifth wife, Theresa, and their two young kids, Jenessa and Ben — and he appears genuinely pleased with If I Could Only Fly. He should be: It’s been years since Haggard released an album that feels this personal, strong-willed, and emotionally and aesthetically confident.