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Love and Hell 

Merle Haggard's Twin Oracles

Wednesday, Oct 13 1999
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Photo © Jim Marshall ®
Induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame is as high an honor as any country performer can attain, a validation reaching far beyond engraved-plaque prestige and industry recognition. When California singer Merle Haggard got the Hall of Fame nod in 1994, he took the stage, slick and dignified in a beaded, black-on-black outfit. With an intense gaze into the audience, Haggard produced a thick roll of paper, announcing that it was a list of all those deserving thanks. It unscrolled, hit the floor and kept rolling a good six feet across the stage. Behind him, horror froze the gleaming smile on presenter Marty Stuart's face; Nashville held its breath. "First of all," Haggard solemnly intoned, "I'd like to thank Andy Gump, my plumber -- you're doin' a great job keepin' my toilets workin', Andy . . ." Haggard stared into the camera. A pause, a wicked grin, the briefest of acknowledgments, and he walked off the stage.

That moment of potential chaos -- carried live on network television -- made it clear that while Haggard may have been pardoned by the state of California, he has certainly never reformed. After almost 40 years in the business, stacks of awards, dozens of gold records (38 No. 1 hits), he remains a musical and social renegade, beholden to none. Part jailbird, part sensitive troubadour, all-around rugged individualist, Haggard stomps to his own distinctive, internal syncopation.

Without doubt, Haggard rates as one of the greatest artists the Golden State has ever produced, a folk-song chronicler and outspoken crusader trafficking in generally ignored subject matter. From dust-bowl émigrés to itinerant Chicano field laborers, much of his music is born of and reflective upon life in California. Haggard has managed it on such a grandly sweeping and successful scale that he's wholly unrivaled. Yet today, at age 62, with all his considerable talents intact, he operates in a strange, cloudy netherworld.

For the past few years, Haggard has avoided almost entirely the conventional trappings and obligations of the music business. He has no binding recording contract and is in no hurry to sign one. (For the Record, Haggard's current RCA set of remakes of his hits, is strictly an open-ended option deal and, with duets featuring hot country duo Brooks & Dunn and pop pinup Jewel, rates as simple exploitation.) The public's only access to his music -- since radio has not played a new Haggard release since 1994's In My Next Life -- is at personal appearances. Haggard just doesn't give a damn about the hustle and hype, and, since being released from his contract with Curb Records in 1996, has been between tours that tend to favor outlying sub-suburban venues, steadily recording and writing -- stacking up, by his count, a total of some 130 unreleased tracks.

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Thus Haggard's Shadetree Manor studio has become his focal point and spiritual center. Tucked among the rolling hills of Palo Cedro, in the middle of an expansive nowhere flanked by Mount Shasta and active volcano Lassen, the sprawling, razor-wire-walled compound is Haggard's own empire. Entering the studio on a cold, rainy morning, one first notices a reverently displayed series of photographs and memorabilia that represent the singer's idols and tribal history: an on-set group shot from Buck Owens' pre-superstardom Washington TV show, featuring Buck's then-wife, Bonnie Owens, Haggard's longtime horn player Don Markham and a very young Loretta Lynn; a portrait of the cast from the Bakersfield hillbilly TV show Cousin Herb's Trading Post Gang, depicting cohorts Bonnie Owens, Roy Nichols and Fuzzy Owen. There's a huge enlargement of a color snapshot of influential California country singer Wynn Stewart, and a framed 45-rpm record with an engraved plaque that reads, "The last recording ever made by Wynn Stewart." There's a framed portrait of Bob Wills, and scattered throughout are gold records, dozens of BMI song awards, an assortment of other trophies, honors.

The second thing one notices is the tangy aroma of freshly burned cannabis ("Son," Haggard said in 1974, "Muskogee is the only place I don't smoke it"), and the ã third is Haggard's eyes, dark and unblinking. That gaze -- probing, intimidating, curious -- is like staring down into a vortex. The ruts and wrinkles lining this face seem to suck up all the available shadows.

In the studio, Haggard is working on a series of gospel duets with Al Brumley Jr., son of the gospel songwriter who penned "I'll Fly Away" and a friend since he and Haggard worked together in Bakersfield, circa 1961. The pair is immersed in anecdotal repartee that shifts, just like the set list of a well-rounded country show, back and forth from hilarity to misery.

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