By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Both Haggard and Johnny Cash are currently auditing Sony, the bitter fruit of dealing with an international corporate beast. "Sony, Epic and CBS own the masters," says Haggard, "and Sony, who owned Epic, went and bought [Nashville song publishers] Tree, so they own all my copyrights. Well, you can't get an honest report out of any of 'em, 'cause their attorneys are scratchin' each other's backs, playin' footsie under the table. So I wanted out of it.
"And now they come to me and they want me to re-record 16 songs. I asked 'em, 'Why do you want me to redo "That's the Way Love Goes"? That was a Grammy performance.' And they said, 'We lost it.' They lost several masters in some legal deal -- in between themselves. I said, 'You mean it's easier to pay me and lease the recordings from me?' I said, 'You gave me a good idea -- I'm gonna make the 16 songs, but I'm gonna keep 'em for myself.'" (These became the cornerstone for Haggard's current For the Record release -- a project finished only after a deal was struck for an accompanying pay-per-view TV special, forcing him, in typical jumbled style, to return to Palo Cedro between road dates and record more than 30 songs in 72 hours.)
Ultimately, wayward business dealings have led Haggard to a shocking loss -- giving up a huge chunk of his song catalog. It's a veritable mother-lode-in-perpetuity of publishing and performance money (his "Today I Started Loving You Again," for instance, has been recorded by 400 artists), but by the early '90s, after four marriages' worth of settlements and alimony, on top of a large collection of antique automobiles, his short-lived Silverthorn resort and nightclub, and various properties and construction costs from Shasta to Bakersfield, Haggard was $5 million in debt. The catalog deal, with Sony Tree paying a very substantial up-front sum, was essentially a bankruptcy bailout (Haggard filed Chapter 11 in 1993).
He's not thrilled with the way it has all played out. "I've been very bitter, and there've been times I've been on the brink of closing down and walkin' away, disappearin' into the woods," he says. "But you can always quit. I'm 62, people still like my music, I've still got friends . . . and I've still got enemies, so I think we should continue to try and do something, because it's gonna be over before you know it anyway. And I'm writing good songs. I got a stack of stuff this high up at the house that'll probably never be recorded."
The prospect is at once tragic and intriguing. At his peak, every successive Haggard album seemed to take fresh new turns, and found him journeying into wild territory, while looking back to his predecessors; his Bob Wills tribute album and re-formation of Wills' surviving Texas Playboys (amazingly, this involved teaching himself to play the fiddle in six months) ã was one of the great homages in country history. He's worked overtime to keep the music of Jimmie Rodgers alive, and has displayed a tendency to co-write songs when his collaborator was most in need of a boost.
Haggard has also made outsmarting others' expectations a major element in his life. At about the same time that Johnny Cash began to deliberately court the disaffected hippie-folk crowd, Haggard went the other direction with equal success. His biggest hit, "Okie From Muskogee," the flag-waving redneck anthem of 1969, was, of course, a gag, and he wanted to follow it up with "Irma Jackson," an interracial love story blasting intolerance. Capitol refused to release it.
THROUGH THE YEARS, HAGGARD'S psychology, along with the timbre of his voice, has significantly deepened. He began probing intensely personal zones with his 1979 Serving 190 Proof midlife-crisis album, and by the mid-'80s, many of his songs were fraught with an air of depression that reached dirgelike extremes. When 1990's Blue Jungle, his first Curb album, hit the bins, Haggard was clawing at the lock on his cage with venomous, self-castigating rage ("Sometimes I hate myself and wish I could scream . . . there's a curse on my heart . . . I'll never love again"). For all the broad scope of his art, he's also a man with a shocking record of strife involving those closest to him, invariably brought on by that relentless need for control. He brawled bare-knuckled with his late mentor, Lewis Tally, on streets from Bakersfield to Belfast; when he and singer Bonnie Owens decided to marry in 1965, Haggard telephoned guiding light Fuzzy Owen -- it was a ghastly sucker punch for the Bonnie-smitten Fuzzy ("How could you do this?" the distraught Owen cried. "You know I've loved her for years!").
As important (and forgiving) as Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Tally were in Haggard's life, it was another, Wynn Stewart, without whom he might never have gotten off the ground. Stewart gave Haggard not only his first professional job, but also his first hit, "Sing a Sad Song" in 1963.
"Wynn's sound was what influenced Buck and me both," Haggard says, "and in a strange twist of fate, his band was the heart of the old Frizzell band -- Roy Nichols was part of the Lefty band, and he went to Wynn Stewart and ran into Ralph Mooney, who played the steel, and they were the basis of the modern West Coast sound."
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