By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When Haggard first made his mark with Tally Records, it was during a turning point for country music. The hillbilly corn of the 1940s and '50s had little context in the jet age; Nashville reacted by pouring sweet string syrup over the same themes and messages. But there were a handful of renegade stylists actively mapping out new territory, and introducing subtle but deeply influential new approaches. The distinction of being a modern country artist is important to Haggard, and important when one attempts to begin to understand the man's complex inner workings. That modern upshift was easily the idiom's single greatest artistic leap, and Merle Haggard became the most creative and successful practitioner in its development. But it's equally important to remember that the nightclub culture that produced Haggard, Owens and Stewart was wide-open, as much pop and rock & roll as it was hillbilly -- a tradition reflected by Haggard's numerous inclusions of pop and show tunes on his albums ("It's All in the Game," "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"), and Owens frequently throwing "The Macarena" and "Play That Funky Music White Boy" into his current stage show.
Haggard, who has graced the cover of jazz bible Downbeat, seems weary of being labeled as anything at all. After all, he'd invented an artistic persona, a sort of hillbilly Frankenstein: "I thought, 'You know what I'll do? I'll take a little bit of Lefty, a little bit of Elvis, a little Wynn Stewart, a little bit of Ernest Tubb and the other influences I had -- Jimmie Rodgers, Chuck Berry, Grady Martin and Roy Nichols, Bob Wills -- and just be honest with it, try to make somethin' out of what I was. Well, it worked. It was a new pie.
"It really wasn't part of the Nashville sound. It came from Texas and all over the West. I thought, if I combine all that, maybe I can come up with something sustaining. And it started happening, even as early as when Wynn was kind enough to give me 'Sing a Sad Song' and it went into the charts. And from that day, from 1962 until 1991, we were never absent from Billboard, Cashbox, Record World -- we were never out of the charts for almost 30 years."
Those days are behind him now. Haggard settles deeper into a chair behind the studio board, tugs the brim of his ball cap down low: "The music is a way of takin' it out of them. You can cuss 'em out in the song, or you can just lump it and say nothin'. I've been fortunate enough to take out my political and personal convictions on the public in a song, and it's sure bound to release some tension. It's a great feeling, it's something wild, being a writer. It's a body of work, and you keep tryin' ã to kick that same height on the wall. Because you know where your best is at, more than any of the people around you, and you know how hard it was to get to that."
It's been a remarkably circuitous route, marked by a tendency toward self-imposed burdens; by the early '80s, Haggard's band, the Strangers, was dazzling, a hillbilly jazz orchestra featuring not only Nichols, but former Texas Playboys Eldon Shamblin, Jimmy Belken and Tiny Moore, players who exuded an epic magic that no other country band since has been able to approach. But Haggard managed to screw even that up -- the angry departure of Nichols and the firing of Moore coincided roughly with an ugly, litigious falling-out between Haggard and his longtime friend and business associate Tex Whitson; Haggard even temporarily fired Bonnie Owens last year.
Haggard is an odd one, with his own unique sense of logic; once, a pair of young pickers recounted the troubles amphetamines had caused them, telling Haggard they were quitting for good. "Bullshit!" he snapped. "What if you had to drive to Alaska -- right now?" But he's sharp -- any particular date, any subject's age, Haggard's got the correct answer, which, in the road-weary, pill-happy upper echelons of country music, is a rare quality. None of this is downplayed; at a recent Southern California appearance, he playfully crooned, "Since I was a little kid/everything I did/I did on marijuana."
"I think the '90s is a modern, technical version of the '70s with the freedom extracted out of it," he says. Or, veering wildly, "They're reportin' high-altitude airplanes with contrails -- they're sprayin' us with somethin', and people are comin' down with these terrible respiratory problems. I seen 'em myself, and I'm thinking, 'Damn! Could it be that they're tryin' to exterminate us?' I've got an office in Arizona, and they're bringing into our National Guard people from the United Nations Guard -- they're comin' into Arizona by the thousands, and as to what they're expecting over there, I don't know. The most disturbing thing I've read is, when you sign on as a serviceman in the United States, the last thing you agree to do is gun down your own people if necessary. So there's some serious things happening . . ."