By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Merle Haggard has neverput much creative stock in fun, but to hear him tell it on the new Haggard Like Never Before, he is having less than ever on the road. The title track addresses the predicament of being forced to tour at age 67, and while Hag’s vocals and phrasing are sublime, the tune is merely another stuck-on-the-damn-bus ramble, paling alongside the similarly themed 1979 masterpiece “Footlights.” Of course, the album’s keynote is “That’s the News,” his much-analyzed anti–Iraq War tune. A horde of journalists are eager to find the “Fightin’ Side of Me” Okie jigging to the liberal drumbeat: CNN couldn’t get him on the air fast enough, resulting in a dull thrust-and-parry between sniggering anchor Anderson Cooper and a mildly amused, close-to-the-vest Hag, while the Los Angeles Times trotted out as a hot scoop the notion that Hag’s political mind is “not at peace.”
To anyone who has been paying attention, though, the perpetually cannabis-enriched iconoclast has always been such a misfit that any ideological tag is irrelevant. More about disgust with the media than “not in our name” wrath, “That’s the News” should be interpreted as an attempt to adjust image and fight clear of the terminal indifference the singer faces from country radio. The most revealing aspect of all this is not the controversy or even the music, but the way Haggard still stalks the nation’s unconscious mind. At any rate, the inclusion of the straight-ahead flag-waver “Yellow Ribbons” puts the lie to the mini-furor and returns renegade-patriot Hag to precisely where he started.
This album, Haggard’s first since he left the punk indie Epitaph’s Anti subsidiary, signals quite a bit more about his artistic and psychic condition. The mystery is why, after a long stretch in late-’90s limbo during which he wrote and recorded hundreds of songs, it took him so long to start his own label. Meanwhile, Haggard has seen longtime muse Bonnie Owens forced into retirement by Alzheimer’s, and suffered the deaths of friends Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Cash, doubtless heightening his preference for spending as much time as financially feasible in Northern California isolation — days in his recording studio, and evenings with his some 25-years-younger wife, Theresa, and his latest brood of children.
The album features fine work from guitar great Norm Stephens, Lefty Frizzell’s original lead man. A duet with Willie Nelson on Woody Guthrie’s “Reno Blues (Philadelphia Lawyer)” is a bit creepy, considering that Hag featured it on a 1968 live album, performed by Bonnie Owens — who forgot most of the lyric. There’s an unusual New Orleans–style version of the old-time blues “Garbage Man.” And perhaps the most strangely revealing song here is “Lonesome Day,” the first overt articulation of Hag’s increasingly paranoid UFO/federal-conspiracy/militia pathology. With a jaunty Western-swing arrangement, he lays it out clearly: “When the men in black come kickin’ in your door/and guitar-playing outlaws lay spread-eagle on the floor.”
It’s almost as if Hag’s scared of coming clean to the hardcore fans — “Lonesome Day” is passed off as a gag, a half-novelty dance number; “Yellow Ribbons” doesn’t have heft enough to be more than a kiss-and-make-up in case “That’s the News” seems too far out of line. The rest of the album is made up of rather unconvincing ballads fixated on Theresa. With Haggard Like Never Before, he’s finally in complete control, but — damn it — is pulling punches for the first time.MERLE HAGGARD| Haggard Like Never Before | (Hag Records)