On his new album, Merle Haggard sings about a life with fewer bumps and more certainty. In his time-ravaged baritone, he admits, “Oh there ain’t no riding bareback anymore/Ain’t no taking chances like before.” Once a country maverick, Haggard sounds settled and serene, crooning to swinging musical accompaniment that could have come straight out of the Bob Wills songbook.
His fans will hail If I Could Only Fly, out Tuesday (Oct. 10), as evidence that Haggard has gotten past an extended bout of hard times. Financial troubles forced him to file for bankruptcy a few years ago, and his recording career had to survive a commercially unproductive stint at Curb Records. The new set of songs lives up to Haggard’s high standards. Instead of viewing life from the perspective of a fugitive, a branded man or a rebel, however, the songs on the new album deal poignantly with age and settling down. Now 63 and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Haggard is happily married to his fifth wife, Theresa; they have two children: Ben, 8, and Jenessa, 10.
“Wishing All These Old Things Were New,” the album’s first track, sets the tone for the set with its opening lines about facing temptation and finding the resolve to overcome it: “Watching while some old friends do a line/Holding back the want-to in my own addicted mind/Wishin’ it was still the thing even I could do.”
Haggard freely admits that the man in his songs is a changed person. “It could be that I’m more settled and decided in my life,” he says, speaking by phone from his tour bus while he travels from his home near Redding, Calif., to Nashville. Haggard presided over Charley Pride’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame during the CMA Awards on Oct. 4.
“My directions are probably more absolute. I’m older. I have more experience,” he goes on to explain. “Fortunately, I have a new, wonderful family dictating my thought. Finally in my life, I’m satisfied with the way things are. It’s sort of a scary way to be, because you don’t know how long it’s going to last. So, you better write about it while you can.”
Self-produced, If I Could Only Fly is on Anti, Inc., an imprint for Los Angeles-based, punk-driven Epitaph Records. Recording with his road band in the comfort of his own studio, without regard to the expectations of country radio, Haggard sounds vigorous and renewed like his longtime pal, Johnny Cash, did on recent releases for American Recordings. Cash regained creative inspiration in the ’90s after stints at Columbia and Mercury, working with former rap impresario Rick Rubin. He releases a new album Tuesday (Oct. 17) featuring a duet with Haggard.
Haggard is a patron saint to a whole generation of country artists, from superstars who name him as a primary influence to thousands of nightclub musicians who regularly perform “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and “Workin’ Man Blues.” In his rich, personal songwriting, Haggard draws from a mother lode of life experiences. The former San Quentin prison inmate has a storied life as a hellraiser, but throughout his career he has peddled homespun values in songs such as his signature “Okie From Muskogee” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.”
On the new album, songs such as “Proud to Be Your Old Man,” “Leavin’s Getting Harder” and “I’m Still Your Daddy” are sentimental family fare. In addition to his present family, Haggard has grown children (including country artists Marty Haggard and Noel Haggard) from previous marriages. In his 1999 autobiography, Merle Haggard’s House of Memories, he writes: “I’m telling…all my children, right here, in my own words, in black and white: I love you, and I regret my part of the wrongs.”
He echoes the sentiment in “I’m Still Your Daddy”: “I’ve not always been the man I am today/It’s true I’ve done some time in prison/Let me be the first to tell you I was wrong…Don’t push me away/Daddy needs some family love today.” His wife and two young children contribute background vocals to the song.
“At the time I wrote the song, my little girl was 8 years old,” Haggard explains. “She was starting to come home with hints of questions about my past. I thought it would be neat to explain some things to her in a song. She’s a real sharp girl. She picked up on it. She has never said a word to me about that song. In other words, she already knows what I was telling her, like kids do. I thought I was going to be clever and tell her something in a cute way, but, hell, she already knew it,” Haggard says, followed by his famous cackle.
Haggard penned “(Think About a) Lullaby” for Theresa after the couple’s recent miscarriage. “We had already named the child,” Haggard says. “It was a little boy. Then Theresa went to a check-up and there was no heartbeat.
“While she was in Arizona in a rehabilitation center for women who have gone through this experience, she called me and asked me to write her a lullaby. I told her I would do my best, though I’ve never been one who could write upon request, much as I would like to be. When she had left and called to tell me that she was on her way home, she said, ‘Don’t forget to think about a lullaby.’ That’s where the song came from.”
“If I Could Only Fly,” the melancholy title track, was written by Blaze Foley, the late Texas songwriter lamented in Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel.” Like Haggard’s recordings of Liz Anderson’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and Iris DeMent’s “No Time to Cry,” the Foley tune sounds custom-made for Haggard. He first recorded it as a duet with Willie Nelson on 1987′s Seashores of Old Mexico. In 1998, Haggard made a home videotape performance of the song to be played at Tammy Wynette’s funeral.
“She loved the song,” Haggard recalls. “Her health was bad, and every time I saw her, she’d say something about that song. She died on my birthday [April 6]. A lot of people in the music business are not close. As luck would have it, Tammy and I were close friends. She and I had been fishing together. We cooked meals for each other. It was a bad time for me when she died. Then George [Richey, Wynette's husband] called me and asked me to sing that song. I just sat down with a guitar and sang it. Unknown to me, it was broadcast on CNN. I didn’t realize that was going to happen. I felt like sort of an ass for allowing that to occur.”
Haggard made his recording debut in 1962 on the tiny Tally label. After successful tenures at Capitol, MCA and Epic, he spent most of the 1990s on Curb Records, label home to LeAnn Rimes and Tim McGraw. Curb released three Haggard albums with no fanfare and very little marketing and promotion. The plain covers — two without so much as an image of Haggard on the front — did little to sell the albums.
“Curb had me in confinement,” Haggard maintains. “I was really disgusted with the recording industry because of the years I spent on Curb. It was such a waste of time. There are individual songs I’m proud of on those releases that got lost in the shuffle. I’ll record them again — make new masters.”
Disillusioned with corporate labels in general, Haggard planned to release his next recordings himself. Epitaph chief Andy Kaulkin learned of Haggard’s plight through a story in L.A. Weekly. Amazed that the living legend had no record deal, Kaulkin tracked him down. Fittingly, Haggard — a rebel often referred to as “the poet of the common man” — aligned himself with the label, known for issuing anti-establishment, streetwise music with punk values by artists such as Rancid, Offspring, Bad Religion, The Descendents and former Clash member Joe Strummer.
Epitaph last year released Tom Waits’ Mule Variations on Anti. The disc won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and has sold a million copies worldwide, the label says. Using a similar strategy for Haggard, Epitaph officials hope to raise his profile as they did Waits’, and restore him to prominence on the American cultural landscape in the same way Rubin and American Recordings revived Cash’s career.
“They didn’t want to change anything about me,” Haggard marvels of his new label. “That was so different from everything else, I thought maybe this is the right place for me. I like the idea of being associated with people that are young and innovative, rather than bland, like the sort of programming you hear on country music stations today.”
Both sides bought into a cautious agreement for a series of single albums. “I didn’t know what kind of situation I was getting into,” admits Haggard, still smarting from the sting of the Curb experience. Things have gone well so far, and already he is talking about other albums, convinced that Epitaph’s commitment is real.
“They said they wanted Merle Haggard,” Haggard says, recalling the company’s initial overture. “They didn’t want a country artist on the roster just for the sake of having some country artist. They said they wanted Merle Haggard on their label, which meant a lot to me.”