CMT Insider Interview: Merle Haggard

Country Icon Sits Down to Discuss New Album, Old Songs and Politics

Editors note: Los Angeles correspondent Lisa Lee’s interview with Merle Haggard is featured on the CMT Insider episode debuting Saturday (Jan. 29) at 1:30 p.m. ET/PT. Check additional show times.

HOLLYWOOD — Merle Haggard quietly strode into Studio A at the legendary Capitol Records building sporting a dark fedora and rock star sunglasses. After a few minutes of rehearsal with his longtime band, the Strangers, he asked the musicians to play a little softer because they were working in a small room.

An audio engineer manning the front-of-house soundboard shouted, “Sounds great out here, Merle.” Haggard calmly turned to the microphone and answered with a grin, ‘Yeah, it’ll sound better when we do what I’m sayin’.”

Such is the resolve of the legendary singer-songwriter. At 67, Haggard is still every bit as ornery, outspoken and funny as he ever was — whether the topic is music or politics. He may still be The Hag that we know and love, but it’s a mellower Merle fans will find on Unforgettable, his new album of time-tested pop standards. The project finds him back on Capitol Records, his label home from 1965 to 1976. During his tenure there, Haggard turned out a string of 24 No. 1 hits that are now country staples — including “Mama Tried,” “Hungry Eyes,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie from Muskogee.”

Haggard and his band recently previewed the new album for an invitation-only crowd that filled the former studios where he first recorded 40 years ago. The day before the private concert, the Country Music Hall of Fame member sat down with CMT News to talk about some of the music he grew up hearing, songwriting, George W. Bush, reuniting with record producer Jimmy Bowen and where his music will take him in 2005.

CMT News: I understand it was 40 years ago this year that you did your first recording session in this building?

Haggard: Who told you that? (laughs) It’s true, it’s true, it’s true. We started here as young men in 1965, and I also started the Strangers, the band which has been together that long. The big 4-0.

Does it seem like that long?

Yeah, it does. (laughs) Seems a little longer, actually. It’s been a long trip. A lot of people do it for a while, and then they step on the other side of the mike and start producing or go into another business. But I’ve been in the same business for 40 years, doing the same thing, running a band and making records.

What do you remember most about those Capitol years? You had a lot of hits, and it seemed like you were in a really great place creatively.

We were in a terrible rut: We just kept making hit records. (laughs) Just couldn’t have been much better. We were probably one of the only successful country acts during that time period. It was the Beatles’ period, and country music was really not supposed to be doing that, but yet we had the success right in that very time period.

You’ve done the punk label thing and also recorded for other country labels — and now you’re hooking back up with Capitol. Why was it a good time to come back now?

Well, I just think it makes sense for me to come back and associate with the people that had the first 13 years of my life [as a recording artist]. We have kids that are running Capitol Records that are anxious to work with me and all that old body of work. Plus, I think Capitol Records is the only real record company in the world. I mean, they don’t sell iceboxes or stoves or anything. I like the fact that they’re in this business, in entertainment alone.

Of course, this time around on the album, Unforgettable, you’re singing pop standards that we all know and love. Why did you want to record these songs in particular?

When we came to Capitol, we had this album in our pocket. We did some minor tune-ups and brought it into a digital format and released it. We had the idea before Rod Stewart, and we had the album made before Rod Stewart [who has released three albums of standards in his American Songbook series]. And we had the master stolen and offered on eBay for $365,000. So this album has a history already.

Did you find it on eBay yourself — or did someone bring it to your attention?

My attorney friend that I go to breakfast with every morning found it and said, “What is this?” (laughs)

I knew you had had an album turn up missing, but I didn’t know it was this one. How did you end up getting that back?

Well, there was a rough tape of it in [producer] Freddie Powers’ bus, and a lady in Texas, whose name we will not mention here, came in and just picked it up. She knew what she was doing. We’d played her the album that afternoon. She knew it was a rough, off the master. … During that same time period, this lady sued me! So it cost me about $50,000 to $75,000 to defend myself against this woman who stole my tape. The dark side has been against this tape from the beginning, so it must be good. It’s got a history, and it’s become a legend before it ever made its way to the public.

What is it about these songs that you think still intrigues us after all these years and after all the people who have recorded them?

Well, I think there’s an interpretation. Rod Stewart does it one way, I do it another. Willie Nelson had one 20 years ago, and I think it still sells.

Right, Stardust.

It’s still in the charts. While we were recording this album, Freddie Powers mentioned to Willie, “It’s really hard to do this album without doing some of those songs that you did.” And Willie said, “It doesn’t make no difference whether I did them or not. Merle hasn’t done them.” With that in mind, we went into the album not trying to dodge songs that were great. When you come down to some great songs, well, “As Time Goes By,” “Stardust” and “Unforgettable” have to be part of them. They’re not songs that you can just walk on the bandstand and say, “Let’s do ‘Unforgettable,’” because it changes keys three times in the song. And it’s the first time that I’ve ever sang on something before I knew the chords to it. Those are very sophisticated songs, and if you don’t play them right, then you haven’t played them right. So, it was quite an endeavor. It’s not just something we kind of fell off a log and did. It took some thought.

When you tackle songs like “As Time Goes By” and “Unforgettable” or “Stardust,” as a musician, is it difficult for you to come up with something new or do you just sing it the way you feel it?

I just sing it the way I feel it, and if I hear a little bit of Nat King Cole in there, I’m tickled to death, because I’m a real big fan of he and Natalie [Cole] both. I missed a word on “Unforgettable” and didn’t realize it until it was already out, and it highly embarrasses me. But I’m not going to tell anybody where it’s at.

Well, for a first class honky-tonk singer, you sound awfully natural singing these songs. Did it surprise you that they came so naturally to you?

Really, as a child, even before my voice changed, I probably sang more Bing Crosby songs than I did Hank Williams songs. So, I’ve always been a fan of this kind of music.

I think a lot of people who have grown up listening to you have an idea of who they think you are and what your music is. Is it fun for you to sort of defy those stereotypes by doing a project like this?

Yeah, you gotta surprise people, I think. Otherwise, you just got another Merle Haggard record. This strays from the norm in my life and sort of gives way to the new Merle Haggard that we’re creating now at Mike Post’s studio with [producer] Jimmy Bowen. We’re trying to bring the Merle Haggard wrapping up to 2006 standards, and we’re doing a real good job of it.

We were there when you recorded a duet with Toby Keith that Bowen was producing a couple of months ago here in L.A. How did you talk Bowen out of retirement to work on your next country record?

You know, he’s a neat guy. He’s my friend, and we always got along so good together and inspired each other. I just thought all I’d do is ask him, and he said he’d be glad to. He said, “I don’t want to come out of retirement and make a flop.” He said, “I want this damn thing to be good.” I said, “That’s the reason I asked you to do it.” It’s the best record I’ve made in years and years.

How far along are you on it?

We’re nine-tenths of the way done. He wants me to do one more controversial vocal [song]. I’m not sure that we’re going to put that on the record. I’m going to try to talk him out of it. It’s a Merle Haggard album without me bitching about anything. I think that’s a surprise. Bowen says the Merle Haggard fan expects that, and I say, “Well, they’ve got plenty of it already, so why don’t we just do a record that’s totally music?” So we’re in a very small disagreement, and we’ll toss it all up and decide.

We’ve been accustomed to you as a songwriter and a performer saying what you think.

Well, that’s what he says.

In the place you are in your life and career now, what inspires you to write? Do you still feel like you need to be the guy who will say what no one else will say — or do you have a different philosophy about songwriting now?

I’m Merle Haggard, and part of the reason those people pay the ticket price to come and see me, I think, is there’s a possibility they’ll hear a new song. It’s important that I write songs. What good is Merle Haggard without a new song? Mark Twain had to have a new book. I have to have a new song.

How much songwriting do you do these days?

All I can do, and I never have forced anything. I just write what I think is good, and I do it off the cuff and never know when it’s going to happen. I may be on the way to the bandstand, thinking about a show. I’ve had that occur and have six people with a piece of paper writing down lines — and trying to remember the melody — because we were going to have to do a show. A lot of times, they come too fast. I’m not really good at penmanship, and I need help with it sometimes. And then there’s times when I’m alone and, sure enough, I get a chance to sit down with a pencil and my paper and write, “Today I Started Loving You Again.” I wrote that by myself. When you write in that method with that in mind, you never know when it’s going to occur or where you’re going to be.

You were talking about controversial songs, and you’ve had some in the past that have gotten people in an uproar. A couple of years ago “That’s the News” sort of had people talking again. We’re still in this war in Iraq. How do you feel about things now? Do you still hear people talk about that song?

Well, I think “That’s the News” fits better now than it did then. It’s the wrong thing to do, to criticize our president in America anymore. You know, used to, Bob Hope did it every day, but you can’t do it now. When he [President Bush] came down on the ship and said the war was over, I wrote that song that day. Hey, I’m the guy that wrote “Fightin’ Side of Me.” My brother was a Marine who fought in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I’m a warrior, myself. I’m not happy with the way the troops are being treated. I’m not happy with the fact that they’re running out of gas. I think we were told one thing and went to war for another. I think that if George W. Bush would step up to the microphone and say, “Look, we’re going to clear the record and start anew, and here’s what we’re really doing there,” and tell us the truth and give us credit for being the great Americans that we are, I think we could handle it.

Why do you think so many people are afraid to say that out loud?

I don’t know. They’re afraid somebody in a black suit will fly over in a helicopter and come down a damn rope. Now, that’s the truth about it. My wife is afraid for me to get on the mike because she knows that I’ll say what I feel. Well, you know, they got a way of writing you off and calling you a loose cannon just because you say what you feel anymore. Loose cannons are what this country was built on. People that had the balls to stand up and say, “This is not right.” There’s been a whole bunch of things, a whole list of things. I spent three hours talking to [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell one time, and I can see why he resigned. He’s not the type of person that would do things in the way it’s been done. I would have voted for George Bush. I didn’t vote, to be totally honest. I would have voted for him. He’s my man, he’s from Texas, but I’m not sure he could run my band, you know. He had a baseball team, and his dad was president, and I’m glad that his dad was president because I hope he listened to his father. Somebody asked him if he listened to his father, and he said, “I listen to my heavenly father.” I thought so much of my father, I found that insulting and somewhat religious and a little bit syrupy. Sorry.

We’ve lost a lot of our favorite performers over the last few years — Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and Tammy Wynette. You and Willie and Dolly Parton are still going strong. When guys like you and Willie are gone, though, who is going to be the person or the people who step up and take the reigns of traditional country?

I don’t know who’s going to do it. There’s not a lot of real serious acts coming up. George Strait, you know, he’ll come along. He’ll be one of the fathers of the business … and Randy Travis and people like that. There’s some really good kids out there, but they come from a little shallower upbringing somehow. I don’t know if they spent the years on the road that Willie and I have and played the honky tonks and played bass for the other artists before we became artists in our own right and wrote songs for the great people before we became known ourselves. Willie and I have a lot of things to compare. Our lives are very similar. I’m probably Willie’s greatest fan, and I think it’s vice versa. He’s my critic. I played him my new album one time, and he listened to the whole thing, and said, “I don’t hear anything I like.” (laughs)

Really? See, only Willie could get away with that.

I just took that thing and threw it right over in the trashcan. If Willie don’t like it, I ain’t gonna fool with it.

I was at Buck Owens’ birthday party a few months ago, and I asked him if, looking back on his life and career, if there was anything that he would do differently? His answer was so good, I wanted to see what yours would be to the same question.

Yeah, there’s a lot of things I’d change. I owned 25 Wendy’s burger franchises, and would have kept those. (laughs) There were a lot of business mistakes for me. Buck, now he never made a mistake in his life. He’s always been really Johnny on the spot when it comes to the pivotal points of his life. Like, he stepped out of the music thing and went into broadcasting, and he did very good. And that’s an art — knowing when to step off and do something else. I’m just old one-track Haggard, you know. I don’t think that I’d ever make a really good businessman. I’m doing what I should do.

You know what Buck told me his regret was?

What?

He said he regretted that he chased too many women at once.

Too many women at once … there may be a title there. What would we rhyme with once?

I’ll bet we could come up with something.