Merle Haggard Explores Another Interesting Year

Projects Include Strait and Wilson Singles, Dylan Tour and Capitol Reissue Series

Currently on the country music chart for writing George Strait’s latest hit and singing guest vocals on Gretchen Wilson’s current single, Merle Haggard recently joined longtime friends Willie Nelson and Ray Price for a recent recording session in Nashville. Add an upcoming tour with Bob Dylan to the schedule, and it’s clear this is shaping up to be a particularly interesting year for the 69-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member.

Still climbing the charts are Strait’s recording of “The Seashores of Old Mexico” and Haggard’s collaboration with Wilson on “Politically Uncorrect.” Haggard and his band, the Strangers, are already touring heavily on their own and will be joining Dylan in April and May for shows in 15 cities.

Last month, Capitol Records reissued 10 newly-remastered versions of Haggard’s classic albums from the ’60s and ’70s. Starting with 1965’s Strangers and running through 1971’s Someday We’ll Look Back, each CD features two entire albums and rare bonus tracks.

In a recent phone interview with, Haggard talked about his early recordings, the state of the nation and why he’s contemplating a move to Australia.

Over the years, how much time have you spent listening to your old records?

As a matter of fact, I spend more time than you might think because we vary [the music] over the years. Ever once in a while, I’ve got to jerk it back to the center of the road. You know, band members change and, there again, I have to go back and teach a particular band member arrangements we did before they were born. (laughs)

About how many songs do your band members need to know how to play?

Most of them come on board knowing, basically, maybe 50 or 100 of my songs. If they don’t have that credibility, then they don’t even get considered. So they know the songs. … We ad lib every show, and we ad lib every song, so you’ve got to vary from where you began. You have to go back and review once in a while.

Most country solo performers these days don’t allow their road bands to become an integral part of their creative process. With you, the band’s always been the key thing.

I was a band member. I started out as a player, and I wanted to play lead guitar. I’m still fighting that. I’m having pain in my back and my legs. I’m getting to be an older gentleman, and it’s hard to play the guitar anymore, but I’m doing special exercises and things to be able to do that. I come from being a player, so I feel slighted every time I notice what you notice — that these young artists don’t seem to come from the same place. It’s a little letdown for me to know that they don’t.

Did you listen to the specific albums Capitol prepared for the reissue series?

Yeah. But right now, I’m preparing a new boxed set of stuff I did before I went to Capitol. I’m recutting some songs. I own my own masters and will be able to reissue those things. And then I’m doing some new songs here, and we’re calling the album The First and the Last. It’s some of the brand new stuff and some of the first stuff in the same set.

Are the old tracks the earliest stuff you recorded for Tally Records?

It’s the Tally stuff. There’s about 12 or 13 sides that are really good. It was published by Fuzzy Owen and is not owned by Sony. (laughs) A lot of politics involved there. Where the money is issued from and who makes the money means something to me now.

As you hear the old records, what are your observations?

Well, it was before tuners. A lot of us were out of tune, but people didn’t seem to be so critical of that issue back then. Now everything is perfect, and you don’t know who can sing — and who can’t — because they’ve got those electronic tuners that take care of them if they happen to rip a note. (laughs) It’s really not fair. It’s almost like steroids. It’s the same thing, you know.

The Tally sides were recorded in Bakersfield. Do you remember your first sessions at Capitol’s studio in Hollywood?

Very plainly. Like yesterday. They were glorious years. It was a time when the Beatles had just come to America. Buck Owens had just changed country music all around and sort of went rockabilly. George Jones was knocking a home run every time. Johnny Cash was the biggest draw in the United States. It was a great time for me to change my life around. I had been a rebel up until then. I just put my life on track and decided I was going to try to do that. … Capitol — where Johnny Mercer and Frank Sinatra and all those people had put that record company together — was just the right place for me because they liked me, too. The Rat Pack liked me. I grew up in Vegas, across town from them, and they used to send requests over to me. Certain songs that they couldn’t do, and they’d say, “There’s a guy working with Wynn Stewart who can sing them songs for you.” So we got to be friends, and I got on their label.

Did the recordings start taking on a different sound when Ken Nelson started producing you?

A lot of things occurred. We came out of a little backroom, garage-like studio in Bakersfield that was very inferior to what was located at Capitol. It was the biggest, probably the most advanced studio in the world. It went from that little dinky deal to the biggest deal. Ken was very cooperative. He didn’t step in and say, “OK, you have to do it this way.” The only thing he said was what was necessary, and that was, “Are you in tune?” So things started to be closer in tune because of Ken Nelson. We hired more credible musicians. I reached out in all directions and found the best I could find, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin and Roy Nichols and Glen Campbell and Ralph Mooney. Let’s see, Lewis Talley. There was a drummer then who’s not around anymore — Jimmy Gordon [who later worked with Eric Clapton in Derek & the Dominos]. Just a tremendous drummer.

You also had your band members playing on some of the sessions. Getting back to what we talked about earlier, most of the younger artists these days now only record with session musicians.

And you wind up with the whole [radio] station sounding alike. It’s a piece of this, then they pinch off some more. It all has the same feel and the same energy. And it’s all good. Except pretty soon, there’s too much ice cream. That’s the way it affects me.

Some of the bonus tracks on the reissue series are a revelation. Was the alternate version of “The Fugitive” a demo?

We cut it four times, in four different locations. I cut in Ohio one time. I cut it in Bakersfield. I cut it someplace else. And none of them came close to the cut that went out as the major cut. Some things are magic. Some days are diamonds.

You reunited with one of your old producers, Jimmy Bowen, last year for the Chicago Wind album. Was that a one-shot deal?

It was a two-shot deal. We have that album and another album to do for Capitol. And then they have an option for a couple more, if they choose.

You managed to stir up a little bit of controversy on Chicago Wind with the songs “Where’s All the Freedom” and “Rebuild America First.”

I wonder why. (laughs)

At this point, does it surprise you that people are still discussing where you stand politically?

I’ll tell you what it does: It irritates me to the point where I’m never going to say anything about my politics again. I’m really irritated and disappointed, in lots of ways, in this country and the mentality that they’ve displayed having to do around this war. I can’t believe they’re taking it so lightly and believing every lie they’re told. I just don’t understand what’s happening, except I do know that the rug’s being pulled out from under us. And if people don’t see it, I’m sorry for them, but I’m going to stop talking to them about it.

In watching the morning news shows, it’s amazing how emphasis is on celebrities, rather than bigger issues. You also addressed that subject in another song, “That’s the News.” You’ve been in the public eye a lot. What’s your take on America’s fascination with celebrities?

Celebrities are treated different. This country is a hypocrite. It claims to be fond of [the concept that] everyone is created equal. That’s how we base our beliefs. But look at the reality and see who’s popular and who gets the breaks — and you’re looking at celebrities. And that’s a matter of fact. As to why it is, I don’t know. That’s another piece of humanity I’m not fond of.

Have you seen Walk the Line?

I was real close to Johnny Cash and June Carter. The Carter Family were like family to me. No, I haven’t. I’ve been afraid to. I don’t think there’s anybody they could put on that screen who could measure up to those people in my heart. They’d miss the entire point.

Do you think anybody will make a movie of your life?

That’s been talked about for a long time. I hope so. I hope they do. We’ve got a real interesting story. It’s possible.

Have you thought about who you’d want to portray you?

Yeah, but they’re all too old. (laughs) My great heroes are all gone — Marlon Brando, James Dean or somebody like that.

How’s your health? In November, you had to cancel your concert with the Rolling Stones in Dallas.

I have a fungal pneumonia problem that I deal with. But I’ve got it beat back in the bushes, and it’s all right. It’s a thing that’s going on throughout America, and people aren’t aware of. There’s a lot of mold, and people’s houses are being destroyed by it. People are losing their health, and I’m one of those unfortunate people. I live in the Northwest where it’s damp and moldy, and I’m fixing to get out and move to the desert somewhere. Get out there around the middle of Australia or something.

Are you serious?

Yeah, I’m going to have to get where it’s dry. I can’t put up with the dampness anymore as I get older.

But outside the U.S.?

I don’t know. If they keep acting the way they are, I may have to. Who are we looking to lead us when this regime is over? I mean, who’s the next guy? What’s going to happen? What are we going to do with these people over there that won’t follow the rules as a nuclear power? Are we lord of the world, and do we have enough money, and do you want to be part of it?

So Australia is looking good to you?

There’s a lot of countries that would welcome me and my family. That guy that was governor — Jesse Ventura — what did he find out? What did he discover, going from a layman to the level that he went to — and then coming out of there with the attitude he had just because he was honest? What did he discover that we don’t know?

Have you been watching Kinky Friedman’s gubernatorial campaign in Texas?

That’s a joke. I think he’s a joke, but he’d probably be better than any of the alternatives. (laughs) I like Kinky, but he’s just a joke to me. I think that’s funnier than hell. If he’s president, David Allan Coe ought to be vice president.

Calvin Gilbert has served as’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.