Sammy Hagar , the former Van Halen member also known as the Red Rocker relaxes in his Northern California home, happily recalls his dad’s love for Hank Williams and ponders just what it means to sing country music.
“I’ve got my feet planted firmly in rock,” Hagar says when asked if including duets with country mainstays like his tequila-jousting chum Toby Keith and Ronnie Dunn means he is destined for country radio.
“I don’t think I’m going country, says Hagar, who turns 66 on Sunday (Oct. 13). “I’m just letting it out.”
What he’s letting out is a little bit of his “my dad was a Hank Williams fan” country heritage in Sammy Hagar & Friends, a new album that takes the “I Can’t Drive 55″ guy to all corners of the musical spectrum. Well, at least all corners as served up Hagar style.
“It’s American music,” says the affable former frontman of what was sometimes referred to as “Van Hagar” after he took over the singing chores for Van Halen when David Lee Roth took a hiatus for a decade or two.
To Hagar, this is just the first volume of songs illustrating the way he sees his career going from this point on: Pursuing different strains of American music and perhaps giving them a little taste of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and dosing it with tequila and rum as flavoring.
“I think you are able to dig into the blues, soul music, country music — which is kind of like folk-blues, anyway,” he says, looking at the menu he’ll be sampling beginning with this album.
“If you wanted to, you could dig into jazz, too, but that’s the only thing I won’t do is jazz,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel down-home enough for me. Maybe it’s always the tuxedo thing and lounge music and the snap in your fingers and having all that swagger.
“And it’s more intellectual,” he adds. “I’m kind of a down-and-dirty sucker. I began with the blues, and the blues is less educated.”
The album includes not only Keith and Dunn, but Kid Rock, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Taj Majal as duet guests — along with many of his sidemen from previous band incarnations. In a way, it’s Hagar’s attempt to study himself as he lives a good life long after his arena superstardom days.
“It’s kind of like what I listen to and my lifestyle now all rolled into this record,” he says. “It’s like if someone said, ‘Who do you think you are?’”
Indeed, he’s no longer the profanity-spewing, guitar-chewing frontman. And instead of dealing with the jealousies of the rock world, he’s immersing himself in other forms of music that are more forgiving and fraternal.
“I wouldn’t ever go back into the studio and try to do another ‘I Can’t Drive 55,’” he says, offering the names of several other hits in his four decades as the Red Rocker.
“It seems like I’ve written 300 or 400 rock anthems,” he says, with a laugh. “I don’t think I’ll ever get any better than I was at screaming and yelling with my fist in the air in the arena. Now I’m spending a lot of time in Cabo, and I’m spending a lot of time in Hawaii and I go on vacations in Tahiti.”
Hagar has mellowed with age and is facing his own mortality with style and grace.
“I’m not trying to become a big rock star … and that whole genre that I did in the ’80s,” he says. “I did it. It was great. It was probably the most fun I had in my life. You can’t do the things I did in Van Halen again — being the rich, famous rock star and playing the role.”
Instead, he’s relishing who he is as time goes by.
“I’m a happy 66,” he says. “It’s so funny that people in rock, pop music are so paranoid … when you are young rock star, about being old or getting married. The coolest thing anyone can do is get old, have your health, have your voice, have your family.”
He takes a sidetrack into the issue of voice.
“When I was young, I would have to sing so high to get my voice to sound raspy,” he says. “I can sing in more range now. I can still hit all those high notes.”
Sure, there comes the screech and rasp of wear and tear, but he says, “I like my voice better now.”
Singing is what he does and what he loves.
“Now, if I couldn’t sing, I’d be bummed on my ass,” he says. “I know a lot of guys my age who can’t sing, and I’m not calling anyone out, but thank God, I can sing. I’m still pretty healthy. I can jump. I can’t quite jump as high or run as fast as I did, but I can play guitar and sing better.”
He’s not putting down the young Sammy. He’s just admitting that that man who takes on Ronnie Dunn on “Bad on Fords and Chevrolets” — and sings a hardcore country version of “Margaritaville” with Toby Keith — is a bit older and slower.
“I’m a professional now,” he says. “When I was younger, I was running around in circles, saying stupid things to the audience. Now I buckle down and kick your ass with a guitar and the voice.”
Hagar says life now “is awesome,” and he’s gained some important perspectives.
“My kids, I appreciate them more,” he says. “I appreciate my life more. I know where I’m at and I know what I want and I know how to get it now. It’s a lot easier as long as you got your health and your faculties.”
This mellower rock icon still sounds like Sammy Hagar, though, even though the material on the record is different.
“I’m coming back to my roots, really,” he says. “I was in blues bands when I was a teenager. I was with Clapton and all of those guys. Then when I was growing up, thanks to my dad, the first music I was exposed to was friggin’ country. We were listening to Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow and even the friggin’ cowboy guy that was the movie star. Not Roy Rogers … the other friggin’ guy … Gene Autry.
“I would be in the car, and my dad would be singing along to all these guys. I’d be standing up in the back and listening to my dad sing and yodel.”