Merle Haggard: As He Is

Written by April 30th, 2010 at 11:00 am

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“Songwriting gets harder and harder, unless you just want to try to write a better version of what you’ve already done,” said Merle Haggard, 73, sitting in a Middle Tennessee studio and making clear that he wants much more than that.

Meanwhile, hundreds of nearby Nashville songwriters worked in vain to write even passable versions of what Haggard has already done. And what Haggard has done is to create a catalogue of work that is staggering in its size, breadth and brilliance.

Kris Kristofferson, whose own songs transformed the language of country music, calls Haggard “The greatest artist in American music history.” At the very least, Haggard is among the most skilled writers ever to set pen to paper and pick to string, and he has applied working man’s hours to an artist’s mindset. The April release of Vanguard Records’ I Am What I Am brought his career total to 76 albums in his 73 years, and almost all of those works have featured original material. He recorded 30 albums in the first nine years of his career, before he was 38 years-old.

“I’ve seen it all, and I’ve seen it go away,” he sings on the new album detailing the cultural, political and artistic triumphs and failings he’s witnessed in his time. Haggard, though, hasn’t gone away.

“I keep hoping to find a way to write a song that will move up to number one in my gathering of material, one that’s better than anything I’ve ever written,” he said. “That’s what keeps me alive: That hope that I’ll write the song that’ll knock me out and that will be better than ‘Workin’ Man Blues,’ and better than ‘Mama Tried.’ That’s my reason for believing. You know, a lot of times I thought it was all over.”

Over the past couple of years, there were others who thought it might be over. Haggard’s songs remained stout and incisive, but in November of 2008, he underwent surgery to remove cancer on his lung. It was a scary deal for Haggard, his family and his fans, but within two months he was back performing, and within a year he was, he estimates “95 percent recovered.” His recovery time was not down time, as he remained committed to bringing his music out on the road and to writing the songs that are heard on I Am What I Am. This year, he played six shows with Kristofferson, winning raves (The Chicago Sun-Times’ Dave Hoekstra called that pair “The Rembrandt and Picasso” of country music, with Hag taking the Rembrandt tag because of the human portraits he offers in song. And he’ll spent much of this spring and summer traveling, playing concerts with his band, The Strangers, a combo that has been given a youthful shot in the arm from Haggard’s 17-year-old son, Ben Haggard, who has been contributing lead guitar of late.

The Strangers provide most of the backing for the new album, with young Ben sharing guitar duties with Tim Howard. Co-produced by the elder Haggard and longtime collaborator Lou Bradley and recorded at Haggard’s Shade Tree Manor studio in Northern California, I Am What I Am fits comfortably into the immense Haggard catalogue, though any clenched-fisted sentiments found in some of his earlier work has been replaced by a weary, reflective graciousness. Merle Haggard is done shouting, but not done caring. In 1986, he told interviewer Alanna Nash, I’m changing my image… to one who gives a lesser shit than he used to.” Now, though, he sings, “I do what I do, ‘cause I do give a damn.” Changes in politics and music are met not with indignation but with a simple, “I’ve seen it all, and I’ve seen it go away.” And, far removed from his rambling days, he still finds much to provoke his curiosity. For Haggard, life remains the stuff of songs.

“I’ve always known that I was a gifted person,” he said. “I’ve always felt like I would be punished, severely, if I didn’t continue to make use of that gift. It’s very important that you don’t let the muscle get flabby. It’s really hard, as an old human being, to press as much weight as you pressed when you were a kid.”

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  • Jeff

    You did it Hag, “How Did You Find Me Here?” and “Wishing All These Old Things Were New” are a couple of your best tunes ever!

  • http://att Gayle “RAY” Lorren

    Merle I know if you think hard you will remember me I am Will Ray’s daughter and before he and Bill Woods died they did their last radio show together here in Bakersfield. I recorded that show that day not knowing that daddy had cancer and that Bill would pass soon after. I have since put it on CD and it is a real kick because the whole show was about you and your music and a couple of stories here and there. I have a copy for you and my mom Dolores Ray sees your cousin out at the cemmetary and other places and says they will get it to you. I know you will get a real treat out of it even the part that you wrote about playing for dad and his band in the early days. Daddy got a kick out of what you said in your book. Any way we will catch up together sometime and I will get that CD to you.
    Luv you as always, Gayle

  • http://southlandquartet.com stant bradley

    Mr Haggard,
    You are the the greatest.I have been listening to your music since i was old enough to know what country music was and what it means.That has been several years now and i still listen.Don’t ever stop.

  • Barbara Allen

    I hope you realize what an enormous impact you have had on Country Music, and the fans.

    You are without question the ultimate writer, singer and all around entertainer. You have given much!

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  • Joe

    “Mr. Mighty Merle, you indeed sir are the man!!, You’ve done it, seen it and wrote it all sir without a shadow of a doubt. We thank you for your great contribution you have given the country music industry and to all of your fans!!!..

  • Sharnell

    No one quite like the HAG!!!!!! Merle you are the greatest of all.

  • VIRGIL ESSEX

    Merle, Back in 1969 you & I tried to record a song together at you newly built recording studio out on The Kern River with Fuzzy doing the engineering and The Strangers backing us up. Roy Nichols, Jerry Ward, George French,Eddie Burris and Norman Hamlet were all there and the song you were harmonizing with me on was “LET THOSE BROWN EYES SMILE AT ME” written by RUSTY NAIL from Lomita,California. Rose Maddox recorded it on Capitol Records and Roy Nichols back in those day’s played lead guitar for her and was on the recording session. I remember Roy asking Rusty that I’ve heard that tune before somewhere.He had forgot.Roy put the riffs on it to sound like “Mama Hungry Eyes”. I hope that you and I can see each other again in Indiana so I can get you to sign your name on my D-35 Martin Guitar I own. Some day I will give it to my son to play after my passing to the other side.

  • http://home.cogeco.ca/~nroy15 Neil Roy

    Merle, thanks a lot for all your music, but more than that, you have been an inspiration to me ever since I was a child when I first heard your music. They more than entertained me, they instilled within me a certain moral fibre. Imagine my surprise when years later I find out you have more moral fibre than I expected, and I am not talking about your music. My respect has only grown for you and I am certain God has blessed your work.

  • http://americansongspace/robinleefromtn Robin O’Connor

    Love your music Merle.

    Robin O’Connor

  • JIMMY

    ITS NEVER OVER UNTIL THE FAT LADY SING KEEP ROCKING LOVE YOUR SONGS

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