If Merle Haggard hadn't lived his life, he would have had to turn it into a song. Born in California to immigrants from Oklahoma, Haggard was left fatherless at 9, taught himself to play guitar at 12, and became a runaway at 14. His early career as a musician coincided with some run-ins with the law, one of which led to a stint in San Quentin. Released early in 1960, he began working by day and performing at night, eventually finding his way into the then-burgeoning Bakersfield scene, a hard-edged strand of country that contrasted sharply with the smooth countrypolitan dominating Nashville at the time. Haggard first hit the charts in 1963 with "Sing A Sad Song," and quickly became one of the most popular country artists of the '60s and '70s. He didn't write many of his early hits ("Sam Hill," et al), but if his career ended tomorrow, he would still be remembered for writing "Mama Tried," "I Threw Away," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Big City," "Hungry Eyes," and many other unusually direct and honest songs that never attempt to distance Haggard from his blue-collar roots. The hits kept coming throughout the next decade, but with the late-'80s arrival of the new Nashville sound, Haggard and many of his contemporaries were plagued by industry indifference. His distress further complicated by drugs and financial difficulties, Haggard finally got his finances and personal life under control in the early '90s. But he ran into further trouble when he signed to the Curb label: Haggard charges intentional sabotage on the part of his bosses, and the release of his albums in nondescript, graphic-free covers with no promotion and titles like 1994 and 1996 would seem to back him up. Last year, the Merle Haggard story took another unexpected turn. Signed to Anti, a division of the punk-dominated Epitaph label, Haggard released If I Could Only Fly, a sonically spare, stylistically diverse, and thoroughly winning effort that found Haggard, 63, in a reflective mood that extended into a recent interview with The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: A lot of people were surprised to see you signed to Anti. How did you end up there?
Merle Haggard: Maybe by accident. They called, and then somebody… it was their design. They came to me and asked me what I'd been doing, and was I fixing to sign with somebody or was I gonna stay with my own label. I had my own label, and they knew that. I said, "You know, it depends on what people offer. I'm just not really interested in a bad contract right now." I liked the fact that they were associated with punk rock and all that, because really, at the time I signed with 'em, I was really pissed off at country music. Not because they wouldn't play my music [on the radio], but I was pissed off at the music they were playing. There's a difference, and it doesn't make a difference whether they play me or not.
O: If they weren't playing you, but they were playing good music, that would be okay?
MH: Yeah, if there was something better than what I had being played, I'd be happy, but there ain't. They don't even give the public a chance to decide. We're turning into the society that is accepting the force-feed. I don't quite understand why we're going for the things we're going for. There's no process of elimination anymore in music. They have these grooming schools, these things, and they're turning out these clones, and the music is sounding so refined that it's not even interesting.
O: I couldn't tell you what country music is at this point.
MH: I wouldn't have a clue. I wouldn't know if a guy was a country artist or where to classify him. And there are so many conditions to programming in America, where it's dominated by these people that own 800 stations that have no idea who to play and who not to play, and they listen to somebody or read somebody else's programming sheet and go by Buck Owens' opinion or something. Eight hundred stations are controlled by some guy that doesn't have a clue as to what to do about music.
O: It could be argued that when you first came on the scene, country music was in kind of a crisis, too. There was a refined countrypolitan sound that…
MH: I don't think it's ever been in the crisis it's in now. The city of Nashville, Tennessee, as far as music, is kaput. There's no music industry down there. The Grand Ole Opry is on the verge of closing its doors, and they've been in existence since 1925 or so. On the other hand, the city of Austin is becoming the maverick center of music on the climb, but Nashville… Nashville is really at its lowest moment right now. I hate to even pick on 'em and bring it to the public's attention, but it is a fact. And it's all because of 10 years of force-feeding the public instead of giving them what they want. The radio stations are in trouble, and the people that buy the talent and whatnot, that make a living buying talent, have all went broke. [Promoters] aren't going to buy music this year at the fairs; they're gonna buy tractor-pulling, because they spent millions of dollars in the last decade buying talent that nobody'd heard of. They'd spend $150,000 on some guy that had one hit, and he'd come out and do a medley of his hits, and it just didn't sit well with people.
O: You've said that one big draw in signing with Anti was they didn't want to make any changes to what you've done. Was that a big problem at other labels?
MH: [Curb Records head Mike] Curb, for example, had an idea. He wanted me to record with what he called "a hot Nashville band." That hot Nashville band was collectively put together from everywhere, New York to L.A., but it was funny. Anyway, that's the way he put it. So I'd been there and done that, and I didn't want to do that again, and that's sort of what I meant by what I told them, that I'm not interested in anybody that wants me to record. What music I have has already been recorded, and it's either good or it's bad and it lays there, one way or the other. In other words, you take what I got to sell. I've already recorded. I'm not going to go somewhere and record.
O: If I Could Only Fly was recorded at your home studio, right?
MH: Yeah. We just… I've had my own studio for 20 years, and I've made a lot of hits, and when the Garth Brooks thing happened in '89, it was sort of like they said, "Hey, let's get rid of the rest of the old cocksuckers and get them out of here, too." It was like the whole business turned around and went in another direction. Guys like me were just kind of pitched out to pasture.
O: On the other hand, with your album and Johnny Cash's three American albums and Dolly Parton's last couple of albums, there's been a nice back-to-the-roots movement.
MH: Yeah, there has. It's been enjoyable to be part of it and be alive and see it happen. I didn't think it would, but I'm happy with the reaction we're getting. We're overwhelmed, in fact, with business. If there's any problem in my house right now, it's time. I've got a little family and a real hot career, and it couldn't be any better. Sales are good on If I Could Only Fly. Worldwide, it's doing well. It's consistent. There doesn't seem to be any decline. It's just sitting there steady, selling. It probably won't put us in the number-one slot, but we're gonna stay down there around 35 or 40 for a long time. It has to do with the fact that we're not on the cutting edge of all the shit that's going on, so it's almost a word-of-mouth thing before record sales. But the word-of-mouth thing is strong enough to sell a substantial amount, to make these people interested in coming to my house.
O: Would you say If I Could Only Fly is more autobiographical than most of your albums, or less?
MH: It's mostly always that way. If I write the songs, it's something about me, something I've done. I find that more successful than writing poetry. Putting melody to poetry is sort of what they do a lot of times. I try to come up with a concept and have a real thought that makes the difference, or some sort of a lesson or something that's married to a good melody that's enjoyable to hear.
O: Is it easier to write songs about getting wasted, or to write songs about staying sober?
MH: There's songs… I don't sit down and sweat out songs. I'm not a sweater. I don't get up in the morning and say, "Okay, I'm gonna try to write two lines by noon." I just try to keep the channels open. Things I write are impulsive, and I have stacks of songs all over the house, and it's just a very impulsive thing that I do. They come, I write the whole thing in a matter of minutes, and then I may improve upon it, but usually it's verbatim what will happen at the session. People say they want to get together with me and write, and I say, "I don't know how you could do that, because I don't know when I'm gonna write, and I'm not gonna sit around and wait. When I get an idea to write, I'm gonna call you up and say, 'Hey, I'm ready to write'? I'm not gonna do that, so how in the hell are we gonna write together?" It's just sort of silly, the way they go. They meet at nine in the morning, and they'll pair off in pickups, and come back at five in the afternoon and see what they've written. That's exactly what the music sounds like to me, like they wrote them in pickups. There's never any credibility involved in that. It's just copy this and copy that, steal this and steal that.
O: I liked the diversity of If I Could Only Fly. Was that by design, or just the way it happened?
MH: Those were probably the best 11 cuts I had that made sense in continuity together. Some of them were collected over a period of three or four years. I sort of culled out the bad fish and kept the best. Just a minute. [To his wife.] Oh, God, that gray computer's down again. Suppose they'll ever get them things figured out? Give me one when they quit breaking down, will you? All right, sir, we're back on.
O: You've cut tribute albums to Jimmy Rodgers and Bob Wills. How important is it for artists to pay dues to their inspirations? Do you think enough people today do that?
MH: I don't know. It was enjoyable for me. I've just sort of stumbled through my career enjoying it, rather than… If I had a choice, and there was a "Y" in the road, I would always take the one that was more fun as opposed to the one that might make me more money. So in some ways, that was not agreeable in most cases to the people in charge of my money. There was a lot of maverick in me and my career. I just didn't do things the way I was supposed to do them. I don't really fit any mold. I grew up playing music in a beer-joint band, playing guitar to make some extra money, and I was an electrician. I worked five days a week, and I started playing guitar in clubs back when America was still free and you could go out at night. You could have a fistfight outside the beer joint and no one was carrying a gun. Back when I was living my life.
O: Since the '70s, you've been writing nostalgic songs like "That's The Way It Was In '51." Do you find that you get more nostalgic or less nostalgic as you get older?
MH: Oh, I think you get more nostalgic, because the things that you'll do in life… The margins of success are set at some time in your life, and you peak out maybe around 42, or somewhere between there and 50. I think I probably did. Then you start looking back on your own life, on the records you've broken and whatever. I'm sure that great golfers look back on a better score, and it's no different with entertainers. We're probably more like sports figures. There's a certain amount of reserve energy that has to be available for me to perform and do it the way it's right. When I get to the age that I can't hit the stage with that sort of fire, then I'm gonna leave. That's where I'm gonna call it off.
O: But for now you're happy to stay on the road, right?
MH: Well, I'm really happy to stay off the road, but I can't afford to do that, because if I let the chops get too far down, I wouldn't be able to sing and play guitar and do what I do, and then what the hell good would I be?
O: How do you stay in touch with your working-class roots?
MH: I just follow my nose, and instead of letting someone run my affairs and probably make me wealthy within a matter of years, I've just kept the board of directors down to zero. I make all the decisions, and they can't all be right, and my lifestyle is very expensive, so that means I have to work a lot. It's the opposite side of the coin from sinking back into the recliner and becoming somebody they bury.
O: If you had to choose three songs to be remembered by, which three would you choose?
MH: "Working Man Blues," "Big City," and "Mama Tried."
O: Why those?
MH: I don't know why those. I guess that was just an impulsive answer. I wanted to be honest.
O: Here's a question you probably haven't gotten in a while. What can you tell me about working on the 1967 movie Hillbillies In A Haunted House?
MH: Oh, it was a gas. It was just a bunch of fun, and it wasn't really anybody seriously trying to make a film, I don't think. It was just somebody had some money and put up some money back in those days for the damn film, and we all shot it. Nobody thought it was gonna win an Oscar or anything.
O: How do you feel about being closely identified with the politics of "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side Of Me" now?
MH: Oh, I must have been an idiot. It's documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time, and I mirror that. I always have. Staying in touch with the working class… but it's pretty easy to lie to me. You could lie to me. They had me in a film called Wag The Dog because of "Okie From Muskogee" and my close scrutiny of the people that are being shitted. I've become self-educated since I wrote that song. But it still has a very timely description.
O: You were expressing how a lot of people felt.
MH: That's what I'm saying. That's the collective demeanor of America at the time.
O: Do you feel that those songs and the controversy over them limited your audience?
MH: I'm sure it did. And there, again, I made mistakes, because I didn't have anybody saying, "Well, you shouldn't do this. You shouldn't do that. You know, you might not should do that, because you've got this good career going, and you've got this flow. Step out here and make a political opinion, and you're gonna be classified an idiot." I probably could have avoided a lot of this, had I had someone managing me that… I had a manager, but he didn't really try to get involved in my feelings on things. He always let me go.
O: Did you vote in the last election?
MH: Yeah, yeah, I did. And I don't know, I wasn't happy with the count myself. I thought it was pretty damn obvious that we had a situation there where it made no difference what the American public thought. They intended to be in office, and they are in office. That's the bottom line, and we've been manipulated. I feel really violated as a citizen.
O: Are you working on a new album now?
MH: Always working on a new album. I've been doing that for somewhere close to… I think we've got somewhere about 80 albums. Compilations and all, over 100 albums now.
O: And you put out stuff through your web site, too, right?
MH: We're doing our best to have the most desired web site in the world, and sell all of our goods like everybody else is trying to do. And, of course, the competition is great, but the opportunity's vast. I'm not educated about computers, and I don't have any business talking about them, but they're upon us, and it looks like they're gonna make us educate ourselves to deal with them.
O: It seems like a good thing that people can market directly to fans that way.
MH: There's many things you can do if you have the time to reduce everything down to where it's worthwhile to spend your day sitting there doing it. I guess a guy like me has to talk about hiring a roomful of people to look at one of those computers. You see these rooms where somebody, some guy, some entrepreneur has got a bunch of people in there watching the computers. It's kind of funny to me, actually. Then they'll have on a cell phone at the same time. They'll be reading e-mail and talking to somebody on a cell phone and getting paid, by God.
O: I saw on your web site that you're selling a picture of you with Smokey The Bear. How did that come about?
MH: They just came to me and found me to be a real live patriotic American that they wanted to take a picture with, and I was honored. I was one of, I think, about 100 celebrities. There were a lot of different people, John Wayne, people like that, that they took pictures with. They took everybody from John Wayne to Mickey Mouse, so Merle Haggard was somewhere in between that.
O: Are you still a spokesman for George Dickel whiskey?
MH: No, George Dickel sold to a big conglomerate, and they no longer… they're not interested in doing things like they used to. Another one of those sad stories.
O: Actually, that was probably a better endorsement deal than George Jones'. I never quite understood why he endorses dog food.
MH: Well, 'cause they wrote him a check, bottom line.
O: You and George Dickel just seemed a more appropriate match.
MH: Well, whiskey, I really believed in what I was selling. I really… I think George Dickel is absolutely the best Tennessee mash whiskey. It's my understanding that Jack Daniel's was an attempt to try to take the recipe of George Dickel to a commercial state of reproducing it. Whereas they couldn't do that with George Dickel, because in order to make it the way they make it, they would have had to repeat too many different formulas. It would have been impossible. They did certain things at certain temperatures in a certain kind of water. So I went down there and looked at their distilleries and saw what they were doing, saw the difference between that and Jack Daniel's, and I couldn't believe it. You take George Dickel and you pour it over ice and hold it up to the light, and it won't separate. But if you take Jack Daniel's and do that, hold it up to the light, you'll notice that the corn oil starts separating from the whiskey, because it hasn't been married at the correct temperature. When you go down and have this education thrown upon you, and then you drink it—everybody got drunk when we was taking pictures. It was about 20 girls and about 20 guys, and we're all down in this creek drunk with two fists of George Dickel apiece, and we all stayed over and had breakfast together, and not a one of us had a hangover.
O: That's an endorsement right there.
MH: I thought, man, I was meant to see that for some reason. It was true. And since then, I have a shot of George Dickel within heart-attack range at all times, for reasons of being 63 years old.
O: You must like somebody who plays country music now. Do you like anyone out there?
MH: Oh, shit, I like a lot of them. I'm just kidding you. I like these Dixie Chicks. I like them a whole lot. I'm more into Dwight Yoakam than I would be somebody younger than that. I've heard a couple things I really liked on the air by new artists in the last year. I don't know what their names were, but there was a delightful improvement in creativity in the couple records I heard this year.
O: Do you think country music will turn itself around?
MH: I don't think so. I think this particular music is gonna die just like rock 'n' roll died, and something else moved in. Something else will overtake it. There'll be people that will last who came out of this decade, but there won't be many. Garth Brooks is about all they'll remember 50 years from now. Let's be honest: This is the Garth Brooks period, and we're still recovering. There hasn't been anybody who really went out there and grabbed the mic in the last couple years. There's been a couple of groups, like The Backstreet Boys… What's this other one?
O: 'N Sync.
MH: Yeah, 'N Sync. But who the fuck is 'N Sync? What guy are you gonna remember? Will there be a Ringo Starr in that group or not? I don't know. I wonder about it.