MATERIAL MATTERS : Merle Haggard Thinks of Himself as the Competition, Not Newer Country Stars

Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Like a lot of people in the recessionary 1990s, Merle Haggard has had to cope with the workin' man blues. As one of the greatest singer-songwriters in country music history, Haggard will likely never be out of a job--at least not as long as he has the strength and inclination to keep on playing his music. At 56, he maintains a busy touring schedule, including two shows tonight at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa.

But it has been three years since Haggard's last album (not counting reissues), an unprecedented dry spell for an artist whose name first appeared on the country music charts in 1963 a month after John F. Kennedy died.

Speaking over the phone recently from his home in Palo Cedro, a Northern California town outside Redding, Haggard said that business haggling with his label, Curb Records, has been the primary cause of his recording drought. At the same time, he has been trying to resolve tax problems that landed him in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Haggard said he is selling the publishing rights to his catalogue to raise cash to satisfy the tax debt.

That double dose of the blues appears to be lifting, though. If all goes well, Haggard said, the bankruptcy will be settled and his differences with Curb smoothed out early next month.

"We've been at bay legally," he said of his thorny relations with the record company. "We just got in a spitting match for two or three years, and now it looks like we've come to an agreement, and we won't get into a mess again. In the senior years of my life, I really don't need all this."

Curb has tentatively scheduled an early October release for Haggard's next album, which he plans to call "Way Back in the Mountains."

(A Curb representative issued this statement: "There are no legal issues between Curb Records and Merle Haggard. Merle has delivered a new album for us, one we're very excited about.")

Haggard says he has a bit more recording to do before the record is finished, but he is upbeat about it.

"I was working with new people who inspired the songwriting nerve," he said. "At my age, that's a nice nerve to have stimulated. It's easy to get groggy and not want to say too much."

Haggard, a polite, low-key conversationalist, is full of praise for Max D. Barnes, the veteran Nashville songwriter with whom he wrote most of the album. Barnes' credits include Vince Gill's 1992 hit, "Look at Us," and Vern Gosdin's 1989 single, "Chiseled in Stone"--both co-written with the respective singers, and both awarded song-of-the-year honors by the Country Music Assn.

Haggard says he has to be inspired to write songs; he can't report to an office and begin to write, as do so many of the songsmiths who feed the contemporary country mill.

"I don't sit down and sweat songs out. Something has to turn my head to make me want to write about it and develop it," he said. "My association with Max has stimulated that. He's about my age, and started trying to write songs like me 30 years ago. He's a Merle Haggard protege, and I've been watching him do some of the best things that have been done lately. I think the proof is in the new album."

The past few years have been difficult for Hall of Fame-caliber country singers of Haggard's generation. While a new wave of stars has reached a widening country audience, scoring unprecedented sales, such veterans as Willie Nelson and George Jones, both old duet partners of Haggard, have gotten only middling results from their current releases. Consumed with the hot and the new, country radio programmers are prone to ignore what's still good about the old and the influential. As fundamental a country artist as Johnny Cash recently saw the handwriting on the wall and abandoned Nashville in favor of a new record deal with Def American, an alternative rock label.

Haggard, though, doesn't see the new country stars as his chief competitors for airplay attention. Instead, he says, the fellow he must outdo is named Merle Haggard. The problem, as he sees it, is that radio stations willing to play his stuff will be only too happy to play the old favorites (a catalogue of more than 60 Top 10 hits) unless he gives them something exceptional to supplant them.

"It's not Alan Jackson and Clint Black" who pose an obstacle, he said, citing two of the younger stars he has influenced. "Those guys are in my camp. They'd do anything to get a hit for me. The only reason (to get airplay) is if we (write) a hit song. It's foolish for me to put out a record if it doesn't have a chance to be better than anything I did. I'm (working on) a record that has the potential. If so, it will have the chance to get airplay like I did before."

Haggard's producer this time is James Stroud, who has had recent successes with Tracy Lawrence, one of those hot country newcomers, and John Anderson, a veteran who had suffered through a long drought until last year, when the Stroud-produced "Seminole Wind" album became a million-seller and reignited his career.

Stroud's method of record-making is "a different, younger approach than I'm used to," said Haggard, who produced his previous album, "Blue Jungle," at his own recording studio in Palo Cedro with members of his touring band, the Strangers. "It's more like you would hear out of Tracy Lawrence, or some of the things John Anderson has done. But (what matters) is not the drum sound or whether it sounds like Tracy Lawrence's band. What decides if it's a hit or miss is the subject matter of the material, the song."

Haggard doesn't write piffle. His songs have always been socially aware and caked with the dust of hard-won experience. Songs about fugitives and prison inmates helped launch him during the 1960s, and it was a subject Haggard sang about from first-hand experience: A youthful life of petty crime landed him in San Quentin at the age of 20, for a stay of nearly three years.

Haggard also has written his share of nuggets about shattered romance and solace sought on a bar stool--with "Swinging Doors" and "The Bottle Let Me Down," both from 1966, among the best the genre has to offer.

"I don't drink, in contrast to a lot of public (speculation)," Haggard said. "It may be (because of) the songs I've recorded that fit in with being a heavy drinker or an alcoholic, which I'm not. I dealt with a little cocaine back in the early '80s. I got into that and back out of it with my life. I've touched it all, but fortunately, I don't think I got burned too bad."

Haggard said he even gave up a lifelong cigarette habit two years ago. If his upcoming album does become a hit, he won't be toasting his success with champagne.

"I'm a hypoglycemic and a borderline diabetic, and I can't do that," he said. "I can't eat too much ice cream. One time I ate a piece of cake and champagne, and went on stage at Harrah's and blacked completely out for about 30 seconds. The rest of the band didn't notice, so I guess I can do it in my sleep."

Haggard's personal history qualifies him to sing the blues that people who are economically hard-pressed know. His parents were Dust Bowl migrants who came from Oklahoma to Bakersfield during the Great Depression; his childhood home was a converted railroad car. His father died when Haggard was 9.

"Mama Tried" only slightly fictionalized Haggard's youth as a rambling, nigh-incorrigible runaway and eventual jailbird; "Hungry Eyes" was a deeply personal tale based on his family's deprivation.

He hasn't stopped identifying with the down-and-out. Haggard's 1990 album, "Blue Jungle," included two songs sympathizing with the plight of the homeless. The economy has gotten worse since then, and Haggard hasn't stopped taking note of it. The new song that he's chosen as the first single from his next album is "In My Next Life."

"It deals with the heartland loss of the farm," Haggard said. "A farmer tells his wife he realizes he's been pretty much of a failure in this life, but 'In my next life, I want to be your hero.' "

In "Workin' Man Blues," a signature song from 1969, Haggard wryly described the considerable pressures and small pleasures of a hard-pressed wage-earner trying to support a family. The song did include one line with a hard, declarative edge: "I ain't never been on welfare, and that's one place I won't be."

Those were the days when even a menial job could keep a person clothed, fed and sheltered. Nowadays, with once-secure jobs disappearing, there are few who can afford to turn down a government unemployment check on principle and hope to stay solvent at the minimum wage.

"I'm not sure I would write that same line today. I don't think it's good to be that gung-ho now," Haggard said. "A guy couldn't sing it with much sincerity these days. The song still brings nice applause, but now that you bring it up, I may rewrite that verse."

Haggard also has some ambivalence about "Okie From Muskogee." In that 1969 song, Haggard bluntly repudiated the sweeping onrush of change around him, and reaffirmed small-town values:

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee.

We don't take our trips on LSD.

We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street,

We like living right and bein' free.

"I'm a kind of person who tries to understand both sides of the coin," Haggard said. "But I was trying to say something about being proud to be an American in spite of the conditions"--the domestic turmoil that the (Vietnam) war touched off. "There's something to be said for the person in the middle of America who likes things the way they are."

Now Bill Clinton, war protester, draft avoider and butt of marijuana jokes, sits in the White House, having survived a campaign in which the GOP tried to paint him as the sort of person Haggard was lampooning in "Okie From Muskogee" and its even more reactionary sequel, "The Fightin' Side of Me" (in that one, Haggard sang, "I read about some squirrely guy who says he just don't believe in fightin'/And I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on bein' free.").

"I don't know what to think about Bill Clinton," Haggard said. "I'm still in Bill Clinton research. His intentions are great, I think the guy's sincere. But (concerning) his views back in those days, I'd be the last to want to bring up more of that argument. I'd like to see America outgrow the attitude (of polarization) that developed in the Vietnam War. It was one of the worst conditions, as far as morale, in American history. I don't want to talk about Bill Clinton's problems in that area. I'd like to see Bill Clinton succeed. I'd like to see him surprise all of us."

This leads to the ambivalence Haggard feels now about "Okie From Muskogee."

"There's no way to escape some of the return (of that era's internal strife) when you hear that song," he said. "What it does is conjure up some sort of memory we'd like to forget.

"But there's still some good in reminding us how stupid we were," Haggard added--meaning not that the traditional values proclaimed in "Okie" are stupid, but that it was harmful for the country to become so rancorously divided along cultural lines. "The song does that: 'Oh man, look how we thought about certain things back then. After 20 years, it's not worth bringing up.' "

In any case, Haggard keeps singing the song that, love it or leave it, historians of the era will long examine as they try to capture the fever-pitched feelings of the 1960s. Haggard's fans tend to love it.

"A great many ticket buyers want to hear it, and you offend them if you don't do their song," he said. He recalls a discussion about "Okie" with pal Willie Nelson: "I said, 'Sometimes I wished my entire career had been the same, but without "Okie From Muskogee." It caused a lot of controversy that might have been harmful.' Willie Nelson said, 'If you don't want to sing it, I'll be glad to put it in my shows.' Somebody has to sing it, and I guess I'm the likely guy, since I wrote it."

Haggard was a boy when he started playing guitar and writing songs, inspired by Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers (he has recorded tribute albums to both influences). He says he got no encouragement at home.

"It wasn't (considered) a way to make a living. It was pretty much looked down upon, even in my family. My family was of Christian beliefs, and very leery of musicians. One of my favorite uncles said to my mother, 'If you want that boy to amount to anything, you'd better take that guitar out of his hands.' My brother said the same thing: 'You can't be a musician; go to school.' Sometimes those things that are said around kids stimulate their motivation: 'I'm going to prove them wrong.' "

In the end, Haggard said, he pursued music not to prove anybody wrong, but because he had concluded, during his stretch in San Quentin, that it was the only way he could stay out of prison for good.

"If it hadn't been for music, I'd have been back (in prison)," he said. "Music pulled me out of the rut, allowed me to meet people who could help me."

When he emerged from prison in his early 20s, "I was a second-rate musician capable of hiring out to a beer joint, maybe, and that's where I went. I was digging ditches in the daytime, and had a four-nights-a-week gig making $10 a night at High Pockets in Bakersfield. My education and my musical training came from my association with better and better players. I got lucky in that area, meeting some of the finer players" on a scene that already had launched Buck Owens. "They liked my voice enough to put up with my playing long enough to teach me how to play."

In "A Bar in Bakersfield," from the "Blue Jungle" album, Haggard portrays a fellow who, having helped to forge the rocking Bakersfield country sound, chooses to stay home and work steady bar gigs rather than go on the road in search of fortune and fame.

"It was written about a guy named Red Simpson who has lived like a millionaire all his life, and never had much money," Haggard said. "When I was busting my ass digging ditches with my brother" after getting out of prison, Simpson was "playing three nights a week with Buck Owens. He wasn't always a success at what he did, but he lived like he was." (Simpson did co-write some of Owens' hits, earning a footnote in music history.)

At the start, all Haggard wanted for himself was to be a local success, making a living by playing music in his hometown, like the character in "A Bar in Bakersfield."

"That was the way I intended to spend my life, and things got much bigger. There's a lot you lose when things get bigger. (Red Simpson) could have been part of history in a larger magnitude" if he had gone on the road, looking for the brass ring. "I'm not sure he didn't make the better decision."

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