From the mid '60s through the early '80s, Merle Haggard dominated the country charts like no other had before him. Populist anthems such as "Okie from Muskogee" and "Working Man Blues" made him a reluctant spokesperson for the silent majority. His sonorous, Lefty Frizzell-meets-Bing Crosby singing and jazzy electric guitar accompaniments gave him a broad fan base. Everyone from The Grateful Dead to Clint Black has covered Haggard's tunes. Following a mid-'80s nadir — both artistically and personally — Haggard was cast aside by the very industry that he did so much to promote during its lean years when rock 'n' roll ruled the music world. Never one to cower in the face of adversity, the artist has reemerged on punk label Epitaph/Anti- as a leading voice in the insurgent-country movement that is slowly chipping away at the syrupy, Nashville sound propagated by the likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.
Haggard's latest effort, Roots Volume 1, is a stirring collection of uptempo numbers and two-step classics written by country legends Frizzell, Hank Thompson and Hank Williams. The disc evokes the warm feel of an authentic 1950s honky-tonk saloon. The album, recorded live in Haggard's living room, also includes three originals that blend seamlessly with the nine covers.
The catalyst for the album was a chance meeting with Frizzell's original guitarist Norman Stephens, who had been residing less than 20 miles from Haggard for years. "Stephens was the total inspiration for (the album)," affirms Haggard, talking by phone from his home in Northern California. "Basically, what I was trying to do with this album was get around the modern techniques. That's the reason I went into the living room, to get that un-tampered with feel."
Haggard has always been a maverick, but early on his obstinate ways nearly killed his hopes of a music career. The son of an Oklahoma farmer who was forced to head west during the Dust Bowl, Haggard was born in April 1937 in a converted boxcar outside Bakersfield, Calif. At 9, his father died of a stroke and Merle proved too much for his mother to handle. A stormy relationship with the authorities through his teens landed him in San Quentin State Prison by the age of 20. Haggard doesn't trivialize his experience and disdains seeing the harsh realities of incarceration romanticized in literature, film and song.
"I think they make it appear a lot softer, cooler and more appealing than it should be allowed to be shown — there should be truth," Haggard insists.
Following a three-year stay that included a stint in solitary confinement (for brewing his own beer), Haggard was paroled and returned to Bakersfield's blossoming music scene.
"In 1960, when I came out of San Quentin, there were nightclubs and dance halls and all kinds of places for a guy to play. All kinds of barroom music developed because of it," Haggard reminisces. In 1969, at the height of the hippie era, Haggard released "Okie From Muskogee," his biggest hit. During the turbulent Vietnam years, lines such as, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee" made Spiro Agnew smile and put Haggard at odds with a large segment of the country's population.
"(The song) is so tongue-in-cheek and so absolute at the same time, people didn't know how to take it, and they still don't and I'm still wondering myself," admits Haggard. "It was really just more about my father's point of view. He was really the "Okie from Muskogee.'"
As a follow-up, Haggard penned "Irma Jackson," a song that celebrates interracial dating, but his record company, Capitol, refused to release it, opting for the jingoistic "Fighting Side of Me," instead. Haggard says that had Capitol released the single, people would have viewed him for what he truly is, "a writer."
"To be a good writer you have to write things you don't exactly agree with," remarks Haggard. "I wrote "Okie From Muskogee.' That doesn't necessarily mean I agree with that mentality — I just try to report conditions. "Okie from Muskogee' was the condition in 1968 that was not being represented."
The citizens of Muskogee might have been abstaining from weed but that doesn't mean Haggard had never inhaled. "I tried marijuana when I was 23 years old and I didn't like it," emphasizes Haggard. "It made me feel weird and it was another 20 years before I tried it again."
Haggard's tone lightens. "The second time, I couldn't understand what everybody was upset about."
The 1970s and early '80s were very kind to Haggard, with nearly all of his singles charting highly. However, by the end of the Reagan era — having suffered major setbacks, both financially and in his personal life — his career skidded to a halt and he retreated to his houseboat on Lake Shasta with a large cache of drugs.
"It was a most distasteful time in my life and to get away I started using a lot of cocaine," Haggard confesses. In 1993, after spending years straightening out his life (he was forced to sell the publishing rights to his songs to alleviate financial woes), Theresa Lane became Mrs. Haggard. Today, Haggard spends his days with her, caring for their two young children, grocery shopping and doing what he has always done.
"I just play guitar, try to play the fiddle a bit and write songs," muses Haggard. "The best way to describe me — I'm a remote viewer. I've been doing this since 1964, gathering information from different parts of the world."