Q & A With Merle Haggard


With two tribute albums appearing coincidentally at the same time, country music great Merle Haggard may seem to be experiencing a sudden resurgence -- not that he notices. That old highway don't change much to Merle.

He is not particularly happy that his old records are finally seeing the light of day on CD. He didn't authorize -- nor does he particularly approve of -- the new compact discs of his vintage recordings. A two-disc set of greatest hits, ``The Lonesome Fugitive: The Merle Haggard Anthology (1963-1877),'' is new from Razor and Tie, a small East Coast label that leased his vintage Capitol Records masters, and his 1968 classic double-record tribute to country music forefather Jimmie Rodgers, ``Same Train, A Different Time,'' has recently been reissued by Koch International.

But the tribute records, well, that's a different matter. Haggard, who was finally inducted last October into the Country Music Hall of Fame, walks like a giant through the pages of country music history.

Haggard, raised outside of Bakersfield, has the voice of everyman. He has written so many songs that will last as long as country music -- ``Mama Tried,'' ``I Take a Lot of Pride In What I Am,'' ``Sing Me Back Home,'' ``Swinging Doors,'' ``The Bottle Let Me Down,'' ``White Line Fever'' -- it is not surprising that only one song is duplicated on the two tribute albums.

``Mama's Hungry Eyes'' is a product of Arista Records, a personal project for Arista- Nashville president Tim DuBois, who brought together such big names from contemporary country to sing Haggard's songs as Brooks and Dunn, Clint Black, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, Alabama, Randy Travis, Vince Gill, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, John Anderson and Marty Stuart.

But ``Tulare Dust'' is a different matter. Produced by spunky little Hightone Records of Oakland, this tribute collects Haggard fans from the ranks of the underside of today's folk and country, mavericks from the fringes of the rock and country worlds such as Marshall Crenshaw, Dave Alvin, John Doe, Lucinda Williams, Joe Ely, Peter Case and Dwight Yoakam.

Haggard will be joining a selection of artists from that album next Saturday at the Fillmore Auditorium in a kind of live version of ``Tulare Dust.'' He checked in from a pay phone in a South Carolina parking lot.

Q: What do you know about the Fillmore show?

A: Not much, except I think the artists involved with that tribute album are supposed to be there. I don't know whether it's up to me to plan the show or what. I haven't really heard yet.

Q: Do you still travel with a large band?

A: We've got the best band now that I've ever had. I've had a band since '65. It's evolved. It's been good and it's been better, and right now it's the best it's ever been. We're not carrying a piano player right now. I got so goddamned tired of the left hand of piano players, I just left him home. Can't get 'em to play what they're supposed to play -- they play everything on the goddanged keyboard, so we're not using one right now.

Q: Did you have anything to do with either of these tribute albums?

A: Not a bit. They all came about without any push on my part. In fact, the ``Tulare Dust'' thing was out before I heard about it. The ``Mama's Hungry Eyes'' thing, I heard about that for three years prior to the fact of it actually coming out. I never did believe it would come out. It's one of those things, people say they're doing a tribute to you and all the great artists in the world are going to get together and they're going to sing your songs. And you say ``Sure they are.'' That's kinda the way I looked at that. To have both of these things materialize, to actually get out to the people and everything, is pretty fantastic.

Q: How long has it been since mainstream country radio played one of your records?

A: I'll tell you the truth, I don't listen to it. And I'm goddamned glad they don't play my s-- along with that other crap. I've searched the radio and I can't find any country music on the radio. It sounds to me like there's a whole lot of rock and roll going on. I'm not opposed to rock and roll. I'm about a half rock-and-roller myself. I grew up doing the same thing Elvis did, and I'm not talking about shaking my hips, I'm talking about music. But some of this stuff they're playing on the radio, if that's the best America has to offer, I don't believe it is. I'm not a bit insulted to not have my records played in between some of that stuff I hear.

Q: Is ``Mama's Hungry Eyes'' getting much airplay on those stations?

A: I really don't know, but I think they're trying to do a mainstream thing with that. Only thing is, some of the people on that record paying tribute to me are over 40, so they may not get played either. It's not a matter of discrimination, it's censorship is what it is.

Q: Do you like the records?

A: What can I say? The sentiment involved would blindfold a guy as far as critiquing or criticizing. I'm too close to the project. Some of the guys in Nashville would have had a better end result had they done my songs their style, rather than doing 'em in my style. Some people feel the ``Tulare Dust'' album is more entertaining because of the fact that it wasn't their intention to do it my way. They're not trying to do it Merle Haggard's way, they did it their own way. And I'm not going to argue with that. I think maybe that might have been so with that ``Mama's Hungry Eyes'' thing. So much love went into the ``Mama's Hungry Eyes'' deal, Tim DuBois and the other people involved. The project was like a three-year deal. It was like making a film. I find it ironic that maybe the ``Tulare Dust'' album that's not recorded as well technically, at the present time, ``Tulare Dust'' is way ahead of the other one on the charts. It makes you scratch your head, if you're a Nashvillian. But I'm not.

Q: Do you have any favorite versions of your songs by other people?

A: I guess my best copyright is ``Today I Started Loving You Again.'' If I receive a check for $15,000, $7,500 will be for that and the rest will be for the other songs. I've heard some versions of that I like. I like Alan Jackson's cut, ``Trying Not to Love You.'' (Shouts off the phone: ``Don't leave, Iris. Wait a minute, I'm on the phone. I'll be there

in a minute. I got the rest of that song. Don't leave.'') I'm talking to Iris DeMent right now. My favorite cut on ``Tulare Dust'' is ``Big City'' with Iris DeMent. I think she is one of the greatest singers I have ever heard in my life. I heard her on my tribute, went out and bought what was available, which was two albums. Found out she's a new artist and she can't get played because she's too goddamned good. She's got too much to say, songs mean too much. They make too much sense. There's not the same line dance tempo going on. If I hear another line dance song I think I'm going to puke.

Q: What is happening with your old catalog at Capitol Records?

A: You'll have to ask Mike Curb. He thinks he's got permission to do what he wants to. He moved in and claims that I've given him permission to oversee all my material. The people at CEMA who distribute have a document and it's for me to prove that, by God, I didn't give it to him. That's what's happening there. I've been screwed, shot at and hit. I record for Mike Curb right now and there's two or three albums left on the contract. He asked me one time ``How would you like to have all your music under one umbrella where we control it?'' I said it might be nice. That was our only conversation. The next thing I know, he is controlling my Capitol masters and we're getting into a legal nightmare. He's currently telling people what to do with the Merle Haggard catalog and he has no right at all.

Q: Do you still have your place on Shasta Lake?

A: I don't have the club anymore. I have a cabin. I let the

resort go. I lost about $9 million up there. That's about all I can handle. I've always been a guy who goes out and makes a cast once in a while. I haven't fished as much as I'd like to lately, but I still love to do it.

Q: How many dates do you do in a year?

A: We've got 117 booked this year already. We'll probably do about 125, 130. We'll do our television shows and record. By that time, we'll have a full year.

Q: Do you have a home somewhere?

A: Not really. Can't find any use for one. I used to have one. I got a cabin at the lake on Shasta. I got a studio just outside of Redding, just south of Shasta. I have a padded cell in this Greyhound bus. That's about it.

Q: Did you really grow up in a Quonset hut?

A: No, I grew up in a boxcar. My daddy worked for the Santa Fe railroad. When they moved out there in '37, it was very common in those days to buy from the railroad railroad cars that they were setting off. Dad found this vacant lot. There was an old refrigerator car just sittin' on it. He made a deal with the lady that owned it to buy it if he was to make it into a home. Made a very good home, by the way, because the walls were 10 inches thick. It was a refrigerator car. That's true, I was raised in a boxcar.


DATE: 4/9/95

PAGE: 41

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