The Lion in Winter

David Gates with Jeanne Gordon
Copyright 1996, Newsweek magazine (issue dated 4/15/96)

You could call it seven hours between Merle Haggard's ranch near Redding, California and his birthplace outside Bakersfield. But you could also call it 59 years; and that spindly frame, deep-seamed face and world-weary voice suggest that a year of Merle Haggard's life is longer than a year of most anyone else's. And just lately he's seeing these intimations of mortality. A couple of weeks ago in Ft. Worth, medics showed up backstage when Haggard's saxaphone player complained of chest pains. (He was OK.) Haggard's making this long drive back to play a benefit in the high-school auditorium for his former guitarist Roy Nichols, partially paralyzed with a stroke. Junior Fite will be there, too; he's an old friend from San Quentin, where Haggard turned 21, serving three years for an attempted burglary. Haggard's people got Fite released for the show. He has cancer, and the doctors give him six months.

The hell of it is, Haggard's in an upbeat mood. He's in his truck, 30 miles outside of Sacramento, with his fifth wife, Theresa, 36, the mother of his two young children, 6 and 3. Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies are on the tape deck, and Haggard's on his cellular phone. He's not up to speed on Capitol's new four-CD retrospective, covering the years from 1962 to 1994. "What's the title of that," he asks. ("Down Every Road," he's told.) But he's eager to talk about his new album, 1996, his best in more than a decade. "They played the single on KNX and the phones haven't quit yet," he says. "They went completely bonkers over it, and they had to put it on the playlist. The album's No. 6 in Australia, and No. 2 in the Gavin Report." (Gavin's Americana charts track such niche-music mavericks as Steve Earle.) He's working with fresh young musicians and listening to such new non-Nashville songwriters as Iris Dement. For the first time in years, he's on a roll.

These are modest triumphs for a man with 38 No. 1 country hits, a total second only to Conway Twitty's. Twice in the 60's, he says, "we walked into the Capitol studios for a three-hour session and come out with four No. 1 songs." But his last No. 1, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star," came in 1987, and it's been a long decade. A man as smart as Haggard could see his situation all too clearly. "The hit records quit," he says, "so I had to start dealing with it on the basis of ... a guy who ..." He tries again. "Of a has-been."

Yet Haggard remains perhaps the dominant musical influence in Nashville. They'll never clone the voice: no American singer since Billie Holiday has trafficked so effectively in heartache and depression. But high-gloss variants of his pedal-steel and Telecaster sound are the lingua franca of modern country. His tribute LPs to Jimmie Rodgers (1969) and Bob Wills (1970) added unplugged instruments and Western swing to producers' musical palattes. More than anyone else, Haggard made it hip to revere tradition, with his prestige, musicianship and his impeccable cool. Today his very name, like George Jones's, has become a metonym for country music itself in scores of songs. Meanwhile, Haggard and Jones no longer get played on country radio.

And they're not alone: you don't hear Willie, Waylon or Johnny Cash anymore, either. Nashville now belongs to such videogenic young creatures as Shania Twain and whoever all those sensitive young guys with cowboy hats are. Haggard has too many miles, too much voice, too much attitude and, in his opinion, too little competition in Nashville. "I wish there was something that would intimidate me," he says. "I wish there was something that good. There's a lot of gingerbread, but I don't see any improvement in the music. And I certainly don't see the raw music coming to the top. I don't think Hank Williams could get on country radio right now." But hasn't it always been this way? Didn't his own generation displace Hank's? "It may have always been that way," he says, "but if it's always been that way, it's always been wrong."

Still, not all Haggard's problems stem from other people's lousy taste. For Jones it was drugs; for Nelson the IRS; for Haggard it seems to have been some of each. The liner notes to Down Every Road allude to the early 80's as "a period of drug problems, missed dates, [and] lawsuits." Haggard himself tells about one lost-in-the-ozone show when he walked off after 20 minutes and thought he'd played for more than an hour. "But they're all on their feet," he told his irate manager. "Yeah," said the manager, "They all want to kill you." Haggard's tax troubles left him broke; in 1993 he sold 600 of his songs. "Between the lifestyle, the IRS and the lack of a hit record," he says, "it's taken me 10 years to just get my head back to even. But maybe it's brought the creative juices to the surface again." Then, either disgusted at himself for emoting or afraid the fates will overhear, he grunts, "I don't know, maybe."

The 100 songs on Haggard's new four-CD retrospective remind us that his best work, ostensibly "country," draws on folk ballads, jazz, blues, rock and roll and Tin Pan Alley: it transcends any label but "American." And the personas he's adopted range from the truculent hippie-basher of "The Fightin' Side of Me" to the proud lover of a black woman in "Irma Jackson" -- which Capitol refused to release as the follow-up to the jingoistic "Okie From Muskogee" in 1969. Haggard's 60-odd albums have several more boxfuls of enjoyable-to-indispensable music. There's a whole CD's worth right there on 1996, including two indispensables: a harrowing cover of Iris Dement's "No Time To Cry," and "Kids Get Lonesome, Too," one of Haggard's pure-and-simple three-chord wonders, ending with the wistful sound of accordion and pennywhistle.

At 59, Haggard's clearly keeping his ears open. He heard Dement sing "Big City" on Tulare Dust, a 1994 tribute by such Gavin Americana types as Lucinda Williams and Joe Ely. "She sung my own song right back at me with some conviction that I didn't have," he says -- and he started learning her songs. The fresh production touches on 1996 come from Abe Manuel Jr., 33, who plays in Haggard's legendary road band alongside such veterans as drummer-manager Biff Adam. And lately, Haggard gets unexpected visitors. Producer-bassist Don Was, who has a band with Ringo Starr, dreamed that Haggard should be their lead singer, and they invited themselves up. "Ringo said if Biff ever quits, he wants the job playing drums," Haggard recalls. "That's an interesting twist, isn't it?"

But not so surprising. True, in "Are the Good Times Really Over?" (1982), Haggard sang about the putatively idyllic days "before the Beatles and "Yesterday.'" Yet at heart he's a rock-and-roller, or at least that's Don Was's take on him. "He'll tell you he's a country singer," says Was, who went to Haggard shows in the "Fightin' Side of Me" days with his long hair tucked into a cowboy hat. "But to me the essence of rock and roll is a cry for freedom and rebellion. And I don't know anyone who embodies it better. Every aspect of his life is a refusal to submit."

By the way, at that benefit for Roy Nichols, Haggard and the band gave the show of their life; they generally do. He seldom says a word to his audiences -- one more no-no that's become part of the Merle Haggard mystique. But on Saturday night in Oildale, Haggard announces that Junior Fite is out of prison and that a local doctor has offered Roy orthopedic therapy for life. He sings the doctor's request -- what else but "Roses in the Winter"? Then more requests get shouted out. "Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute," says Haggard, quelling the uproar. "I'm still running the show." Yeah. Damn straight.


The Big Casino