Excerpted and expanded from the magazine for Billboard.com.

The title of Merle Haggard's new record pretty much says it all: It's "Haggard Like Never Before."

Released Sept. 30, the album marks the debut of the veteran singer's own label, Hag Records, and finds him delivering some of the most pointed and reflective original material of his 40-year recording career.

Haggard -- who released his last two albums through Anti-, the eclectic imprint of L.A. punk label Epitaph Records -- believes he didn't have much choice about starting his own indie company.

"You're just not going to get the kind of money with [the majors], and you're not gonna get the kind of cooperation," Haggard says. "For whatever reason, they're too far removed ... And they don't want me. The major labels don't want Merle Haggard on there."

Hag Records is being distributed by Compendia Music Group in Nashville, which also handles Joan Osborne's label, Womanly Hips Records.

Ironically, Haggard credits the president of his previous label, Andy Kaulkin -- who plays piano on the album's title track -- with supplying the impetus for the sharpest new material on "Like Never Before."

"He came up here [to my home studio in Northern California] and he listened to my music," Haggard recalls, "and he said, 'I really like everything that I hear, but I don't hear anything new.' He left, and I took his thought to heart ... I was almost dodging the bullet of doin' a Merle Haggard song."

Haggard has already captured widespread attention with the first single off the album, "That's the News." The tune, a musically lilting, lyrically bristling castigation of the news media's penchant for sensationalism, made headlines in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and other prominent outlets.

"The seed of that song started back with [the murder trial of] O.J. Simpson," Haggard says. "The news media has frustrated me, irritated me, pissed me off ... There's an obligation by the media who use news to make their living -- they have to give news. There's a certain kind of news that should come at 5:30. We shouldn't have to see commercialized, dramatized tabloids at certain times of day.

"I think they know they're wrong, and I really believe that this song has made a difference in some of the programming."

Another song, "Lonesome Day," co-written by Haggard's keyboardist Doug Colosio, offers a biting view about the abridgment of freedom of speech today.

"I've never put any sort of a governor on my speaking until lately," Haggard says. "And I really seriously watch what I'm saying, because I'm afraid if I said the wrong thing, those men in black, whoever they are, would come down the rope on me in a hot minute, and they'd find some marijuana and they'd find some cocaine, 'cause they'd throw it down. They're not gonna allow a little hillbilly in Northern California like me to upset any sort of rhetoric that's in favor. Sorry, but I think we live in that kind of a world right now."

He adds with a dark chuckle, "One guy said to me, 'If a guy wasn't paranoid at this time in history, he just hasn't looked around.'"

Never a man to shy away from his own contradictions, Haggard also penned a patriotic homage to the troops in Iraq, "Yellow Ribbons."

He says, "After leaning maybe to the far left of the center with those other two songs, I wanted to lean back and let people know that I am a man who believes in keeping the law of the land, and I believe in the Constitution, and I believe that we should back the commander-in-chief, and we should lift politics in time of war and we should band together."

"Like Never Before" also includes a couple of poignant reflections on old age, some beautiful love songs, a rip-snorting version of the Western swing classic "Garbage Man" and a cover duet of Woody Guthrie's "Reno Blues (Philadelphia Lawyer)" with old crony Willie Nelson.

Haggard says of Nelson, "I said, 'Hey, man, I'm recording out here. Why don't you come out and grace my studio.' He came out the next day and worked all day long and I fixed him a catfish dinner."

Haggard will tour the East Coast through October. His well-traveled road group includes guitarist Norm Stephens, who recorded with Haggard's idol Lefty Frizzell 53 years ago.

The singer says with a loud laugh, "They make fun of our band. I say we're the only band on the road that takes nurses instead of roadies."

He plans to stay off the road in November and December, but he says he won't be idle.

The outspoken musician says, "I'm working on doing a weekly broadcast from my studio on the Internet [at merlehaggard.com], sort of a Don Imus-type thing. I'll have one camera, give out all the audio and video feed and let whoever wants it jump up there and take it."

Haggard's site currently features a written editorial in which, in typically contrarian fashion, the vocalist castigates critics of the Dixie Chicks and expresses admiration for their adversary Toby Keith.

He says of the editorial and the Chicks controversy, "It's just sort of a Paul Harvey approach against what we got goin'. I had to comment on the Dixie Chicks thing. It irritated me, the way America reacted to those little girls' mistake. I just thought it was chickens***. I got irritated about it, angry, and I just wanted to speak up for 'em. This is America, you know.

"It kinda pissed me off about what [the Chicks] said about Texas, and about the president, but, damn it, what about America? Are we that political now that we're gonna crucify these little gals that are probably the only creative thing country music has offered in years of any high quality? They sit alone. They're a golden nugget and to treat 'em that way was unfounded."





Excerpted and expanded from the Oct. 4, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services section.

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