The Billboard Q&A: Merle Haggard

Hard as it is to believe, Merle Haggard has never made a bluegrass album in his more than 40 years of recording. Until now. For the first time in 80-some records, "The Bluegrass Sessions" puts Hag, as

Hard as it is to believe, Merle Haggard has never made a bluegrass album in his more than 40 years of recording. Until now.

For the first time in 80-some records, "The Bluegrass Sessions" puts Hag, as he is affectionately known, inside a circle of ace Nashville pickers. Marty Stuart lead the band, Ronnie Reno produced and Alison Krauss dropped by to duet on a new treatment of "Mama's Hungry Eyes." It's another intriguing entry in a prolific period during which Haggard has had a run of ambitious solo albums as well as "Last of the Breed," which found him teaming up with Willie Nelson and Ray Price.

How did you manage to go all these years without doing a bluegrass album?

It didn't cross my mind for whatever reason. We didn't have the right songs or something. I really don't know what it was.

So what made this the right time to do one?

I just had an idea. I had some friends in that area, Marty Stuart and Ronnie Reno. I just called them and had them put together what they felt was an A-team for a bluegrass album. It was that easy.

What's your own background as a bluegrass fan?

Oh, I go all the way back to the original Stanley Brothers and the Don Reno-Red Smiley records, things like that. I'm a big fan of Alison Krauss and a lot of the pickers in that field, Flatt & Scruggs and all of those guys. It's not something new to me.

What separates making bluegrass from making other kinds of music?

It always just seemed to me [bluegrass players] were not worried about whether or not somebody was in tune so much as that they were expressing themselves the way they wanted to. Even today, I don't think they use modern tuners and things of that nature as much as other fields do. I find it more entertaining to listen to something that's real like that.

What did you learn about playing bluegrass during these sessions?

We went in and we started to record in a normal way, where we were all isolated. We did one song, and it just didn't have it. Marty said, "Hey, this ain't workin'," so we dropped all the isolation and went out and circled up in the room and cut the whole album sitting in that way. We didn't isolate anything. Everything you hear is just the way it was. When you're isolated, it winds up being like all the other records nowadays; it sounds a bit mechanical and it sort of kills the intention, I think. The old bluegrass boys didn't do it that way. They circled up around the mic and played it, and if they didn't play it right they played it again. They didn't overdub anything

One of your new songs, "What Happened?," is a provocative statement about the state of the nation.

I wanted to write something that asked that question: What happened? What happened to this America? How long will we tolerate things that are taking place? How much will we give up before we realize America is nearly gone? It's a sad thing. I don't understand the thoughts of America. I don't understand the young people, why they're allowing it to occur. I don't know why we're electing the people we elect and why we're giving up freedoms we're supposedly fighting for. It's a big, big question: What the hell happened?

What's next for you?

We're working on a full-fledged rock 'n' roll album with the help of some names you would recognize, such as Keith Richards. I'm hoping [Bob] Dylan will come and do a couple numbers on it. Who knows who else will might participate. I'm in the middle of it; we've got 18 sides cut, all original, and I think it's some of the best stuff I've done. It'll probably be out about this time next year.

You've been doing a lot of work, in a lot of different directions. Are you feeling a sense of mortality that's driving you to do these things you want before it's too late?

You may be right. I'm 70 years old. We don't know how much time I've got left. I'm in good shape, but it's important to do the right things now, I think. We're going from one thing to another, trying to do things we haven't done before. And there's nothing to lose, really; they're not playing our music on modern country stations, so I'm going elsewhere. It's as simple as that.