Grammy Award winner, Country Music Hall of Famer, the Poet of the Common Man, Merle Haggard for many is country music. And while his accomplishments in the genre are second to none, Haggard is still a risk-taking live performer and remains prolific in the studio.
The 67-year-old star has just begun a major tour with another legend, Bob Dylan. His recent collection of standards, “Unforgettable Merle Haggard,” on the Capitol label — where he saw his greatest success — has been critically hailed. Now Haggard is putting the final touches on a new Capitol release, a much-anticipated project that reunites “Hag” with legendary producer Jimmy Bowen.
“Merle is one of the few left from the era when country music really started to expand and radio went from 300 stations to 3,000 stations,” Bowen says. “To see where he is at this point in his life, and what he wants to say and sing about, has been a great experience. Merle is a poet, and what he thinks is what he sings about.”
Q: Singer, songwriter, guitar player, live performer — which part of your game is most rewarding to you?
A: Personally, probably the guitar playing. It’s very important to me. That’s what started this whole thing, my interest in that instrument. I’ve been playing it since I was 10. It’s like golf to some other people; it’s important to me that I play good.
Q: It seems you’ve always been aware that less can be more when it comes to guitar playing. Is that a fair assessment?
A: Oh, yeah. I learned that from Grady Martin. Lay in the weeds and wait, and when you get your chance to say something, say something good. Then there’s what you call a “band-man guitar player,” where I try to put my guitar in where it should be and stay out of where it shouldn’t be and reinforce the condition. We play off the cuff, we don’t walk onstage with any idea of what we’re going to do. We go out there and spend that hour-and-a-half havin’ a good time.
Q: What has it been like working with Jimmy Bowen again?
A: Jimmy Bowen is probably one of the smartest men in the studio alive, and one of the most talented, and has more gold records on his wall than you can count, ranging from Bing Crosby to Merle Haggard. It’s really a privilege to get Bowen off the golf course. He came in with a lot of gusto. I asked him if he’d produce an album on me, and he said, “Naw, I’ll produce a great album on you, but not just an album.”
We’re 99% done. I’ve got one song I’ve got to sing on I didn’t finish, and it just went wonderfully. We had four great musicians, a drummer named J.R. — I don’t even know his last name — the best goddamn drummer I ever heard in my life. Reggie Young on guitar and Billy Joe Walker on guitar, and the great Leland Sklar on bass. I’m really excited about it.
Q: How did this tour with Bob Dylan come about?
A: I had my itinerary set to do some light touring in the spring and ease my way through the year, and Bob Dylan calls and wants me to tour America with him. And he’s not just talking about once and awhile, it’s 40 out of the next 60 days. But it’s Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan’s the Einstein of music. He calls and wants you to be on his show and your name is Merle Haggard, you’re honored.
Q: I’ve heard that most people who tour with Dylan don’t get a chance to talk to him, but I imagine he’ll talk to you at some point.
A: I don’t know. I’ve rubbed shoulders with him before and he just sorta grunts.
Q: You spoke out in defense of the Dixie Chicks during the controversy a couple of years ago. How do you reconcile that with your “Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” fans?
A: What knocked my hat off was the way people attacked them. My response didn’t come until some time later. I let it all go down and watched it happen and thought, “Now, wait a minute. Is this not America? Are we not at war for freedom?”
It disturbs me that this country is so seriously divided over this war. I don’t think since the Civil War have we been so divided about something. Since when is it new for grandma to be against war? These girls were against war, and only in today’s times would we have enough nerve to jump on somebody like that. What’s new about entertainers being against war? They’ve always campaigned against war.
Q: What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned in the music business?
A: Keep your opinions to yourself. I think it’s important that I stay neutral on politics and remain hard to understand. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as conservative, liberal, independent or anything. I back the man for the things the man believes in, not whether it says “R” or “D” down there beside his name.
There’s some things that have got to happen. We’ve got to regain control — the people. “For the people, of the people,” all that — that’s not the current situation. We are under control, and if people don’t realize that, they haven’t looked around. And if they’re not paranoid, they haven’t thought about it.
Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
A: I guess the longevity of it all is probably the most exciting thing. We’ve been doing this for 40 years as a group. Merle Haggard & the Strangers started in 1965 on the road. To go this long and still have top-drawer acceptance is about all a guy can ask for.
Excerpted from the March 26, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available to subscribers.
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