Merle Haggard has made a lot of albums in his 40-year recording career, but he says of his new collection, “Roots Volume 1,” on the eclectic Epitaph Records’ Anti- imprint, “This is my favorite album, I think.”
The material on the set, due for release Nov. 6, is close to the veteran country vocalist’s heart. The album, his second for Anti-, contains three new Haggard originals, plus two songs associated with honky-tonker Hank Thompson, a pair originally recorded by country giant Hank Williams, and — perhaps most importantly — five numbers originated by Lefty Frizzell, one of Haggard’s greatest influences.
Haggard explains, “The whole picture is to try to preserve that body of work that happened from the transition from big brass bands to Elvis. There’s about a five- or six-year period in there, before Elvis and Ray Price came in and changed everything. There was some music that was played by Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and Hank Thompson, people like that, that was absolutely wonderful.”
The focus of the album is Frizzell, the late honky-tonk titan who brought 16-year-old Merle Haggard onstage for the first time to front his band at the Rainbow Gardens in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1953.
A confluence of unusual events — including Haggard’s enlistment of Frizzell’s own guitarist — led to the making of “Roots Volume 1.”
Haggard says he was unaware that Norm Stephens, who played lead on Frizzell’s earliest hits, was virtually his neighbor in Northern California until pianist Doug Colosio spotted an ad by Stephens offering guitar lessons in a Redding, Calif., paper.
Haggard recalls, “I said, ‘You’re telling me that Norman Stephens, the guitar player who played on “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time,” is livin’ over there?’ It was just unbelievable. It blew me away.”
He adds, “I was afraid to call him for a little bit, ’cause I was so impressed with his guitar playing … I said, ‘Doug, call him.’ Come to find out that all these years he’d been here right down the street, and out of courtesy he hadn’t said anything to me. He’d been a civil engineer, and he made a great career out of that. He retired, and about eight months prior to my call had just sort of given up on music, put his guitar under the bed.
“Anyway, here’s this great guitar player standing there,” Haggard continues, “and I said, ‘You know, I think we ought to start recording just as quick as we can.’ And so we did. Virtually within hours, we were making records.”
Stephens — who had not appeared on record for half a century, though he did tour with Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys — speaks warmly of his experience with Haggard.
“I was just flattered that Merle would ask me to do the recordings with him,” Stephens says. “It was rather ominous when we started doing those same songs I did 50 years ago. Of course, for one thing, I hadn’t played for a while, so I was a little rusty — in fact, a lot rusty — but he was kind enough to kinda let me play myself back into shape.”
Haggard was moved to further duplicate the sound of Frizzell’s first Dallas recordings when refurbishment work forced him to temporarily vacate his home and move into a nearby property he was selling.
Haggard says, “I looked at this room, and I said, ‘My God, sonofabitch, I bet this room would sound great in a recording! It’s got this wood here. I wonder if it’d sound like [Frizzell producer] Jim Beck’s old studio.’ And it did, as you can hear.”
Epitaph president Andy Kaulkin says “Roots Volume 1” may feed an appetite among contemporary listeners.
“We can’t help but notice the success of ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?,'” Kaulkin says. “This project was not contrived in any way — the music just came out of him through very organic means — but there’s obviously a hunger out there for traditional rootsy country music, and that’s what this album is. I even feel like something’s got to give at country radio. We might even have a shot at getting something played, as crazy as that sounds.” The label will work “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” at country radio.
Prior to the album’s release, Haggard will appear at Tim McGraw’s annual Swampstock benefit concert in Rayville, La., as well as dates in Louisville, Ky., Indianapolis, and Robinsonville, Miss. Shortly after the album comes out, Haggard will play a series of five Canadian tour dates kicking off Nov. 14 in Calgary. He’s also booked to perform Dec. 30 at the Reno (Nev.) Hilton.