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Merle Haggard: That Blue Flame

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...it was a wonderful period in America. America was like the music: the music reflects the kind of people we were then. And the music was much more--I think--sophisticated than it is now. It was much more dignified.
Arguably the world's greatest living country music singer and undeniably the greatest living country music songwriter, Merle Haggard has been writing, recording and performing for over forty years. He's charted over forty number-one country hits. While considered the most truly "country" of country artists, there has always been a strong influence of blues and especially jazz music in the sound of Haggard and his virtuoso group the Strangers. Few bodies of recorded work have aged as well as his. 2004 saw Haggard reunite with his old label Capitol; his first release for the label is Unforgettable, a collection of standards. Haggard is currently on tour with Bob Dylan and I spoke with him during the tour's Los Angeles run.

All About Jazz: Tell me how this spring tour is going for you.

Merle Haggard: Well, we're at day ten today. Out of nine shows, we've had eight good ones. So that's pretty good.

AAJ: What makes a bad one?

MH: Oh, I don't know. You lose concentration, you get bored with what you're doing and you think about your income tax. Somebody says something in the audience and distracts you.

AAJ: Just one of those nights.

MH: Everything goes wrong. The amps start feeding back or some damn thing. It's like you say, one of them nights. You have a bad night once in a while.

AAJ: What made you decide to do this new standards album?

MH: That's a project that's about four years old. We actually had that completed—ninety percent completed—and it was stolen from us. The actual master was stolen and offered on eBay. (laughter)

AAJ: Oh, my God.

MH: And it took us about three-and-a-half, four years to get it back, so it's not really a new project, but it's been accepted well. Capitol liked it and so it's our record that we re-merged with Capitol with. And I have another CD that's coming out about midyear that's called Chicago Wind which is an updated, fully creative 2006 Merle Haggard album.

AAJ: Well, you beat me to one of my questions, but I'll get back to that later on. Getting back to Unforgettable, the new standards album: did you enjoy picking the songs or did you agonize over them a little bit?

MH: No, it's a labor of love. I like all those songs. I don't sing anything I don't like no more. I did that early in my life—on a few things, not many—and always regretted it.

AAJ: Well, recorded music: it's permanent whether you like it or not.

MH: Yeah! But if you make a bad record you don't have to put it out. You can break it. Send it to magnetic heaven.

AAJ: (laughter) That's where a lot of records should probably end up.

MH: Oh, a lot of them should be there.

AAJ: Freddie Powers produced Unforgettable. You've worked with a lot of producers and you've produced a lot of your records yourself. How was working with him?

MH: Freddie and I are great friends. We play that kind of music—just kind of sitting around. Freddie's an old Dixieland player; he knew all those old songs like I did. He and I had what we call a sidebar band called the Butter n' Egg Band, and for years we've been guitar buddies; we'd sit around the house and pick guitars like everyone else in the United States. Those songs are some of the songs that we'd started doing in the circle. So Freddie wanted to add two or three new ones and do an album of them all: a standards album. And that's the outcome of it, even after this period of retrieving the record after it being stolen—we would have been first with it before Rod Stewart [whose Great American Songbook series has sold millions of CDs], but Rod Stewart got out there while I was chasin' the thief.

AAJ: Well, we'll see what people are listening to down the road.

MH: I don't think it has anything to do with Rod Stewart; I think my delivery's different.

AAJ: People have been doing records of old tunes they like for a long, long time. He didn't invent that idea; I don't think anybody did. Let's talk about one of my favorite tunes on Unforgettable, which is the title tune. I really like your vocal phrasing on it and I love the arrangement with the jazzy electric guitar solo. Were you a big Nat Cole fan?

MH: Yes! Yeah, he influenced me nearly as much as he did Ray Charles. He was just—he was the guy when I was starting out. I've been a fan of his all my life; he was just one of those guys who kept coming up with great original material such as "Unforgettable," "Mona Lisa"—the list goes on.

AAJ: Before he was the world's best pop singer, he was the world's best jazz pianist and singer.

MH: Yeah, he played so good; he had a guy, his name slips my mind, a great guitarist, a blond-haired guy—he played in my band for a couple of days and I can't think of his name. [Irving Ashby? John Collins?—AAJ.] Nat had that little combo.

AAJ: Always the three-piece band.

MH: Three-piece combo; just wonderful.

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