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Interviews

Merle Haggard: That Blue Flame

By Published: April 2, 2005
AAJ: "Stardust" is another I really like, partly because it's one of my favorite songs, but also because of its great arrangement on the CD. It's got that Gary Church trombone solo, and—like most of the tunes on the album—some great guitar work. Who came up with the arrangements for this record?

MH: The arrangement on "Stardust" is mine; the arrangement on "Unforgettable" is Freddie's. About half of them were done in Texas and about half were done in California. Of the ones done in California, at my place—I did the arranging there. Freddie did the stuff that was done in Texas.

AAJ: Was the Bing Crosby recording of "Pennies From Heaven" the first version you ever heard of that song?

MH: Yeah.

AAJ: I asked because I have always heard some Bing in your singing—especially on "(Think About a) Lullaby" from If I Could Only Fly.

MH: Yeah! He was a big influence in my career. As much as Nat Cole. As much as Lefty Frizzell. Tommy Duncan was a big influence on me, the singer with Bob Wills. But they were sort of Bing Crosby protégés too. Yeah, Crosby, you know—he influenced Dean Martin, Perry Como; there's a long line of Crosby singers.

AAJ: For such a huge influence on you—outside of paying tribute to Bing in the way you sing, he's the one guy you haven't done a whole tribute record to.

MH: Oh, well, you're absolutely right! And it's crossed my mind, too. I just wonder why that wouldn't be a good project.

AAJ: It kind of shocks me that Bing isn't a bigger deal now; people don't understand what a huge star he was.

MH: I think it's about to come back around. I think it has to go all the way to midnight before daylight comes. The music of this kind that we're doing on this album has been obscured for a while and now it's being rediscovered. It's like turning on a light to some of these kids! They're going crazy over it; we do "Unforgettable" for an audience that may or may not have ever heard of Nat Cole. And it's really, really accepted well.

AAJ: Well, those big-time singers—they had the best guys writing songs for them.

MH: Yeah, 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. It had more depth; it was more poetic. It seems like we've regressed. I mean, rap music—

AAJ: Well, with the popular music today, there's not very interesting chords; it's not really about chords.

MH: Seems like the melody don't mean anything!

AAJ: It's about rhythm.

MH: The drummer's a big deal now; he's the head of the train. He's sitting in the middle of the stage; he's not in the back no more. (laughter)

AAJ: Well, my biggest problem is that I just wish there was a real drummer. I love a real drummer playing that kind of music.

MH: Yeah! Seldom do you get one; you get samples of somebody else.

AAJ: You don't tend to get any swing, because nothing shifts or changes.

MH: I totally agree. Instead of electronic assistance, that's electronic interference. Electronic boredom.

AAJ: Good name for an album.

MH: Electronic Boredom. (laughter)

AAJ: This new CD has a mixture of Strangers and old friends like [accordionist/guitarist] Abe Manuel, [bassist] Eddie Curtis, [guitarist] Randy Mason—and some studio guys like [bassist] Leland Sklar and [drummer] Larrie Londin. Were you trying to mix and match guys with different tunes?

MH: They worked on different sessions. "Stardust" came off of a session with Lee Sklar, Larrie Londin: I think it was the last session Larrie played on before he died. Bobby Woods played piano; he came out of that Memphis band [associated with Chips Moman's American Studios] with Reggie Young. They came up to my place and we played those songs back around '91, '92: "Stardust" and that stuff. It was ten, twelve years old before it made its way to the public. And "Unforgettable" was done very recently; the vocal was, anyway. So (laughter) there is a ten- or twelve-year span on that record of vocal performances.

AAJ: I have to tell you that I never suspected that. Sonically it blends.

MH: Thank you.

AAJ: Obviously, that would be your goal.

MH: There's an effort there: make sure that not any age peeks out. It's really hard to do. When you get old, first thing happens (putting on a creaky old-codger voice): you start to talk like that! (laughter) You don't want that shit happenin' in the song!

AAJ: No, no, you definitely want a vocal consistency across the tracks. Tell me which of these tunes you're playing live.

MH: We're doing "Unforgettable," "As Time Goes By," "Pennies From Heaven." Not every night; we do a different show every night. That's what Bob [Dylan] hired us for; he liked the fact that we did that. So we did "Unforgettable" last night, we'll probably do it tonight. We'll do "Pennies From Heaven" tonight as well. We sort of concentrate on Unforgettable right now—the promotion and everything, out of commercial reasons. We only have forty-five minutes or so and I'm used to playing about twice that long on stage—about ninety minutes. So I kind of have to get out there and get offstage pretty quick. For example, we don't even do a theme. I just go straight out there with the band and bam, we're out there doing something. We don't waste time on play-ons and play-offs.


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