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Interviews

Merle Haggard: That Blue Flame

By Published: April 2, 2005
AAJ: Probably encourages you to keep the arrangements pretty tight.

MH: Yeah, and keep the talk to a minimum. You ain't got nothin' to say, just keep quiet and go on to another song.

AAJ: Well, the songs say a lot. It probably varies night to night, but are there any tunes you're singing on this tour—at this point in your life—that you're enjoying singing the most?

MH: I love to sing "Unforgettable." I enjoy that; it's a challenge every time and it's such a great song. "As Time Goes By"—that's a joy to sing. I've got a group of great songs. "Misery and Gin"—we do that one a lot. I enjoy singing "Mama Tried"; I never get tired of that song. "Today I Started Loving You Again." I enjoy doing Jimmie Rodgers songs, Bob Wills songs, Floyd Tillman songs. We're doing a partially instrumental album—we're working on that, it's a country swing-jazz album. We're doing something a little different on it: something you think is going to be an instrumental all the way, and then towards the end I sing a verse.

AAJ: That's like the old jazz swing bands where the vocalist just does a chorus.

MH: That's right. We're doing an album with that posture. It's really coming along; we've got a little tune on there called "Girl, Go Ask Your Mama." And it really swings.

AAJ: You're just setting up my next question. I love how you vocally introduce [pianist] Floyd Domino and [guitarist] Mike Wheeler on "As Long As I Have You"—it's such a [country-swing pioneer] Bob Wills thing to do. And you even do a little Wills vocal "yass, yass" on "Going Away Party" [both from Unforgettable]. To say nothing of "Bareback," on If I Could Only Fly, or the entire Bob Wills tribute album [A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World] you did in 1970.

MH: Wills is just a fun guy to do. He's just sort of a character that I fall into sometimes on stage out of pure love and admiration.

AAJ: It seems like you've gotten a whole lot out of his music.

MH: Yep. He influenced me probably more than anybody. And I knew him and got to love him; I knew him personally. He was so incredibly wise about music, and such an innovator. And he was crazy about me and my music.

AAJ: That must have felt good.

MH: Oh, God, it was just unbelievable! To have somebody that you admired like that come back at you—that's the payment there. No money can match that.

AAJ: You mentioned the upcoming record of Haggard tunes; tell me more about it.

MH: Well, it's an album done with [Memphis guitarist] Reggie Young and J.R. [drummer John Robinson], Lee Sklar and [guitarist] Billy Walker. A four-piece rock and roll band. We did it in L.A. with Jimmy Bowen producing and it's got new Merle Haggard songs. It's meant to be, ah, Merle Haggard 2006—the best ever.

AAJ: And when will it come out?

MH: About the first of August.

AAJ: You're one of the big songwriters; I can only think of a couple others that could even be compared in terms of sheer quantity of great songs written. Your songs have been covered by the Grateful Dead and Dean Martin—to say nothing of your own definitive versions. Did you ever write something so good that you knocked yourself out—that you knew was great the moment you'd written it?

MH: I've had a couple of (laughing) experiences like that. In fact, we used to call that when you write something and feel that blue flame go by your ear. There's a chill that runs up your spine and you say, "lookee here!" You actually said something; you actually thought of something and put it in a way that nobody else had. It's a great thrill and I've had it happen a few times.

AAJ: Any memory of which tunes?

MH: I felt that way about a song I wrote called "Footlights." "Kicking the footlights out again," I don't know if you heard it or not. [...] It's a song about me, about what I do for a living and it's more descriptive, maybe, than any song I've ever written about myself. When I wrote "Mama Tried," "Workin' Man Blues," "Swinging Doors," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Hungry Eyes," "Silver Wings," "Big City"—those feelings occurred with all those songs. "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star"—I knew I had a hit song there. There is just something about a hit song; I've recorded close to a thousand songs and you know it when it's good. What's funny is the ones you go to the session with, the ones you think are going to be the good songs may not be the ones. You can't tell until you put it on that tape and listen back. You say, "I'll be damned, I didn't think that one was that good"—but it is! I think of all the records I've made, I think my favorite record—song, band, performance, the whole damn thing—was "Workin' Man Blues." I think if I had to send a record to another planet and I could only send one, I'd send that one.


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