Merle Haggard: That Blue Flame

Paul Olson By

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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.

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.

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.

AAJ: Yeah, that's a good record. Great performance—no argument. So you've got a record coming out and you're touring, working—you've come a long way from Bakersfield. You've made a lot of records and done a lot of shows. What do you want to accomplish now?

MH: I just want to live through this Bob Dylan tour! (laughter) I am beginning to see the light; this is day ten and we're doing forty [shows]. I'm just looking forward to going home and fishing and spending the month of May with my family. We've got some places we're going to fish—we can't tell anybody where they're at because then they go to our fishing hole.

AAJ: Is there nothing decent anymore in the world?

MH: (laughing) Nothing! Nothing's sacred!

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