Ben Haggard

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Ben Haggard Won’t Let the Music Die

Meeting Ben Haggard in person before his Dec. 14 show at the Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth seemed like a great professional opportunity. It’s the sort of occasional personal victory that made me confident enough to quit my job, move back home, and completely focus on writing just a couple of weeks before that interview was set in stone.

He’s country music royalty, after all. Videos of Ben covering his father’s music upped expectations, as did reports of Merle insisting that Ben inherit his band and bus. Toss in stories by other journalists about Ben’s easygoing demeanor, and it seemed like an ideal chance to interview a talented and friendly young performer with big boots to fill.

A nice surprise, on stage and in the green room, was Noel Haggard. On that night, which happened to be Ben’s 25th birthday, he performed as a duo with his 54-year-old sibling. Noel, a former mainstream country artist, now serves as comic relief for his straight man kid brother.

Despite personality and generational differences, the brothers proved that night to be an ideal pairing to keep their father’s music alive. The pair’s tribute act doubles as a means for Ben to improve his chops as a bandleader with ambitions to eventually write his own traditionally-minded material.

“Noel and myself have invested a lot of time in music,” Ben says. “(Our dad) wanted some of that time to be invested in some of what he was doing. He said, ‘Don’t stop. Everybody’s got to eat and make a living, but don’t let the music die. When the time is right, you’ll graduate into your own thing. Don’t ever feel rushed. Just kind of go with the flow, and things will happen when they’re supposed to happen.’”

Notions of the Haggard brothers following a “Family Tradition” goes beyond Ben’s career path similarities to Hank Williams Jr. Just as Ben charts his ambitions while furthering the family business, Bocephus began his career mostly covering his dad’s songs before developing his own raunchy style.

Family singing or picking groups like the Haggards date back to the earliest days of hillbilly music. Louvin Brothers biographer Charles Wolfe reckons that family groups abounded in part because it was easier to move from one radio market to another with kin folks instead of hired guns. The tradition adapted to changes in the music industry and popular styles in the decades that followed, making such surnames as Carter, Monroe, Stanley, Everly, Nelson, and Judd synonymous with country music. Maybe it’s just heightened expectations because of those historically great families, but there’s still something indescribably special about country music made by immediate family members.

Ben follows a more modern country music trend as a second-generation performer. Two of his peers, Ashley Campbell and Lukas Nelson, also transitioned in recent years from playing in a legendary father’s touring band to solo aspirations.

Like Lukas, Ben saw music as a way to connect with a father who spent much of the year on tour. “Music isn’t something that everybody can do,” Ben says. “When you pick up a guitar, there’s a deciding factor where you catch onto it or not. It’s like planting seeds. You just don’t know if it’s going to grow. It was cool to have that in common. You could think about things in the same way and not even have to relay that to each other when you’re playing music. It was a different kind of a way of bonding.”

Continuing the Nelson family comparisons, Ben feels that his peer was more prepared to lead his Promise of the Real band after leaving the family business due to performance-related circumstances. “Lukas is a little bit older than I am, and he’s had a little bit more time in the game,” Ben says. “We both started playing with our dad. He started singing out there with his dad. I didn’t start singing out there on stage until after my dad passed away. I had sang behind the scenes or whatever. I was a little bit late to the party. I’m going out and essentially learning how to sing and learning how to entertain a crowd. It’s a totally different thing. When you’re a band member, you just focus on being a band member and carrying your part of the band. When you become a band leader, you have to figure out how to help the band carry each other.”

Ben refuses to second-guess his decision to invite comparisons to his dad by covering his songs instead of crafting a different sound right out the gate. “There’s always going to be a point in the conversation where his name is mentioned just because that’s kind of where the story started,” Ben says. “The story hasn’t ended. The story will probably never end, because there will always be music in this family. If you let it shadow you, it’ll shadow you. You can’t focus on whether somebody might compare you to him. It’ll drive you up the wall. Then you’re focusing on something that’s beside the point.”

The brothers’ current set allows fans to hear Merle’s most obvious hits (“Mama Tried,” “Okie From Muskogee,” and so on), mixed with a few less obvious choices by family friends. After Ben killed it with a cover of Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly,” Noel joked that his red-haired brother must really be Willie’s kid. Before performing Johnny Cash’s proto-outlaw trail anthem “Bad News,” Noel briefly faked like his insinuation that the brothers might cover Cash was a ruse. In both instances, the Haggards offered a healthy mix of classic country tunes and down-home humor.

Other light-hearted moments from Noel that night included him making a big production of standing up to “whip it out” of his pants, only to remove his cell phone and end a “case of the flat pocket.” He later joked that his girlfriend’s husband was calling that same phone. An even better moment of comedic genius came when Noel playfully yelled at someone getting up in between songs: “You’re leaving already? Fine then. We don’t want you here!” In all likelihood, at least two or three audience members were scared to go pee after that.

Once Ben starts sneaking his own songs into the set, he hopes to eventually ride that Jason Isbell train as an independently minded, creatively free artist with a widespread audience. “If you don’t want to go about it a certain way and you want to be your own entity, then label-less is the better route to go,” he adds. “Essentially, it’s a better outcome for the artist. We put our heart and souls into this and deserve something. It’s obviously a lot more challenging to go about it that way, but it’s worth the risk.”

Ben looks to traditionalists in Nashville as a support system beyond family as he continues contemplating his future as a songwriter. “I’m getting tapped into the scene,” he says. “There’s a little niche that’s going on in Nashville right now besides the mainstream, and it’s growing. There’s a lot of young kids around town who are putting their heart into real country music. People are pushing record just while playing music, and you never know if you’ll get something really good.”

Before the interview unfolded, our pleasantries included talk about a passion my own dad shares with Merle Haggard: model trains. Merle famously collected O-gauge trains, while my father prefers a smaller N-gauge setup. “I spent my third and fourth year helping build a model train set in the house,” Ben says. “We were very into that for a couple of years. I grew up, and my interests started to change.”

Noel happened to be passing through the green room to grab a bottle of water during our train discussion. He added his own memories of his dad’s hobby. “I could craw through the hole,” he says, referring to a tunnel in the layout. “They were expensive. They weren’t toys.”

Such light conversation about a shared coincidence shows how family-oriented country music encourages performers and fans alike to think back to simpler times, when interest in dad’s hobby preceded adult concerns about paying bills.

Ben found out before the holidays that he’ll be a father for the first time. He should know if it’s a boy or girl come the first of the year, with Noel deadpanning that “we think it’s human.” With the way the Haggard legacy is heading, don’t be surprised if he or she goes from playing with trains to playing guitar on stage along with grandpa’s Bakersfield Sound-defining classics and dad’s original hits.