Hey, Merle Haggard!
Speak Up, We Can’t Hear You
After beating cancer in 2008 then a hospital stint serious enough to halt last January’s tour, you’d think 75-year-old Merle Haggard would start hunting for the telltale white flag. It wouldn’t be a shameful surrender, of course. There’s no glass ceiling so to speak, but he’s a Country Music Hall of Famer, a BMI Icon and a recent Kennedy Center for Performing Arts honoree, among other titles. He’s released nearly 80 albums. He’s already an American music icon of the highest caliber.
Despite health troubles, the Hag’s still truckin’ at a rate practically on par with his golden days. There’s never been too noticeable a gap in productivity, and while his sound has adapted with age, he’s never lost grip of his traditional country roots. Even Working in Tennessee, released last fall, eases comfortably into his immense catalog. In most respects, he’s still operating the same way he used to.
Except when speaking on the record. He’s nearly nailed down diplomacy. Reporters struggle to get the poet of the common man to turn on the Hag, to get snippy or, at the very least, say something new. That’s what the frequently banal stories written about him suggest, at least.
Just because Haggard isn’t so readily serving up saucy quips, however, doesn’t mean he’s turned off the commentary altogether. These days, it seems an extra second or two, a break in conversation, helps a little extra something slip out.
Consider his comments about “Under the Bridge,” a mid-album track from Working in Tennessee. The narrator’s utter positivity – “Under the bridge/ I can make believe I’m livin’ in a castle” – about homelessness, the frequency of which Haggard relates to today’s economy, is actually quite depressing.
“Well, it’s just one of those things that came along,” he says, seemingly with a shrug. “I don’t sweat something out. I’m an impulse writer.”
A little uproar in the late ‘60s when “Okie from Muskogee” was being scooped up by conservatives and thus infuriating anti-Vietnam activists, Haggard reportedly claimed the lyrics were written in jest. Really? All the jabs at hippies (“We don’t smoke marijuana….we don’t take our trips on LSD/ We don’t burn our draft cards”) and patriotic notions (“We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse”) were intended to be comical? Unlikely. But instead of using the controversial anthem to speak publicly about its implied message, he immediately released an intensified, clearer version of it through “Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Politics is still part of Haggard’s songwriting, but its hold is waning. We’ve gone from the more blatant approach of his earlier days to the standoffishness heard in the title track on I Am What I Am, Haggard’s second most recent album: “I won’t be a slave/ And I won’t be a prisoner/ I’m just a nephew/ To today’s Uncle Sam.” On Working in Tennessee, we’re given a series of complaints on “What I Hate.” There are flip-flopping politicians, chemtrails, never-ending war and the oblivious, negligent attitude of “most folks.”
Haggard aligned himself politically after the “Okie” ordeal. He earned (and returned) the favor of President Nixon and President Reagan. He later supported George W. Bush, but vaguely denounced the family’s involvement with oil. In 2007, he publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton. Shortly after Obama took office, he published an optimistic piece of prose on his website: “We got a new style with a sincere smile/ And a new song to sing along/ And we got sunshine and a new guy/ And hope’s [sic] are high.” Whether to the left or the right, Haggard put his foot down. As another election looms, he’s all but taken off his boots.
“I’ve talked to politicians that I thought would have been better for the job than either one of the people that we’ve got to vote for now. But they’re smart enough to not be running for president. Colin Powell I think would have made an excellent candidate, but he doesn’t want to be president,” he laughs heartily.
Haggard’s history of political side-switching supports that statement. He doesn’t seem to restrict himself to a particular party, only the officeholder’s performance.
“I think when Obama came in office…there was a lot of people who were for him who probably aren’t for him now, that were tired of the Bush regime and wanted a change,” he notes. “And they got a change, but it didn’t go in the direction that a lot of them anticipated. Now there’s a lot of people who voted for Obama who probably won’t vote for him this time.”
See what he did there? He proposed a potential feeling of some people who may not support Obama anymore. Qualifiers, tempering. Is Haggard too jaded to take a clear-cut stand about a single thing anymore?
“Working in Tennessee,” which features both Willie Nelson and Haggard’s son Ben, was written for the stage, he says. And that situation may never be realized.
“It’s not a good thing to do as it used to be,” Haggard says of the potential to bring special guests on tour. “It costs too much money! Nobody’s got any money. We’re in some sort of a depression here. We’re lucky to draw a thousand, let alone ten thousand.”
Like the rest of the music industry – hell, every industry – a struggling economy doesn’t accommodate much beyond the minimum. Obama’s opponent is final now, sure. But couldn’t Haggard rally to sway them both, then pressure the winner even harder? He could.
More likely: He won’t. Haggard seems content keeping politics at an arm’s length now. Maybe for him the climate’s too volatile, the storms too varied and the fight too futile.
Even his personal sobriety, a topic he’s been asked about for decades, presented too many toes to step on.
“It’s what it is. When you’re sober, you’re sober,” he says plainly. “And it seems like it was a lot more fun when we were drunk, but I don’t know what to say about it – there’d be somebody all over me if I agreed with it.”
How can Haggard plead to put “America First” when he won’t even choose between admitting he misses his off-wagon shenanigans or denouncing them totally? Maybe he’s conflicted – that’s fair. A fearful dismissal, however, breeds ambiguity. In the 2005 anti-war song he asked to “liberate these United States” and claimed “freedom is stuck in reverse.” He’s criticized Wal-Mart’s role in the increasing eradication of mom-and-pop stores, even linking his switch to his current label, the independent imprint Vanguard, to that distaste.
In a recent Dallas Observer story, he noted candidates’ timidity to touch on important issues and named the Middle East as a distraction.
“I think the number one issue is the border. And we seem to avoid that in every debate. I don’t recall it being any issue brought up in any debate. I think it’s the number-one problem,” Haggard says.
It’s not Haggard’s responsibility to absolve the country of its troubles. But as an artist who’s consistently called attention to society’s woes, he has some obligation to carry on. Age brings wisdom, right? Haggard’s up there. Through the jail and prison stints of his youth saw America’s darkest corners. He was there for – in the midst of – the sweeping Vietnam-era change. He knew the country when it was truly great, before narcissistic self-proclamations of greatness grew to be a shameful shadow over a sad reality.
A start-to-finish political speech of an album isn’t necessary. The poet of the common man should speak on their behalf not only for social awareness but also for human catharsis, whether through love songs or drinking songs or a blend of both (see the classic “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”). Songs like “Mama Tried,” too – Haggard’s deviance serves to pale and forgive others’ missteps.
It’s in Haggard to step onto shaky ground, to piss people off in the name of something. Contemporary country artists aren’t afraid to. Haggard doesn’t have much respect for most of their songwriting – he doesn’t “hear much of a storyline” and has dubbed that variety “studio bands.” His silence, unfortunately, makes way for the shellacked singers of Nashville to present their opinions as the standard.
But Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Jr. – they are the standard. It’s not quite fair to nudge only one old-school country icon, but Haggard’s long been a layman’s political pundit in a cowboy hat. Now’s not the time to retire.
Haggard’s rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues” is a nice touch, and second go at his own “Working Man Blues” boasts not only a bluesy beat for toe-tapping but also shows stellar collaboration between all involved. “Down on the Houseboat,” like most country songs, is named to correspond with the lyrics, but its expected beachy vibe is carried throughout the album. Haggard pays homage to his comrades and his path-clearing inspirations on “Too Much Boogie Woogie,” and the result is fun, danceable and one of the LP’s highlights.
But for Haggard, the darling of Working in Tennessee is one that should provoke political discussion: “Under the Bridge.”