Welcome to Haggard Country

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 08/26/07

MERLE HAGGARD IS not shy about expressing his opinions about mainstream country music, which he feels has gotten away from its roots and features enough slick production to be an entirely different musical animal these days.

“I just can’t find anything that compares with the country music I love,” Haggard, 71, said in a recent phone interview. “When I started in country music, I was listening to Hank Williams (Sr.), and I was listening to Eddy Arnold, Lefty Frizzell, and there’s not anything like those people now.

“I don’t think Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, either one, or Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson for that matter, could get played at all. There’s no place for us in today’s music,” he said.

“That’s kind of sad, man. Take me out of the picture, but I mean, the rest of them, if we’re living in times when you cannot hear a Hank Williams, you cannot hear a Johnny Cash, then we’re living in a sad time.”

Haggard is doing his part to help keep the traditional sounds of country music alive. He joined forces with two other country music legends — Willie Nelson and Ray Price — on a two-CD set, “Last of the Breed,” that’s as old-school as country can get.

The trio embarked on a summer/fall tour in which Price will open the show and then Haggard and Nelson will take the stage to perform songs from their own catalogs as well as from “Last of the Breed.” The tour makes a stop Wednesday at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel.

Price figures to join his two cohorts on several songs from the trio’s double CD.

“I think it may spawn another tour or two,” Haggard said of the current “Last of the Breed” dates. “It may go into something like the Highwaymen.”

Haggard, Nelson and Price took an interesting approach to the CD, emphasizing covers of vintage country songs (by the likes of Frizzell, Floyd Tillman and Gene Autry) that had long been among their favorites. A handful of original tunes rounds out the two-disc, 22-song set, which touches on a variety of styles, including country swing (“My Life’s Been a Pleasure”), elegant balladry (“Back to Earth”), country-gospel (the new Haggard tune “Sweet Jesus”) and pure honky-tonk (“Lost Highway”).

With Haggard, Nelson and Price already familiar with many of the songs and needing no rehearsal ahead of time, the two-CD set was finished in just two days.

“I walked off of the bus and walked into the studio, and they had just walked in and had a singing booth where they had three mikes,” Haggard recalled. “We were doing “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down’ when I walked into the studio. I just went straight to my mike and I think the song was done within 10 minutes after I got into the studio. And the rest of the session went the same way.”

While the “Last of the Breed” CD and tour figures to do nothing but raise the profile of Nelson, Haggard and Price, all three have persevered the many changes in the country music landscape since they first came on the scene.

Multifaceted

Price, whose hits have included “Crazy Arms,” “For the Good Times” and “Heartaches by the Number” (which is included on the “Last of the Breed” CD), has enjoyed a multifaceted career that dates back to 1949. Although his success faded beginning in the 1980s, Price has continued to perform, and in 2003 did a duets album with Nelson, “Run That By Me One More Time.”

Nelson, who got his first big break when Price recorded his song “Night Life” and hired him to be a touring bass player, reached his career peak in the 1970s as he and Waylon Jennings popularized the outlaw country movement. Nelson, 73, has remained a strong draw on the concert circuit, and has continued to release CDs at a steady clip throughout the ’90s and the new century.

Haggard, who is credited with introducing electric guitar to country music and helped popularize the Bakersfield country sound, has taken steps to keep his career vital in recent years. He signed a deal with Anti- Records, a label otherwise known for punk rock, but one that shares Haggard’s maverick spirit.

His most recent studio CDs, “If Only I Could Fly” (2000) and “Chicago Wind” (2005), have received strong reviews.

The latter album surprised those who mainly remembered his 1960s “redneck” anthem “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” with the anti-Iraq war song “America First.” Haggard stands by his opinions, even if they have come with a cost.

“I’m sure I’ve ruffled some feathers,” he said. “I’ve also admitted I was dumb as a rock when I wrote “Okie from Muskogee.’ But whatever the truth is, I just try to stay with it. And I have a different audience, I’m sure, than I had five years ago.”

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