Country legend tackles bluegrass album


Scripps Howard News Service

Merle Haggard figured he had done about everything in music that he’s wanted to except for making a bluegrass album and a rock ‘n’ roll album.

While the rock ‘n’ roll album is still in the works, in late 2006, the 70-year-old country music and songwriting legend gathered with Marty Stuart, Rob Ickes, Charlie Cushman, Ben Isaacs, Carl Jackson and other acoustic greats to record what would be called “The Bluegrass Sessions.”

In a call from his California home, Haggard says he skipped the typical isolated recording style for the new disc.

“We circled up and put the microphone in the middle of the room,” says Haggard. “That’s the way we cut it. We didn’t alter it any after the fact. That’s the way to record as far as I’m concerned!”

Haggard chose to record his own songs, including some new numbers, rather than pulling out some bluegrass standards — not that a few of Haggard’s songs haven’t become bluegrass standards themselves. The song “Holding Things Together,” in particular, is a number regularly covered by bluegrass acts.

Then again, many of Haggard’s songs are standards regardless of format. “Mama Tried,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Hungry Eyes,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Big City” … it’s an amazing list. Once referred to as “the Poet of the Common Man” (and championed by non-country acts the Grateful Dead and Phil Ochs), Haggard continues to write songs that are universal, although they rarely receive airplay.

“I guess the reason for writing songs is to make money,” says Haggard, “but then you go back and say, ‘I’d like to write a song that will be remembered forever.’ That’s more interesting to me than the checks, even.”

He says his style of writing doesn’t correspond with the current climate in Nashville.

“It seems like it’s the cliche of if it’s cool, then that’s the line they want rather than writing a line that should be there instead,” he says. “It’s all about cool. You can’t have any emotional songs anymore; they won’t play them. Someone might look up from their computer, and they don’t want that. It might disturb somebody. And it all sounds like water to me. …

“I like to write something that you can photograph. If there’s no picture there, what’s your album cover or your CD cover going to be? In most cases, you’ll find it’s just a picture of the artist because they don’t have a picture, and it’s kind of sad.”

Haggard is heartened by the number of young faces in his audience. He toured with Bob Dylan in 2005 and 2006 and has just finished up a tour with fellow country legends Willie Nelson and Ray Price. He says young people turned out for both tours. Haggard hopes to tour in support of the bluegrass album in the near future.

He’s also working on that rock ‘n’ roll album. Keith Richards has signed on, and Haggard hopes Chuck Berry will be able to contribute as well.

And, despite his age and legend status, don’t look for Haggard to stop writing.

“The one thing that’s remained youthful in my life is music,” says Haggard. “I try to write something fresh. You don’t hold a song up to the mirror and say, ‘That’s old.’ Music may be the only thing that time doesn’t affect.”

One Response to “Country legend tackles bluegrass album”

  1. I was surprised he didn’t do any of this bluegrass material at his most recent performance in Bakersfield, where he also attended a ceremony in which they named a street after him, the same ceremony where he stole my pen. That’s right. Merle Haggard stole my pen.

    He was released from the San Quintin pen the day I was released from my mother’s womb. He won’t go back to the pen for stealing my pen, but it did inspire me to pen this song:

    The Day Merle Haggard Stole My Pen
    Dr BLT
    words and music by Dr BLT copyright 2008

    [audio src="" /]

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